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The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer 1343 - 1400
One of the most original, gifted and outstanding poets of English literature is the renowned Geoffrey Chaucer, remembered and revered for his best work, The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer is remembered in history not for his vocation but for his avocation, writing poetry. And The Canterbury Tales is his definitive work, written in Middle English vernacular, the first English poet to write in the vernacular during the Middle Ages.
His tales amused, entertained and interested the common man in English medieval times and were so popular that eighty copies of the tales have survived, most from the 15th century. The Canterbury Tales were printed twice by William Caxton himself (inventor of the printing press) and then reprinted by his successors.
Chaucer was an unusual man for his times as he was able to bridge the English aristocracy and the royal courts, and also the common man. He was a product of the rising middle class in England during this lifetime.
His father was a wealthy and well connected wine merchant in London, England in the increasingly important middle class. Into this middle class Geoffrey Chaucer was born. He learned the wine business from his father and his father's wealth provided Chaucer with an excellent education.
Growing up in the city, Chaucer was able to also mix with the commoners of all sorts. In medieval times there was no way for commoners to reach the class of the English aristocracy as only birth alone could make one a member, but the middle class was able to infiltrate the aristocracy in a number of ways, and Chaucer found his way to do this.
In his early teens, Chaucer was sent to court to work as a page in one of the great aristocratic households, that of Lionel of Antwerp, son of the reigning monarch, Edward III. He learned the ways of the royal court and his vocation became that of as public/civil servant to three successive kings - Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV. For the rest of his life, Chaucer was in close contact with the ruling nobility of the English kingdom.
Chaucer's wife, Philippa, was also a member of royal households, although she was believed to have been of higher birth than Chaucer. Therefore, Geoffrey Chaucer was able to bridge the unbridgeable gap between the aristocracy and the common man, and his poetic ability was of great service to his advancement in the royal courts.
Some of the perks of working as a courtier in the royal households and courts was that he had a rent-free house, received grants and annuities from the kings he served and was rewarded for his service from time to time by being allowed to travel throughout Europe on royal business.
Chaucer wrote his poetry in his spare time away from work in the royal courts. For most of his life, Chaucer embarked on an Italian and then a French period of writing poetry. He imitated the great poets of Italy and France and it was not until approximately the last fourteen years of his life did he write his greatest work, The Canterbury Tales.
It is believed he began writing the tales around 1386 and continued writing them until his death in 1400. In writing The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer stands apart from the mainstream English literature of the time. He broke away from the traditional English poetry of the time and wrote the tales in his own way and his own form.
The Canterbury Tales was groundbreaking because it was written about people from all walks of English life and it was written in middle English vernacular - the words and speech of the common English man, when at the time, poetry in England was being written in Latin.
Chaucer wanted to show all people and all walks of life in his tales, so he used a ficticious pilgrimage as a "framing device" to be able to present a number of stories. Using this device was popular and common during the Middle Ages. But, it is Chaucer's artistic exploitation of this "framing device" that is his own and is original.
During the middle ages, folk taking pilgrimages (long journeys) to see, honor and pray over the bones of martyred saints was very popular. The use of a pilgrimage allowed Chaucer to bring together people from all walks of life in English society: knight, squire, prioress, monk, merchant, lawyer, Franklin, clerk, miller, reeve, pardoner, wife of Bath, and others.
In his work, Chaucer presents a storytelling contest between the pilgrims traveling from Southwark, then a suburb of London, south of the Thames River, to Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, England to pray to Thomas a' Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in the cathedral in 1170.
As the pilgrims travel on horseback and by foot, the different characters are revealed through their vivid personalities and the stories they tell. Chaucer is able to develop dramatic relationships among the pilgrims themselves and with their tales. From his own keen observations during this lifetime, Chaucer uses humor and tragedy within the tales and the different characters to give a rounded look at English society of the middle ages. He uses satire and ribald comedy to entertain and interest his reading audience.
Chaucer's original plan was to write at least 120 stories. He planned for each pilgrim to tell two stores on the way to Canterbury and two stories on the way back to Southwark. He actually completed twenty-two complete stories and two more stories exist in fragments. So The Canterbury Tales is an incomplete or unfinished work as Chaucer died before he could complete his grand plan.
The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales begins with The General Prologue in which we learn that the pilgrims are undertaking the journey from the Tabard Inn in Southwark, across the Thames from London. They all agree to engage in a storytelling contest as they travel to Canterbury and back again. Harry Bailly, the host of the Tabard Inn serves as master of ceremonies for the contest. We are introduced to each pilgrim in The General Prologue through vivid brief sketches of each pilgrim. Some of the pilgrims are:
- the ideal knight
- his son, the squire
- the Prioress, a hypocritical nun
- the hunting Monk
- the flattering Friar
- the too busy and too rich lawyer
- the prosperous Franklin
- the fraudulent Doctor
- the Wife of Bath
- the austere Parson
- the hypocrite, the Pardoner
One would meet all these people in medieval literature and in medieval life as Chaucer undoubtedly did. Chaucer tells us his interest in these people lies only in the visible; in what meets the eye. He also does not render opinions about the pilgrims. He just presents them and it is up to the reader to draw conclusions as to what each pilgrim is really like. Chaucer presents the world of types vs. the world of real people. He challenges the perceptions we have of each pilgrim on the journey.
After the pilgrims are presented in The General Prologue, we then hear the tales or stories each pilgrim tells which somehow reveals their true character. Through wit, sarcasm and satire, Chaucer leaves us laughing at the different pilgrims and their approach to their professions, lives and characters, revealing all to the reader.
For example, with the Prioress, Chaucer shows us her inability to be what she professes to be - a nun. He shows us her inadequacy of what she thinks a nun should be. She is dripping in jewelry and shows us the great human charm of what she really is - a woman. She is a paradox but Chaucer doesn't attempt to resolve the dilemma. He just presents her as she truly is.
On the other hand, he shows us the young, second-nun, who really exhibits the true characteristics of a nun. She really is a simple and devout nun - not a worldly woman as the Prioress is.
The Wife of Bath's tale is that of monstrous feminism throughout the tales. She brings up the question of marriage - she has been married five times (four previous husbands have died) and later on the Clerk and the Merchant begin discussing the merits and non-merits of being married. The Franklin's common sense finally settles the debate.
Chaucer used "links", short dramatic scenes, interspersed between the twenty-four tales such as the Clerk and the Merchant above. They presented lively exchanges usually involving one or more of the pilgrims.
Through his presentation of the different social types on the pilgrimage, as well as the different tales told, Chaucer was able to present a variety of literary genres: legend, romance, fabliau, saint's life, allegorical tale, sermon, beast fable and all written in the English vernacular. By mixing the different social characters and their professions, they lead to drama and comedy in the tales. Chaucer's tales also include serious and tolerant consideration of important philosophical questions.
All in all, Chaucer provides a delightfully entertaining view of the frailties and follies of the nobility and of all mankind. Throughout his illustrious life, Chaucer had acquired great wisdom and knowledge about his fellow man from observing his fellow many daily and this shows through in his tales. He is always questioning the complexity of the human condition and seeing the humor and tragedy in that condition.
Throughout the tales, Chaucer presides as the poet, the civil servant and the pilgrim. At the end, Chaucer does offer a retraction. He states that the concern for this world fades into insignificance before the prospect for the next world. He continues by asking for forgiveness for his writings that concern "worldly vanities"and to remember his works of morality and religious devotion.
This is how Chaucer ends his finest work and career as a poet.
Source: The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume I.
Copyright (c) Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved