Why are the Canterbury Tales a good source of information for historians?

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iandavidclark3 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In addition to being an invaluable part of the English literary canon, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales offer an incomparable account of an important historical era. Chaucer's epic poem is primarily helpful because it provides an in-depth perspective of the end of the Middle Ages and the transitional period leading up to the Renaissance. 

One of the most wonderful aspects of Chaucer's poem, it's all-encompassing description of a diverse and colorful cast of characters, is one of the primary ways in which Chaucer describes this historical period. Chaucer's cast represents multiple classes and walks of life, including the nobility (the Knight) the church (the Friar), budding capitalists (the Wife of Bath) and more. As such, Chaucer effectively provides an insight into how different historical classes lived life at the end of the Middle Ages. 

Additionally. Chaucer responds to a variety of important historical trends that drastically changed the social landscape, including the inaugural translation of the Bible into English, the Black Plague, and the Magna Carta. As such, while Chaucer certainly uses his characters to illustrate the minutiae of daily life, he also uses his poem to chronicle large historical events. In that case, Chaucer's poem provides historians with information both about daily life and England at large during the end of the Middle Ages. 

gamot | Student

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales refers to a collection of short stories that is respected, studied and referenced not only in a literary context, but also as a valued historical collection for a variety of reasons summarized below.

Much like Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey, Canterbury Tales has become an important collection that depicts historical events, culture, and attitudes of its time. Notably, Chaucer lived and wrote during a time of war shrouded in religious, political and social unrest. England was in the midst of the Hundred Years War with France. Chaucer fought in the war, and his first-hand knowledge and experiences bleed through multiple areas of the texts. Paper had just recently been invented. In a purely semantical and technical context, Chaucer's work details verse, dialect, and English words never before recorded. Literacy was an uncommon luxury during the Middle Ages, predominately reserved to those holding a position within clergy, the Royal Court, or those holding an official governmental position.

The characters within the Canterbury Tales revolve around various social classes of people in England. The accounts and storylines are specific and detailed enough to give a bird's eye view into the Middle Ages; its people, culture, and church. There are very few works that account for the social structures, beliefs, and attitudes of the period. The majority of Chaucer's contemporaries gave little attention to the problems of commoners and peasants whom made up the majority of England's populous during the Middle Ages. Chaucer had an insider view of the English Royal court and held several appointments throughout his lifetime. As such, his first-hand knowledge of diplomacy, the state of the church and its clergy, courtly life, and the monarchy is vast and intimate.

The Canterbury Tales provides an insider's glimpse into England during the Middle Ages with an unprecedented depth and detail not previously recorded by Chaucer's contemporaries, making it a valued historical reference.


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The Canterbury Tales

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