The Canterbury Tales Important Quotes
The following important quotes convey information about themes, symbols and motifs or the characters of the work. The section (or tale/story) of the book and line numbers are indicated. Each quote is given first in the original Middle English, and then in a contemporary translation.
All line numbers refer to the edition The Riverside Chaucer.
General Prologue, lines 790-806:
“This is the point, to speken short and pleyn,
That ech of yow, to shorte with oure weye,
In this viage shal telle tales tweye
To Caunterbury-ward, I mene it so,
And homward he shal tellen othere two,
Of aventures that whilom han bifalle.
And which of yow that bereth hym best of alle --
That is to seyn, that telleth in this caas
Tales of best sentence and moost solaas --
Shal have a soper at oure aller cost
Heere in this place, sittynge by this post,
Whan that we come agayn fro Caunterbury.
And for to make yow the moore mury,
I wol myselven goodly with yow ryde,
Right at myn owene cost, and be youre gyde;
And whoso wole my juggement withseye
Shal paye al that we spenden by the weye.”
“This is the point, to speak shortly and plainly:
That each of you, to shorten our way
On this voyage, shall tell two tales
On the way to Canterbury, I mean it so,
And on the way home shall tell two more,
Stories of things that happened long ago.
And which of you that bears him best of all –
That is to say, that tells in this case
The most amusing and instructive tale –
Shall have a supper paid for by the rest of us
Here in this place (i.e. at the Tabard Inn)
When we come back from Canterbury.
And to make this contest the more merry,
I will ride with you myself,
At my own cost, and be your judge;
And anyone who disagrees with my judgement
Will pay my bills for the journey.”
These lines, spoken by the Host, lay out the “rules” the Canterbury Tales follow: each pilgrim is to tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two tales on the way back. The Host will judge which is the best, and the winner gets his dinner paid for by the other pilgrims. Anyone who disagrees with the Host has to pay the Host’s traveling expenses.
The Miller’s Tale, lines 3182-6:
“The Millere is a cherl; ye knowe wel this.
So was the Reve eek and othere mo,
And harlotrie they tolden bothe two.
Avyseth yow, and put me out of blame;
And eek men shal nat maken ernest of game.”
“The Miller is a lout; you know this well.
So was the Reeve, and so were several of the others,
And they both liked to tell bawdy stories.
Keep this in mind, and do not blame me,
Or take in earnest what is meant in fun.”
This is the first of Chaucer’s many interjections to remind his readers of the characters’ natures, direct their attention to particular points, or explain himself. Here, he reminds the readers that the Miller’s bawdy nature means this is going to be a bawdy tale.
The Tale of Sir Thopas, lines 909-925:
“And for he was a knyght auntrous
He nolde slepen in noon hous,
But liggen in his hoode;
His brighte helm was his wonger,
And by hym baiteth his dextrer
Of herbes fyne and goode.
Hymself drank water of the well,
As dide the knyght sire Percyvell
So worly under wede,
Til on a day --
"Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee,"
Quod oure Hooste, "for thou makest me
So wery of thy verray lewednesse
That, also wisly God my soule blesse,
Myne eres aken of thy drasty speche.
Now swich a rym the devel I biteche!
This may wel be rym dogerel," quod he.”
“And he was an adventurous knight
Who never slept in a house,
But wrapped himself in his hood;
His pillow was his shining helm,
And by him stood his charger, grazing
On herbs fresh and good.
And he drank water from the well
And as did the knight Sir Percival
Whose armor was so fine;
Till on a day—
‘No more of this, by God!’ our host declared,
‘This arrant drivel of yours makes me tired!
God be my witness, it makes my ears ache
To listen to you spout such filthy stuff!
The devil take such jingles! I suppose
It’s what’s called doggerel.’”
These lines demonstrate the “tail rhyme” in which the Tale of Sir Thopas is told and also encapsulate one of Chaucer’s many “trick endings,” in which a tale does not actually reach a conclusion but ends nonetheless – echoing the ending of the Canterbury Tales as a whole. Here, the Host begs Chaucer to stop telling Sir Thopas’s tale, calling it “filthy” and “doggerel.”
The Prologue of the Wife of Bath’s Tale, lines 1-8:
“Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynogh for me
To speke of wo that is in mariage;
For, lordynges, sith I twelve yeer was of age,
Thonked be God that is eterne on lyve,
Housbondes at chirche dore I have had fyve --
If I so ofte myghte have ywedded bee --
And alle were worthy men in hir degree.”
“Experience, although it is no authority
In this world, it is good enough for me
To speak of the woe that is in marriage;
For, my lords, since I was twelve years old,
Thanks be to God that lives eternally,
I have had five husbands at church door—
If I might have been wedded so often—
And all were worthy men in their degree.”
These lines begin the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and introduce the most-discussed character Chaucer ever produced. In them, she announces her intention to prize experience over written authorities, even though most people rank them the other way round. She also reveals the basis of her own experience: she has been married no fewer than five times. She will go on to refer to this experience repeatedly as the basis for her assertion that a happy marriage is one in which the wife has the power to do as she likes, which appears in both her Prologue and Tale.
Chaucer’s Retraction, lines 1081-2:
“Now preye I to hem alle that herkne this litel tretys or rede, that if ther be any thyng in it that liketh hem, that therof they thanken oure Lord Jhesu Crist, of whom al wit and al goodnesse. And if ther be any thyng that displese hem, I preye hem that they arrette it to the defaute of myn unkonnynge and nat to my wyl, that wolde ful fayn seyd bettre if I hadde had konnynge.”
“Now I pray to them all that read this little story or lesson, that if there is anything in that they like, that they thank our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom all wit and all goodness come. And if there is anything in it that displeases them, I pray them that they attribute it to my ignorance and not to my will, which would have written better if I had had the knowledge.”
Chaucer ends the Canterbury Tales with a short retraction, begging his audience’s patience with his shortcomings and asking God for forgiveness for his various writings. The Retraction is the source of much speculation among critics: is it serious? Is it in character? Is it just another example of the type of retraction that medieval authors were expected to make, with the understanding that nothing they could write would ever measure up to divine works? These questions remain unanswered.