7 3.2.1. The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales (Middle English: Tales of Caunterbury) is a collection of 24 stories that runs to over 17,000 lines written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer. In 1386 Chaucer became Controller of Customs and Justice of Peace and then three years later in 1389 Clerk of the King’s work. It was during these years that Chaucer began working on his most famous text, The Canterbury Tales. The tales (mostly written in verse, although some are in prose) are presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from London to Canterbury in order to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The prize for this contest is a free meal at the Tabard Inn at Southwark on their return.

After a long list of works written earlier in his career, including Troilus and Criseyde, House of Fame, and Parliament of Fowls, The Canterbury Tales is near-unanimously seen as Chaucer’s magnum opus. He uses the tales and the descriptions of its characters to paint an ironic and critical portrait of English society at the time, and particularly of the Church. Chaucer’s use of such a wide range of classes and types of people was without precedent in English. Although the characters are fictional, they still offer a variety of insights into the customs and practices of the time. Often, such insight leads to a variety of discussions and disagreements to people in the 14th century. For example, although a variety of social classes are represented in these stories and all pilgrims on a spiritual quest, it is apparent that they are more concerned with worldly things than spiritual. Structurally, the collection resembles The Decameron, which Chaucer may have read during his first diplomatic mission to Italy in 1372.

It is sometimes argued that the greatest contribution The Canterbury Tales made to English literature was in popularizing the literary use of the vernacular, English, rather than French, Italian or Latin. English had, however, been used as a literary language centuries before Chaucer’s time, and several of Chaucer’s contemporaries—John Gower, William Langland, the Pearl Poet, and Julian of Norwich—also wrote major literary works in English. It is unclear to what extent Chaucer was responsible for starting a trend as opposed to simply being part of it.

While Chaucer clearly states the addressees of many of his poems, the intended audience of The Canterbury Tales is more difficult to determine. Chaucer was a courtier, leading some to believe that he was mainly a court poet who wrote exclusively for nobility.

The Canterbury Tales were far from complete at the end of Chaucer’s life. In the General Prologue, some thirty pilgrims are introduced. Chaucer’s intention was to write two stories from the perspective of each pilgrim on the way to and from their ultimate destination, St. Thomas Becket’s shrine. Although perhaps incomplete, The Canterbury Tales is revered as one of the most important works in all of British Literature. Not only do readers from all time frames find it entertaining, but also it is a work that is open to a range of interpretations.

A woodcut from William Caxton‘s second edition of The Canterbury Tales printed in 1483


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