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The Canterbury Tales eNotes Lesson Plan
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The Canterbury Tales is the culminating life’s work of Geoffrey Chaucer, a fourteenth-century Englishman considered to be one of the greatest poets to write in the English language. In addition to its literary value, The Canterbury Tales is significant because it is the first major work of literature to have been written in English, a language that during Chaucer’s time was considered unworthy of poetry or prose. Full of romance, drama, pathos, and humor, Chaucer’s diverse collection of tales paints a vivid literary portrait of his medieval society. His writing influenced many English authors of great renown who succeeded him, including William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.
Chaucer was born between 1340 and 1345 to John Chaucer, a successful merchant who supplied wine to the royal court. Through this family connection, Chaucer worked as a page in an aristocratic household and went on to pursue a busy life in English society. He served a brief stint in the army, attended the royal court as a poet, and held various royal clerkships and public appointments, including the lucrative position of Controller of Customs for the Port of London. He also served as a Member of Parliament. At a time when it was nearly impossible to rise above one’s social class, Chaucer enjoyed the patronage of King Edward III’s son, John of Gaunt, one of the most powerful noblemen of the time. Chaucer’s intellect, wit, and knowledge of human nature, qualities that characterize The Canterbury Tales, likely contributed to his professional and social success as a commoner among members of the aristocracy.
Chaucer’s diplomatic and military travels afforded him an invaluable opportunity to meet people from all walks of life and to read the literature of the European continent, experiences which influenced The Canterbury Tales. He traveled in England and Ireland, as well as in Spain, Flanders, France, and Italy. Already versed in the French poetry popular in the royal court and knowledgeable of classical literature from his studies as a youth, Chaucer became familiar with the Italian language. His knowledge of both French and Italian is reflected in his poetry. Chaucer, however, wrote The Canterbury Tales in Middle English, a fact that is significant because English during Chaucer’s time was not the language of poetry or prose. Because of the Norman invasion in 1066, which made William the Conqueror the King of England, the Anglo-Norman aristocracy of the English court spoke French, and the language of the cultured was French or Latin. In seeing the poetic possibilities of writing in English and in creating a masterpiece in The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer gave literary authority to the English language.
During his time in Italy, Chaucer may have read Italian poet Boccaccio’s recently written The Decameron, a collection of tales told by upper-class characters traveling in the Italian countryside to avoid the Florentine plague. The Decameron is thought to be an inspiration for The Canterbury Tales’ ambitious collection of storytellers and their tales. Chaucer’s individual tales drew on many other literary works. It is uncertain when Chaucer began work on The Canterbury Tales. He had certainly written versions of some of the tales for other purposes before he generated the idea of framing the tales with the story of a pilgrimage in the late 1380s. During the last decade of his life, Chaucer edited and added to the project. It remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1400.
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