The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century (two of them in prose, the rest in verse). The tales, some of which are originals and others not, are contained inside a frame tale and told by a collection of pilgrims on a pilgrimage from Southwark to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The Canterbury Tales are written in Middle English. Although the tales are considered to be his magnum opus, some believe the structure of the tales is indebted to the works of The Decameron, which Chaucer is said to have read on an earlier visit to Italy.
The date of the conception and writing of The Canterbury Tales as a collection of stories has proved difficult to discover. It seems clear that the Tales were begun after some of Chaucer's other works, such as Legend of Good Women, which fails to mention them in a list of other works by the author. Also, it was probably written after his Troilus and Criseyde, since Legend is written in part as an apology for the portrayal of women in the Criseyde character. Troilus is dated to sometime between 1382 and 1388, with Legend coming soon after, possibly in 1386-7. In any case, work on The Canterbury Tales as a whole probably began in the late 1380s and continued as Chaucer neared his death in the year 1400.
Two of the tales, The Knight's Tale and The Second Nun's Tale, were probably written before the compilation of stories was ever thought of. Both of these tales are mentioned in the Prologue to the aforementioned Legend of Good Women. Other tales, such as the Clerk's and the Man of Law's, are also suggested to have been written earlier and added into the Canterbury Tales framework after the fact. These suggestions, however, are less supported by scholars. The Monk's Tale is one of the few describing an event which provides a clear date. It describes the death of Barnabo Visconti, which occurred on 19 December 1385, although some scholars believe the lines about him were added after the main tale had already been written. The Shipman's Tale was in all likelihood written before The Wife of Bath's Tale, as in parts the Shipman speaks as if he was a woman, leading scholars to believe that the Shipman's Tale was originally intended for the Wife of Bath, before she became a more prominent character. References to her in Envoy to Bukton (1396) seem to indicate that her character was quite famous in London by that time.
Chaucer's use of sources also provide chronological clues. The Pardoner's Tale, the Wife of Bath's Prologue, and the Franklin's Tale all draw frequent reference to St. Jerome's Epistola adversus Jovinianum. Jerome's work is also an addition to Chaucer's Prologue to a revised Legend of Good Women dated to 1394, suggesting that these three tales were written sometime in the mid-1390s. Scholars have also used Chaucer's references to astronomy to find the dates specific tales were written. From the data Chaucer provides in the prologue, for example, the pilgrimage in which the tales are told takes place in 1387. However, this assumes that, when looking up astronomical data, Chaucer stayed with current events.
There are clues which have led to the two most popular methods of ordering the tales. Scholars usually divide the tales into ten fragments. The tales that make up a fragment are directly connected and make clear distinctions about what order they go in, usually with one character speaking to and then stepping aside for another character. Between fragments, however, there is less of a connection. This means that there are several possible permutations for the order of the fragments and consequently the tales themselves. Below is list of the most popular ordering of the fragments:
|Fragment I(A)||General Prologue, Knight, Miller, Reeve, Cook|
|Fragment II(B1)||Man of Law|
|Fragment III(D)||Wife, Friar, Summoner|
|Fragment IV(E)||Clerk, Merchant|
|Fragment V(F)||Squire, Franklin|
|Fragment VI(C)||Physician, Pardoner|
|Fragment VII(B2)||Shipman, Prioress, Sir Thopas, Melibee, Monk, Nun's Priest|
|Fragment VIII(G)||Second Nun, Canon's Yeoman|
An alternative to this order is the placing of Fragment VIII(G) before VI(C). In other cases, the above order follows that set by early manuscripts. Fragments I and II almost always follow each other, as do VI and VII, IX and X in the oldest manuscripts. Fragments IV and V, by contrast are located in varying locations from manuscript to manuscript. Victorians would frequently move Fragment VII(B2) to follow Fragment II(B1), but this trend is no longer followed and has no justification. Even the earliest surviving manuscripts are not Chaucer's originals, the oldest being MS Peniarth 392 D (called "Hengwrt"), compiled by a scribe shortly after Chaucer's death. The scribe uses the order shown above, though he does not seem to have had a full collection of Chaucer's tales, so part are missing. The most beautiful of the manuscripts of the tales is the Ellesmere manuscript, and many editors have followed the order of the Ellesmere over the centuries, even down to the present day. The latest of the manuscripts is William Caxton's 1478 print edition, the first version of the tales to be published in print. Since this version was created from a now-lost manuscript, it is counted as among the 83 manuscripts.
