Places: The Canterbury Tales

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First transcribed: 1387-1400

Type of work: Poetry

Type of plot: Romance, farce, fable

Time of work: Antiquity through the fourteenth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedTabard Inn

Tabard Canterbury Tales, TheInn. English tavern that is the starting point of the poem’s pilgrimage, located in Southwark, a borough across the River Thames from and just south of London, at the beginning of the main road to Canterbury–the pilgrims’ destination. The owner of the inn, Harry Bailly, proposes and serves as judge for the storytelling contest that makes up The Canterbury Tales. The tavern location is an appropriate entryway into Chaucer’s world for a number of reasons. It is a place of hospitality and conviviality, in which men and women of a variety of social classes and backgrounds might realistically mingle informally and in temporary equality (as done on the pilgrimage itself). The historical Southwark was a neighborhood that was not entirely respectable, known for its brothels as well as its taverns, and many of the tales represent immoral characters and bawdy incidents. Indeed, in Chaucer’s time, many people viewed pilgrimages with some suspicion, as opportunities for rowdy vacations rather than as pious religious journeys. Finally, the first four tales have often been seen as unified by the theme of “herbergage,” of the use and misuse of dwelling-places and hospitality.


*Canterbury. Destination of the pilgrims in England’s southeastern Kent region. The pilgrims undertake the journey to visit the shrine of St. Thomas, located in the Trinity Chapel in Canterbury’s great cathedral. The collection ends just before they arrive at Canterbury; its penultimate tale, of the Manciple, is delivered at “Bobbe-Up-and-Down” (usually identified as Harbledown, two miles from Canterbury). The prologue to the final tale, that of the Parson, makes explicit the allegorical significance of the location as the Parson undertakes to show the pilgrims that their physical journey from London to Canterbury is an emblem of their spiritual pilgrimage as Christians from this world to heaven.


*London. England’s capital city. While the pilgrims themselves leave London immediately, the various prologues and tales mention some fifteen or twenty specific buildings, streets, and landmarks within the city and reinforce the contemporary and local atmosphere of a work whose tales themselves are often set in distant times and places. For example, the “Cook of London” sets his fragmentary tale among the working (and even unemployed) classes in “our city.” What exists of his tale suggests that it was to have been an exploration of the seamier side of the city in Chaucer’s day.

*Canterbury Way

*Canterbury Way. Route taken by the pilgrims along the course of the old Roman Watling-Street, roughly congruent with modern England’s A2 highway that connects London to Canterbury. The work mentions some ten towns or place-names along the way, which some scholars have seen as offering clues to the organization of the work as a whole, under the theory that Chaucer must have meant to present these places in the correct geographical order in which the pilgrims would have passed them. Other scholars caution that the fact that not one of the fifty-five relatively complete manuscripts of the Tales is organized so as to present these places in their proper sequence constitutes a warning not to press this point too literally.


*Athens. One of the chief cities of ancient Greece and the scene of most of the Knight’s tale, the epic’s first and longest tale. The most important locations within the Greek city are the tower in which Palamon and Arcite are imprisoned and the adjacent garden in which Emelye takes her walks. The men’s rivalry for Emelye’s hand is finally resolved at the third important location, a circular stone stadium a mile in circumference built to contain a tournament at which they will fight for Emelye’s hand. At the main gates to this stadium are three shrines, to Venus, Mars, and Diana. All of these locations fulfill important thematic functions for the poem. The prison and garden are metaphors for life’s spiritual and psychological prisons and gardens, which are shown to be far more significant than physical ones. The stadium represents the efforts of the governor of Athens, Theseus, to impose order and structure upon the chaos of the (pagan) world, and each of the three temples is associated with, and revelatory of, one of the three members of the romantic triangle.


*Troy. Ancient city in Asia Minor made famous in Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.). It is by far the most frequently used geographical name in Chaucer’s work, although the vast majority of those references occur in another work, his long historical romance Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1382), which is set in and around Troy at the close of the Trojan War.

Sources for Further StudyBesserman, Laurence. Chaucer’s Biblical Poetics. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. Interprets the many instances of biblical diction, imagery, and themes in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.Brown, Peter. Chaucer at Work: The Making of “The Canterbury Tales.” New York: Longman, 1994. Designed as an introduction to The Canterbury Tales, it includes questions for discussion to guide the reader about the workings of Chaucer’s literary method. A good place to start a study of The Canterbury Tales.Brown, Peter. A Companion to Chaucer. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 2000. Designed to appeal to inexperienced Chaucerian students, this work contains a section on Christian idealogies.Cooper, Helen. The Canterbury Tales. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1989. A complete reference for all basic points about the literary character of The Canterbury Tales.Correale, Robert M., ed. Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell & Brewer, 2003. Includes information on and selections from many Christian sources used by Chaucer.Howard, Donald R. The Idea of the Canterbury Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. Discusses the concept of The Canterbury Tales in terms of style and form as an unfinished but complete literary work.Leyerle, John, and Anne Quick. Chaucer: A Bibliographical Introduction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986. A bibliographical guide to Chaucer’s work with sections on The Canterbury Tales, the facts of Chaucer’s life, and his rich literary sources.Pearsall, Derek. The Canterbury Tales. Winchester, Mass.: Allen & Unwin, 1985. Approaches The Canterbury Tales by genre of stories. Includes helpful discussions of the surviving manuscripts and the reception of The Canterbury Tales from 1400 to modern times.Robertson, D. W., Jr. A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962. A standard reference work on Chaucer’s acquaintance with, and employment of, early Christian theological works.
Categories: Places