Background on Chaucer and THE CANTERBURY TALES

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SWBAT demonstrate understanding of background on Geoffrey Chaucer and THE CANTERBURY TALES through writing and discussion.

Big Idea

Life is a quest...students follow the journey of a character!

Lesson Overview and Note to Teachers

I explore the hero's journey with my students throughout the year by exploring works from Beowulf to Macbeth.  This lesson originally appears in a unit for The Canterbury Tales on CC.BetterLesson.

My classes are held in 100 minute block sessions. The lesson below outlines background activities on Geoffrey Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales.

Background: Chaucer and THE CANTERBURY TALES

41 minutes

I explain to students that we will be studying The Canterbury Tales in this next unit. I introduce the Big Idea, "Life is a quest," by discussing how we have studied the hero's journey and how it reflects the challenges and growth of life. Just as the hero goes on a quest, life itself is a quest full of opportunities for development.

I inform the class that today we will be exploring background on Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales, and how his life experiences informed his writing.  I use my adaptation of a PowerPoint, "Geoffrey Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales" (PowerPoint: Chaucer and THE CANTERBURY TALES) (Greenville, South Carolina School District) a colleague shared with our team. I require students to take notes as I am presenting; they must list details about Chaucer (Student Work: Sample One - Background Notes) and The Canterbury Tales (Student Work: Sample Two - Background Notes) they believe are significant.

As we explore the PowerPoint, a few important details I point out are as follows:

  • Chaucer precedes Shakespeare.
  • Chaucer is known as England's first great writer because he was among the first writers to show English could be a respectable literary language when French was widely spoken in educated circles.
  • The wide variety of jobs Chaucer held allowed him to meet people from various cultural and socio-economic backgrounds.
  • Religion held a prominent place in society during the Middle Ages.
  • Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in English, which meant ordinary people could enjoy it.
  • Canterbury is a pilgrimage site due to the martyrdom of the Archbishop of Canterbury who became a saint. People from all walks of life would go on religious pilgrimages to pray for healing, help with financial issues, or aid with other problems.  I explain contemporary references to make the pilgrimage concept relevant to students:  (a) how individuals of the Jewish faith may go to Old Jerusalem to pray at the Wailing Wall; (b) how Christians may make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to follow the Way of the Cross; and (c) how muslims are obligated to make a pilgrimage to Mecca during their lifetime if physically and financially able.
  • In The Canterbury Tales, 29 pilgrims from various walks of life are on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The text begins at the Tabard Inn. To make the journey more entertaining, the pilgrims engage in a storytelling contest.


To provide students with a preview of the literature, I play a video interpretation of "The Wife of Bath's Tale" (6:09) from The Canterbury Tales (Beryl Productions, 1998), also available on YouTube as posted by Beryl Productions.  

Ticket Out

7 minutes

After collecting student notes, we complete a class ticket out. I give students five minutes to work with a partner and write down what they learned in today's lesson.  We debrief as a class, and volunteers state the following:

  • I learned that Chaucer met people from all walks of life before he became a writer.
  • Twenty-nine pilgrims make the pilgrimage to Canterbury.
  • The Canterbury Tales was enjoyed by the masses.
  • The Wife of Bath was not the typical woman of her time period.
  • Thomas Becket was an outspoken Archbishop, and the king had him killed because of it.
  • Poor people took offense at Becket's murder because they had a common Saxon heritage.