27 Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales

“Canterbury Tales Mural” by Ezra Winder. 1939. Wikimedia Commons.

Introduction

by Florianne Binoya and Abigail Moser

 

The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer, is a collection of stories told by a group of pilgrims as they travel from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. Written almost entirely in verse (though there are shorter prose sections as well), each pilgrim was planned to tell four stories, two for the trip to the shrine and two for the trip back, totaling about 120 stories. Sadly, The Canterbury Tales remained unfinished at Chaucer’s death in 1400. Due to this, only 24 of the pilgrims’ stories were completed and the return journey from Canterbury is not included in the work (“The Canterbury Tales”).

 

Historical Background

Written in 14th-century England, The Canterbury Tales strongly reflects the political instability of the country in that period. The Black Death (bubonic plague) swept through the country in the 1340s and increasing tax prices, combined with a growing wealth gap, culminated in the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 (Sinead, et al). Both these events are reflected in Chaucer’s writing, as many of the pilgrims come from different social classes and occupations, highlighting their varying perspectives on English society at the time. Although writing in French or Latin was the norm at the time (as it was the language of the court and the church), Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, the vernacular of the time period (“Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales” ). Many credit him with popularizing Middle English as a literary language, due to the popularity of the story. The poem is written in iambic pentameter; five sets of unstressed and stressed syllable pairs per line (“The Canterbury Tales: Meter”). This delicate pattern may have been lost in translation but it can be observed in the Middle English version included below – and is best understood if read aloud. Iambic pentameter aided the legitimization of writing this work in English because similar meters were used for Romance language poetry.

 

Biography

by Tyler Navarro

Widely regarded as one of the greatest literary works ever written, The Canterbury Tales is the seminal work written by “The father of English literature,” Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer was born in London, around 1343 CE into a family of merchants. His father, John Chaucer, was a vintner or winemaker, who sold his wares to royalty and other aristocrats of the royal court. Through these connections, Geoffrey soon found himself employed by the upper classes and began his career in 1357 working as a member of the household of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster. Here, he received the necessary courtly education to advance his career and likely influence his writing style in the years ahead. He accompanied the English army in their invasion of France under the leadership of Edward III but was caught and taken hostage in 1359; however, Edward liked Geoffrey so much that he paid a considerable ransom to bring him back.

By 1366, Geoffrey found the love of his life, his future wife, a high-born woman by the name of Philippa, and married her. Many believe the pair had three or four children, however, the exact number is unknown. Around these years, Chaucer carried many different job titles, including chief-of-mission, yeoman, valet de chambre, and esquire. During the 1370s, Chaucer went on many diplomatic missions to places all around Europe, such as Flanders, Italy, and France. During these missions, Chaucer came into contact and built relationships with many important people such as Boccaccio. Here, he was introduced to many new things such as medieval Italian poetry and different forms of writing that would have a profound influence on his literary style. Chaucer was also in charge of typical diplomatic matters between countries, such as military strategy, foreign policy, and economics. Chaucer’s affable nature and his ability to communicate made him popular among the ruling classes; in fact, Geoffrey and his wife were often given monetary gifts from different Kings and Queens they met in their travels.

Chaucer’s intellect was widely acknowledged and he is the reason why many classical and contemporary European texts were translated into Middle English.  Titles include Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, French poetry by Machaut and Deschamps, and Latin and Italian poetry by the likes of Ovid, Virgil, Boccaccio, and Petrarch. Although he is now famously known for his works in literature, Geoffrey Chaucer was known to contemporaries for having a wide knowledge of medicine, astronomy, astrology, alchemy, and early physics. It is said that his knowledge of alchemy was so great that some masters of alchemy considered him a prodigy of the subject (Roberts).

During the 1370s, he had little time amongst his diplomatic duties to sit down and write. Therefore, it was only in the 80s, when his diplomatic career began to come to an end, that his literary career flourished. A decade later, Chaucer began his writing career in earnest as his diplomatic career came to an end.

