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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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What are three reasons for the importance of The Canterbury Tales?

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In addition to the other responses here, we can consider Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales important on a variety of levels. Since this is really a question of value, how we evaluate the importance of a text varies.

From a historical perspective, this text is an important marker in the evolution of the English literary language. It is considered the first highly important work written in the vernacular, and it shows us what people in London sounded like circa 1390. The language was polyglossic, merging Anglo, Latin, and French in a delightful hodgepodge that highlights our literary ancestors. Because it was written, we can see the phonetic sound of many of Chaucer's words as well.

From a historical perspective, we also can find allusions to events that indicate cultural and political values. The Peasants Revolt and the emergence of mechanical clock towers are just two such mentions that allow us to see what fourteenth-century readers would be expected to recognize. While satirical, the range of character descriptions also paints a lively image of the diverse types of people whose qualities would be sufficiently recognizable to serve as objects of broad satire.

From a more purely literary perspective, Chaucer's tales are incredibly sophisticated and together form a collection of the many ways of telling stories in the fourteenth century. This catalog of voices and narratives can serve as a benchmark of what was popular in Chaucer's time and how he adapted stories from Boccaccio and others for his English readers. Furthermore, the psychological sophistication he imparts in characters like the Knight or the Wife is remarkable. While he decenters his own voice somewhat, Chaucer provides a sophisticated and highly ironic narrator for a battle-scarred man or a marriage-scarred woman. These resonate out of the text into subsequent generations, creating an oddly archetypal and psychological portrait.

Philosophically, Chaucer's tales engage in Platonic, Aristotelian, Augustinian, and Boethian thought, illustrating how the erudite philosophical debate about fate and chance plays out in quotidian life. The raging question of linguistic drift is also a valuable area of study in Chaucer, as is the difficulty of understanding the abstractions of the world when the words seem to mean too many things ("worthy" in General Prologue or "noble" in Wife's Tale, for instance). Chaucer's love of polysemy and puns further invites study of how we know what we know when language is so slippery.

Admittedly, Middle English can be challenging for a modern reader, though less so if read aloud. Very good translations have updated Chaucer's text for those who wish to read the text more readily. A novice to Middle English texts is well rewarded not only by the historical and literary sophistication of Chaucer's frame narrative, but also by the aesthetic pleasure it provides. These tales are really fun and funny individually and in the messy structure in which they seem to relate to each other.

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Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales are important for a number of reasons. First, they provide a comprehensive overview of life in the Middle Ages. Because Chaucer's pilgrims come from different social classes, modern readers learn a great deal about life in medieval England. In the cross-section of society that he provides, we meet pilgrims classified by those who pray, those who labor, and those who fight. We learn what their lives are like and what they value. Because Chaucer the pilgrim, or the narrator, passes judgment on them, we also see a social commentary that exposes their vices as well as their virtues.

The Canterbury Tales are also important because Chaucer, who certainly knew Latin, the language of the Church, and French, the language of literature, chose to write them in the common man's Middle English. Because he selected Middle English as the language for the Tales, he made the stories more accessible to the readers of the time. He also made English itself more acceptable and popular, leading other writers to adopt it as their language of choice. This makes Chaucer's stories almost singularly responsible for the adoption of English as the new language of literature in England.

Finally, Chaucer's framework for the stories adds a great deal to our understanding of the people of the medieval times, in terms of their literature, their folklore and even their values. The frame of the pilgrimage to Canterbury lets us know the significance of Saint Thomas Becket at the time. The use of the contest to elicit stories from the pilgrims is masterful because it allows the work to be read as an anthology. Here we see not only the cross-section of the pilgrims, as noted earlier, but also a cross section of the genres that were popular at the time, from the nun's priest's beast fable, to the Wife of Bath's romance, to the Pardoner's sermon to the monk's tragedy

The Canterbury Tales, then, are a unique representation of the time it describes, educating readers about the social distinctions and the literary interests of the Middle Ages, all while establishing English as the literary language of choice.

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First, The Canterbury Tales are the most extensive example of Middle English literature in existence. At the time Chaucer wrote the tales, most literature in Britain was written in French. This was during the Norman period in English history, when Norman French was the language of government and most of the nobility. The Canterbury Tales are important because they give us an example of literature in Middle English. Further, they also give us an extensive and varied text that has allowed modern scholars to learn more about the English of that period, as well as how it changed over the next several decades following the writing of The Canterbury Tales.  

Second, that The Canterbury Tales were written in Middle English was important politically. Chaucer, who was capable of writing in French, chose to write in Middle English as his way of supporting a growing movement to make Middle English the language of government. This movement was driven primarily by the desire of the English, even those of Norman descent, to separate themselves from the French, with whom they were at war.

Third, The Canterbury Tales served as a social commentary on the nature of the nobility and the church in Norman England. At the time, the views Chaucer expressed through his characters and stories were controversial enough that he recanted them before he died. However, this does not diminish the value of their social commentary during Chaucer’s time. Further, his daring in writing about the issues of his society gives modern readers an un-romanticized look at Medieval English society.  

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