What was Chaucer's contribution to English literature?

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In writing in English, Chaucer was not unique in the Middle English period. On the contrary, writing in English continued apace in parochial documents and literary texts after the Norman Conquest, despite the language of government being French. The idea of a "standard" English, which had begun to develop at...

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In writing in English, Chaucer was not unique in the Middle English period. On the contrary, writing in English continued apace in parochial documents and literary texts after the Norman Conquest, despite the language of government being French. The idea of a "standard" English, which had begun to develop at the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, disappeared, but the result was that English diverged into an astonishing number of written dialects, localizable to different geographic areas and social classes. Chaucer plays upon this idea in The Canterbury Tales, in which two northern students in the south speak in an almost unrecognizable dialect. What is notable about Chaucer's English is that he was writing at a time when the "standard" we now know was slowly returning, hastened by the invention of the printing press. Chaucer was of course not really responsible for the fact that his southern, London-based English was to set the written standard for all time, but the fact that his written dialect was London (Chancery) English, combined with his enormous popularity, certainly contributed. There are more surviving manuscripts of Chaucer's works than of any other text from this period, from which we know that he was an extremely successful and influential author. The closest challengers, in terms of surviving manuscript numbers, are generally religious texts like "The Pricke of Conscience."

Why this was the case is an interesting question. Certainly, Chaucer created vivid and entertaining depictions of people interacting with each other—contemporary English people and archetypes from classical literature alike. In terms of his contribution to English literature, he cannot be said to have engineered any notable plots or stories, the vast majority of his works being variants of existing tales. However, perhaps the most significant impact Chaucer did have on literature in English was that he brought us to expect authorship.

Chaucer was writing at a time when works were not signed, by and large. Works were anonymous, written by monks and often embellished by them until they became, effectively, communally-authored pieces, to which each transcriber would add his or her own additions and amendments. Chaucer identified himself as "auctor" in the texts he wrote. He consciously set himself against the long-standing convention of changing texts as they passed through many hands, saying in the prologue to Troilus and Criseyde, "so prey I God that noon myswrite thee" (I pray that nobody will make changes to my work). People bought works on the understanding that they had been written by Chaucer—something that sometimes backfired, as many works were then falsely attributed to Chaucer, but which has certainly had an enormous impact on English literature. Before Chaucer, anonymity was the norm in English literature. Today, we have and expect authors, of whom Chaucer was arguably the first English champion.

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In the preface to a publication of The Canterbury Tales, editor D. Laing Purves writes,

Perhaps in the entire range of ancient and modern literature there is no work that so clearly and freshly paints for future times the picture of the past; certainly no Englishman has ever approached Chaucer in the power of fixing for ever the fleeting traits of his own time.

In or around 1378, Chaucer began to develop his conception of writing poetry in English, a language that would be linguistically accessible to all. This use of English would be obedient neither to the court, whose official language was French (Chaucer had written poetry himself in French) nor to the Church, whose official language was Latin.

Arguably, then, one of Geoffrey Chaucer's most significant contributions to English literature is his having written his magnificent work, The Canterbury Tales, in the language of the English people. That the two powerful forces of the court and the Church were bypassed for the sake of writing in English, making his work more accessible to the people, afforded Chaucer's work more widespread appeal, and it created a remarkable portrait of medieval England. In what is considered by many to be his magnum opus, Chaucer revealed the changes taking place in the English language and in society as a whole. His work also stands as a significant achievement in Middle English verse.

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