Introduction to Chaucer and the Middle Ages

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SWBAT identify the characteristics of an author as well as the cultural context of The Canterbury Tales

Big Idea

Students will notice a marked difference between Old English and Middle English, but will still be surprised by the pronunciations.


This lesson is a first in a series of lessons on Canterbury Tales, specifically "A Knight's Tale" and "The Wife of Bath's Tale". In this lesson students are introduced to medieval literature and life and the literary devices Chaucer uses in Canterbury Tales.

Geoffrey Chaucer:A Brief Introduction

20 minutes

The main purpose of this introductory PowerPoint is to give the students an idea of what life was like in medieval England.  I think they have a sense of "The Dark Ages" and that life was pretty awful, and it was pretty awful, I almost always tell students the story about visiting Chaucer's tomb at Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey, how it was so tiny I thought it belonged to a child.  And students almost always connect that to Chaucer's diet. We talk about the trouble people had farming, and how common famine was, and I mention the Little Ice Age, which began in Chaucer's lifetime. 

 I then pull up the PowerPoint and we look at the opening slides. 


Slide 2 - This slide is meant to use biographical facts to establish Chaucer as an author. I point out that in a stringent class society with clearly defined roles, Chaucer is able to appear seemingly ambiguous to class distinctions. This makes his narrative voice believable, when in the Prologue, he describes the various pilgrims and their personalities.

Slide 3 – I widen the scope here to give students context and help them understand the larger events taking places in Chaucer’s sphere.

Medieval Life

25 minutes

We move through the sections about town life and food, and class mobility a little more slowly.  The students want to know more about life in medieval England, and while I'm not a history professor, part of reading Canterbury Tales is understanding the social status and class of the different characters. So, over the years, I've become a bit of a history/English teacher.  This kind of material is great for pre-reading because students understand, a little better, the world they are stepping into.  Often they will ask me a question I can't answer, and if it's something that I think will be worth knowing, I write it down for next time.  And then I tell the student who asked, that I will give them extra points for finding the answer, and two out of three times that student comes back with an answer, and it's usually correct. 


Slide 4 – Students need to understand the basic organization of towns and the booming trade happening there. Many of Chaucer’s characters are tradesmen or town officials and it’s important to give them a sense of class and organization

Slide 5 – Here I talk about the different foods in Chaucer’s time and how food represents class and lifestyle. Food pictures into many of Chaucer’s descriptions and stories, and it helps to talk about the distinctions food gives to the characters.

Slide 6 – Because Church and religious figures are numerous in Chaucer’s prologue it’s important to stop and discuss the power the Church had in Medieval England.  I also discuss “The Great Chain of Being” a concept popular in Chaucer’s time that a sense of hierarchical order and interdependence between man and nature and man and man was a common concept.  The idea of equality or individualism goes against this idea, and in some ways Chaucer’s ironic portrayals of the pilgrims refute the whole notion of “order”.

Slide 7 – Next I discuss pilgrims and why pilgrims were important to the Church and to local businesses along the pilgrimage routes.

Slide 8 – I briefly discuss The Decameron and explain how Chaucer travelled to Italy on diplomatic missions and probably read it there.

Slide 9 – Usually I play the opening lines of the general prologue. And ask students to Think-Pair-Share differences between Old English and Middle English. If students are having trouble with ideas I play the opening lines to Beowulf again.

Slide 10- Finally I address why we read The Canterbury Tales are still read today and the lessons we can take with them.  I speak particularly to Chaucer’s style and the content of the tales themselves.


A Brief Introduction to Irony

5 minutes

We read this comic, which I must warn in advance, has some slightly inappropriate language, and might not go over too well in some schools.  However, at my school it's okay, and the kids seem to have a much easier time remembering what irony is. I only have to mention "the dead goat example", the "sea-bear" example or "the jet engine example" and they get it. 

Also, I appreciate they way the comic explains that irony is somewhat subjective and technical and not to get too wrapped up into arguing about it.  

What to Expect

2 minutes

Finally, after we've gone through the PowerPoint and I've read the kids the irony comic, I ask them to take out a piece of paper and then I set my clock for one minute.  "What do you think the Canterbury Tales are going to be about?" I ask them. "Write down what you think for one minute, and don't pick up the pencil, don't worry about spelling or complete sentences.  Then I start the clock, and the students write, and they are almost always surprised at how quickly a minute goes by. 

If I have time, I have one or two read their response out loud.