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.
The Canterbury Tales is structured as a collection of stories told by a socially diverse group traveling to Canterbury to pay homage to St. Thomas. Chaucer introduces his characters in the Prologue and then presents each pilgrim’s tale interspersed with dialogue between and among the travelers. Two tales, the Squire’s and the Cook’s, are incomplete. The Prologue indicates that the pilgrims intended to continue their storytelling game on the trip back from Canterbury. From manuscripts and early print editions of The Canterbury Tales, ten distinct fragments are evident. Chaucer’s intended ordering of the fragments is a matter of debate; scholars and editions differ somewhat on this point.
The tales told by Chaucer’s pilgrims include a variety of medieval literary genres, such as the courtly romance, the fabliau, saint’s life tales, and a beast fable. They explore ideas about marriage, sex, fidelity, honor, religion and class, often from multiple perspectives. Many of his characters spring from the page as comic caricatures, while others are vivid portraits of unique individuals. Perhaps his most memorable pilgrim is the bawdy and loquacious Wife of Bath, who proudly details her experience of dominating her five husbands. Historians have identified possible real-life inspirations for some of the pilgrims, including the Wife of Bath; she may have been based on Alice Perrers, the licentious mistress of King Edward III, one of Chaucer’s royal patrons.
Chaucer’s lively use of language, his astounding versatility as a storyteller, and the ambition of his project make The Canterbury Tales a much studied work, even seven hundred years after his death. Chaucer’s tales reflect the complex interrelationships of the nobility, the church, and the commoners, called in the Middle Ages the “three estates.” Chaucer portrays not only the tensions that arise from the hierarchy of the three estates, but also those that arise from any challenge to the status quo in terms of age, gender, profession, or ethics. These tensions continue today. Many of the tales’ themes—morality, marriage, money, and social standing—are still central to our world and our literature, and in moving from the allegorical tradition toward realism, The Canterbury Tales anticipates modern fiction, despite having been written in the 1300s. For its influence, historical significance, poetic brilliance, sharp satire, and canny portraits of human nature, The Canterbury Tales will continue to engage readers, just as it has for more than seven centuries.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify the historical importance of The Canterbury Tales as a societal portrait of Chaucer’s time.
2. Identify and describe the characters introduced in the Prologue and discuss the social hierarchy they illustrate.
3. Describe the stories-within-a-story framing narrative of The Canterbury Tales.
4. Compare tales with regard to style, genre, subject matter, and rhyme scheme.
5. Identify Chaucer’s use of humor and irony to explore elements of his society.
6. Define characteristics of knighthood, chivalry, and courtly love.
7. Describe the Wife of Bath’s character and her ideas on chastity and sovereignty in marriage.
8. Compare tales in their portrayals of marriage.
9. Contrast tales in regard to themes of morality, religious virtue, and religious corruption.