No other work prior to Chaucer's is known to have set a collection of tales within the framework of pilgrims on a pilgrimage. It is obvious, however, that Chaucer borrowed portions, sometimes very large portions, of his stories from earlier stories, as well as from the general state of the literary world in which he lived. Storytelling was the main entertainment in England at the time, and storytelling contests had been around for thousands of years. In 14th-century England the English Pui was a group with an appointed leader who would judge the songs of the group. The winner received a crown and, as with the winner of the Canterbury Tales, a free dinner. It was common for pilgrims on a pilgrimage to have a chosen "master of ceremonies" to guide them and organize the journey.
The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio contains more parallels to the Canterbury Tales than any other work. Like the Tales, it features a number of narrators who tell stories along a journey they have undertaken (to flee from the Black Plague). It ends with an apology by Boccaccio, much like Chaucer's Retraction to the Tales. One-fourth of the tales in Canterbury Tales parallels a tale in the Decameron, although most of them have closer parallels in other stories. Scholars thus find it unlikely that Chaucer had a copy of the work on hand, surmising instead that he must have merely read the Decameron while visiting Italy at some point. Each of the tales has its own set of sources which have been suggested by scholars, but a few sources are used frequently over several tales. These include poetry by Ovid, the Bible in one of the many vulgate versions it was available in at the time (the exact one is difficult to determine), and the works of Petrarch and Dante. Chaucer was the first author to utilize the work of these last two, both Italians. Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy appears in several tales, as do the works of John Gower, a known friend to Chaucer. A full list is impossible to outline in little space, but Chaucer also, lastly, seems to have borrowed from numerous religious encyclopedias and liturgical writings, such as John Bromyard's Summa praedicantium, a preacher's handbook, and St. Jerome's Adversus Jovinianum.
While the structure of the Tales is largely linear, with one story following another, it is also much more than that. In the General Prologue, Chaucer describes, not the tales to be told, but the people who will tell them, making it clear that structure will depend on the characters rather than a general theme or moral. This idea is reinforced when the Miller interrupts to tell his tale after the Knight has finished his. Having the Knight go first, gives one the idea that all will tell their stories by class, with the Knight going first, followed by the Monk, but the Miller's interruption makes it clear that this structure will be abandoned in favor of a free and open exchange of stories among all classes present. General themes and points of view arise as tales are told which are responded to by other characters in their own tales, sometimes after a long lapse in which the theme has not been addressed.
Lastly, Chaucer does not pay much attention to the progress of the trip, to the time passing as the pilgrims travel, or specific locations along the way to Canterbury. His writing of the story seems focused primarily on the stories being told, and not on the pilgrimage itself.
With this Chaucer avoids targeting any specific audience or social class of readers, focusing instead on the characters of the story and writing their tales with a skill proportional to their social status and learning. However, even the lowest characters, such as the Miller, show surprising rhetorical ability, although their subject matter is more lowbrow. Vocabulary also plays an important part, as those of the higher classes refer to a woman as a "lady", while the lower classes use the word "wenche", with no exceptions. At times the same word will mean entirely different things between classes. The word "pitee", for example, is a noble concept to the upper classes, while in the Merchant's Tale it refers to sexual intercourse. Again, however, tales such as the Nun's Priest's Tale show surprising skill with words among the lower classes of the group, while the Knight's Tale is at times extremely simple.
Chaucer uses the same meter throughout almost all of his tales, with the exception of Sir Thopas and his prose tales. It is a decasyllable line, probably borrowed from French and Italian forms, with riding rhyme and, occasionally, a caesura in the middle of a line. His meter would later develop into the heroic meter of the 15th and 16th centuries and is an ancestor of iambic pentameter. He avoids allowing couplets to become too prominent in the poem, and four of the tales (the Man of Law's, Clerk's, Prioress', and Second Nun's) use rhyme royal.
The time of the writing of The Canterbury Tales was a turbulent time in English history. The Catholic Church was in the midst of the Great Schism and, though it was still the only Christian authority in Europe, it was the subject of heavy controversy. Lollardy, an early English religious movement led by John Wycliffe is mentioned in the Tales, as is a specific incident involving pardoners (who gathered money in exchange for absolution from sin) who nefariously claimed to be collecting for St. Mary Rouncesval hospital in England. The Canterbury Tales is among the first English literary works to mention paper, a relatively new invention which allowed dissemination of the written word never before seen in England. Political clashes, such as the 1381 Peasant's Revolt and clashes ending in the depostion of King Richard II, further reveal the complex turmoil surrounding Chaucer in the time of the Tales' writing. Many of his close friends were executed and he himself was forced to move to Kent in order to get away from events in London.