Some of Chaucer’s early works include The Book of Duchess, The Parliament of Fowles, Trolius and Criseyde, The House of Fame, and of course his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer wrote in Middle English, and although he wasn’t the first to write in the vernacular, many people credit him as the one who popularized it. With over 17,000 lines in a collection of 24 stories, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is one of the most recognized pieces of English and world literature today. Chaucer’s loyalty to the king continued during the late 80s and early 90s as he served as a clerk.

Chaucer spent the last few years of his life at his home in Kent, where he maintained great relationships with noblemen. Geoffrey Chaucer died in 1400 and was the first writer to be buried in Westminster Abbey, traditionally the burial place for the royal family, in what became known as “Poets’ Corner.”


Works Cited

 â€œGeoffrey Chaucer.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 15 May 2019, www.biography.com/writer/geoffrey-chaucer/ Accessed 10 Dec. 2019

“The Canterbury Tales.” Encyclopédia Britannica, 8 Oct. 2015, www.britannica.com/topic/The-Canterbury-Tales. Accessed 09 Dec. 2019.

“The Canterbury Tales: Meter, Iambic Pentameter & Rhyme Scheme.” Study.com, n.d. study.com/academy/lesson/the-canterbury-tales-meter-iambic-pentameter-rhyme-scheme.html Accessed 10 Dec. 2019

“The Canterbury Tales: Background & History.” Study.com, n.d. study.com/academy/lesson/the-canterbury-tales-background-history.html. Accessed 09 Dec. 2019.

“Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales.” The British Library, n.d. www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126565.html Accessed 10 Dec. 2019.

“Geoffrey Chaucer.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 June 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoffrey_Chaucer#Career Accessed 10 Dec. 2019.

Lumiansky, R.M. “Geoffrey Chaucer.” Encyclopédia Britannica, Encyclopédia Britannica, Inc., 21 Oct. 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Geoffrey-Chaucer Accessed 10 Dec. 2019.

Roberts, James L. CliffsNotes on The Canterbury Tales. 27 Jun 2019, www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/c/the-canterbury-tales/geoffrey-chaucer-biography Accessed 14 July 2019.

Sinead, et al. “The Canterbury Tales.” Owl Eyes, 2019. www.owleyes.org/text/canterbury-tales/analysis/historical-context. Accessed 09 Dec. 2019.

 

Discussion Questions

  1. It’s unlikely that Chaucer was the first to think of writing a work of literature in English. What motives do you think Chaucer had to abandon rules and tradition? Do you think this change was well accepted or met with a lot of resistance?
  2. Do you believe Chaucer’s many years of work as a diplomat impacted his literary career in a negative or positive way? Why/Why not?
  3. Chaucer was lucky enough to receive an education through the courts, while most commoners did  not get so far as learning to even read or write during this time. Was his education or life experience more important in the development of his writing style?
  4. What are some common themes seen throughout Chaucer’s writings?
  5. Is his autobiography reflected in Canterbury Tales? If so, where do you see parallels?

Further Resources

  • Ted-Ed Video titled “Everything you need to know to Read the Canterbury Tales”
  • Podcast from BBC’s “In our Time” series discussing the life of Chaucer
  • The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales – a free online textbook for university students to better understand the Tales and its author
  • Whiteboard Animation of all the characters with general introduction to the Tales by Audra Cox

 

Reading: The Canterbury Tales (Selections)

 

The following are the chapters most often assigned in general survey courses. For the complete Tales, see “Source Text” below.

General Prologue

The Knight’s Tale

The Miller’s Prologue and Tale

Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale

The Friar’s Prologue and Tale 

The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale

The Prioress’ Prologue and Tale

The Nun’s Priests’ Prologue and Tale

Chaucer’s Retraction


 

Source Text:

Kökbugur, Sinan, ed. The Canterbury Tales (in Middle and Modern English). Librarius.com, 1997, is copyright protected but reproduction expressly allowed for non-profit, educational use.

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License

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An Open Companion to Early British Literature Copyright © 2019 by Allegra Villarreal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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