Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340–1400) is considered a masterpiece of the Middle English language, which was spoken by Anglo-Saxons in England from 1200 to the late 1400s.
Chaucer was born the son of a wealthy wine merchant and spent many years traveling in France and Italy, both as a tourist and as a diplomat (official representative of a country). On his travels he collected stories and adventures that he would later weave into many works. The crowning achievement of his literary career was Canterbury Tales, which became an instant favorite during the 1400s in England and has since been reprinted in numerous editions and languages.
Chaucer started this 17,000-line poem after 1387 and had nearly completed it by the time of his death in 1400. The work weaves together stories told by twenty-eight pilgrims (people on a religious quest), a poet, and an innkeeper who are on a journey to the shrine of Thomas Becket (1118–1170) at the cathedral in Canterbury, England. Becket was the archbishop (head of a district of the Catholic church) of Canterbury, who was killed by supporters of King Henry II (1133–1189). In the prologue (opening) Chaucer indicates that, to entertain one another during the trip, each traveler is to tell two tales on the way to Canterbury Cathedral and two tales on the way back. Although Chaucer intended to write 120 stories, he produced only twenty-four tales, two of which remained incomplete. Nevertheless, it is an entertaining work, with characters who represent a wide cross section of English society at the time—including the aristocracy, the clergy, commoners, and even the middle class, which was not yet a formally recognized part of the social structure. The stories range from humorous tales to serious homilies (sermons), which speak of love, religion, marriage, and the importance of learning life's lessons. Although the pilgrims reach the shrine, they never return from their journey, which some scholars have interpreted as Chaucer's depiction of humanity's journey toward God and heaven. Whatever his intention may have been, Chaucer established himself as a great storyteller and has often been compared to the great English playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616) because of his ability to entertain and educate simultaneously.
Further Information: Canterbury Tales. [Online] Available http://www.gradesaver.com/ClassicNotes/Titles/canterbury/, October 23, 2000; Howard, Donald. Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World. New York: Dutton, 1989; Kean, P. M. Chaucer and the Making of English Poetry. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.