The Canterbury Tales eText - eText

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What is a literary classic and why are these classic works important to the world?

A literary classic is a work of the highest excellence that has something important to say about life and/or the human condition and says it with great artistry. A classic, through its enduring presence, has withstood the test of time and is not bound by time, place, or customs. It speaks to us today as force fully as it spoke to people one hundred or more years ago, and as forcefully as it will speak to people of future generations. For this reason, a classic is said to have universality.

Geoffrey Chaucer was probably born around 1343, in London. His father and grandfather were prosperous wine-traders. As a young man, Geoffrey was able to gain a position in the court of a countess. Later, he became a valet in the court of King Edward III.

In his teens, Chaucer traveled to France during one of the battles of the Hundred Years’ War. He was taken prisoner and ransomed by the king himself.

Chaucer traveled to Italy, where he became familiar with the works of the great Italian poets Dante (1265–1321), and Boccaccio (1313–1375). He was also in contact with French poets, whose works he translated.

After his service in the court, Chaucer was given various mid-level positions in the government, including Comptroller of the Port of London. In this role, he oversaw customs regulations on incoming goods. He also went to Flanders (modern-day Holland and Belgium) on a government mission. All of these experiences influenced the Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer’s other major poem is Troilus and Criseyde, a love story of about 8,000 lines; he also wrote several shorter poetic works. He authored a Treatise on the Astrolabe (an informative work about an important navigational tool used by sailors) and translated the late Roman philosopher Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy into English.

In the year 1400, Chaucer died; he may have been murdered by enemies of King Richard II. Though Europe was already undergoing tremendous change during his lifetime, his death is often used as a marker of the end of the medieval period.