The Canterbury Tales can also tell modern readers much about "the occult" during Chaucer's time, especially in regards to astrology and the astrological lore prevalent during Chaucer's era. There are hundreds if not thousands of astrological allusions found in this work; some are quite overt while others are more subtle in nature.
In 2004, Professor Linne Mooney was able to identify the scrivener who worked for Chaucer as an Adam Pinkhurst. Mooney, then a professor at the University of Maine and a visiting fellow at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, was able to match Pinkhurst's signature, on an oath he signed, to his lettering on a copy of The Canterbury Tales that was transcribed from Chaucer's working copy. While some readers look to interpret the characters of "The Canterbury Tales" as historical figures, other readers choose to interpret its significance in less literal terms. After analysis of his diction and historical context, his work appears to develop a critique against society during his lifetime. Within a number of his descriptions, his comments can appear complimentary in nature, but through clever language, the statements are ultimately critical of the pilgrim’s actions. It is unclear whether Chaucer would intend for the reader to link his characters with actual persons. Instead, it appears that Chaucer creates fictional characters to be general representations of people in such fields of work. With an understanding of medieval society, one can detect subtle satire at work.
Some of the tales are serious and others comical. Religious malpractice is a major theme, as is the division of the three estates. Most of the tales are interlinked by common themes, and some "quit" (reply to or retaliate for) other tales. The work is incomplete, as it was originally intended that each character would tell four tales, two on the way to Canterbury and two on the return journey, for a total of one hundred twenty--which would have dwarfed the twenty-four tales actually written.
The Canterbury Tales includes an account of Jews murdering a deeply pious and innocent Christian boy ('The Prioress's Tale'). This blood libel against Jews became a part of English literary tradition. However, the story the Prioress tells did not originate in the works of Chaucer: it was well known in the 14th century.
It is obvious that Chaucer's works were distributed in some form while he was alive, probably in fragmented pieces or as individual tales. Scholars speculate that manuscripts were circulated among his friends, but likely remained unknown to most people until after his death. However, the speed with which copyists strove to write complete versions of his tale in manuscript form shows that Chaucer was a famous and respected poet in his own day. The Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts are examples of the care taken to distribute the work. More manuscript copies of the poem exist than for any other poem of its day except The Prick of Conscience, causing some scholars to give it the medieval equivalent of "best-seller" status. Even the most elegant of the illustrated manuscripts, however, is not nearly as decorated and fancified as the work of authors of more respectable works such as John Lydgate's religious and historical literature.
It is sometimes argued that the greatest contribution that this work made to English literature was in popularising the literary use of the vernacular, English, rather than French or Latin. English had, however, been used as a literary language for centuries before Chaucer's life, and several of Chaucer's contemporaries—John Gower, William Langland, and the Pearl Poet—also wrote major literary works in English. It is unclear to what extent Chaucer was responsible for starting a trend rather than simply being part of it. It is interesting to note that, although Chaucer had a powerful influence in poetic and artistic terms, which can be seen in the great number of forgeries and mistaken attributions (such as The Flower and the Leaf which was translated by John Dryden), modern English spelling and orthography owes much more to the innovations made by the Court of Chancery in the decades during and after his lifetime.
The postulated return journey has intrigued many and continuations have been written as well, often to the horror or (occasional) delight of Chaucerians everywhere, as tales written for the characters who are mentioned but not given a chance to speak. The Tale of Beryn is a story by an anonymous author within a 15th century manuscript of the work. The tales are rearranged and there are some interludes in Canterbury, which they had finally reached, and Beryn is the first tale on the return journey, told by the Merchant. John Lydgate's Siege of Thebes is also a depiction of the return journey but the tales themselves are actually prequels to the tale of classical origin told by the Knight in Chaucer's work.
The title of the work has become an everyday phrase and been variously adapted and adopted; for example Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and others. Recently an animated version of some of the tales has been produced for British television. As well as versions with Modern English dialogue, there have been versions in the original Middle English and Welsh.
Many literary works (both fiction and non-fiction alike) have used a similar frame narrative to the Canterbury Tales as an homage. Science Fiction writer Dan Simmons wrote his Hugo Award winning novel Hyperion based around an extra-planetary group of pilgrims. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins used The Canterbury Tales as a structure for his 2004 non-fiction book about evolution - The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution. His animal pilgrims are on their way to find the common ancestor, each telling a tale about evolution.
Henry Dudeney's book The Canterbury Puzzles contains a part which is supposedly lost text from the Tales.
The Rap Canterbury Tales- Baba Brinkman- found on RhapsodyAudio clips