Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is considered as one of the major beginning marks in English Literature. The Canterbury Tales, written in 14th century is a collection of short stories mainly in verse form. The stories in The Canterbury Tales are told by a group of 24 pilgrims on pilgrimage from Southwark to Canterbury to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.
A Prologue to The Canterbury Tales introduces the major characters of the book. It also includes the 24 individual tales that vary in topics such as courtly love, treachery and avarice etc. There is no specific literary genre to include these tales as they vary from romance, Breton lai, sermon, beast fable and fabliaux. The tales cite the events in Middle English period with specific indications to John of Gaunt, Harry Bailly of the Tabard Inn and the political thoughts.
The Canterbury Tales is praised for its role in popularising the literary use of vernacular language in English. This unique work also gives specific knowledge about 'the occult' and astrological lore prevalent during the middle English period. The Canterbury Tales serves as a historic critique against society during Chaucer's time. The characters in The Canterbury Tales had real representations in the respective fields of work.
The Canterbury Tales is also not free from controversies. This literary piece was attacked for showing antisemitism ( Prejudice against Jews) in it. However the popularity of this majestic work wins over centuries. Many literary works based their theme on The Canterbury Tales as a homage.
The science fiction writer Dan Simmons wrote his Hyperion,based on The Canterbury Tales. Evolutionist Richard Dawkins used the structure of The Canterbury Tales for his evolution-The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution. Henry Dudeney published The Canterbury Puzzles that contains a part supposedly lost from the original text.
The Canterbury Tales has been variously adapted and adopted. The British television produced the animated versions of some tales. The renowned poet Pier Paolo Pasolini directed an Italian film based and titled on the poem in 1972. In 2001, Brian Helgeland directed the film A Knight's Tale based on The Knight's Tale in The Canterbury Tales. In 2004, BBC showed the modern re-tellings of selected tales. The Royal Shakespeare Company put forward a stage adaptation of the master work in 2005.
There is no doubt that the tales of The Canterbury Tales is relevant on the present day also. It will assure an enlightened reading for the literary aesthetics and those who understand the Middle English society.
Geoffrey Chaucer (pronounced /ˈtʃɔːsər/; c. 1343 – 25 October 1400) was an English author, poet, philosopher, bureaucrat, courtier and diplomat. Although he wrote many works, he is best remembered for his unfinished frame narrative The Canterbury Tales. Sometimes called the father of English literature, Chaucer is credited by some scholars as the first author to demonstrate the artistic legitimacy of the vernacular Middle English, rather than French or Latin.
The Canterbury Tales contrasts with other literature of the period in the naturalism of its narrative, the variety of stories the pilgrims tell and the varied characters who are engaged in the pilgrimage. Many of the stories narrated by the pilgrims seem to fit their individual characters and social standing, although some of the stories seem ill-fitting to their narrators, perhaps as a result of the incomplete state of the work. Chaucer drew on real life for his cast of pilgrims: the innkeeper shares the name of a contemporary keeper of an inn in Southwark, and real-life identities for the Wife of Bath, the Merchant, the Man of Law and the Student have been suggested. The many jobs that Chaucer held in medieval society—page, soldier, messenger, valet, bureaucrat, foreman and administrator—probably exposed him to many of the types of people he depicted in the Tales. He was able to shape their speech and satirise their manners in what was to become popular literature among people of the same types.
Chaucer's works are sometimes grouped into first a French period, then an Italian period and finally an English period, with Chaucer being influenced by those countries' literatures in turn. Certainly Troilus and Criseyde is a middle period work with its reliance on the forms of Italian poetry, little known in England at the time, but to which Chaucer was probably exposed during his frequent trips abroad on court business. In addition, its use of a classical subject and its elaborate, courtly language sets it apart as one of his most complete and well-formed works. In Troilus and Criseyde Chaucer draws heavily on his source, Boccaccio, and on the Late Latin philosopher Boethius. However, it is The Canterbury Tales, wherein he focuses on English subjects, with bawdy jokes and respected figures often being undercut with humour that has cemented his reputation.
The poetry of Chaucer, along with other writers of the era, is credited with helping to standardise the London Dialect of the Middle English language from a combination of the Kentish and Midlands dialects. This is probably overstated; the influence of the court, chancery and bureaucracy—of which Chaucer was a part—remains a more probable influence on the development of Standard English. Modern English is somewhat distanced from the language of Chaucer's poems owing to the effect of the Great Vowel Shift some time after his death. This change in the pronunciation of English, still not fully understood, makes the reading of Chaucer difficult for the modern audience, though it is thought by some[who?] that the modern Scottish accent is closely related to the sound of Middle English. The status of the final -e in Chaucer's verse is uncertain: it seems likely that during the period of Chaucer's writing the final -e was dropping out of colloquial English and that its use was somewhat irregular. Chaucer's versification suggests that the final -e is sometimes to be vocalised, and sometimes to be silent; however, this remains a point on which there is disagreement. When it is vocalised, most scholars pronounce it as a schwa. Apart from the irregular spelling, much of the vocabulary is recognisable to the modern reader. Chaucer is also recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as the first author to use many common English words in his writings. These words were probably frequently used in the language at the time but Chaucer, with his ear for common speech, is the earliest manuscript source. Acceptable, alkali, altercation, amble, angrily, annex, annoyance, approaching, arbitration, armless, army, arrogant, arsenic, arc, artillery and aspect are just some of the many English words first attested in Chaucer.
Chaucer is sometimes considered the source of the English vernacular tradition and the "father" of modern English literature. His achievement for the language can be seen as part of a general historical trend towards the creation of a vernacular literature after the example of Dante in many parts of Europe. A parallel trend in Chaucer's own lifetime was underway in Scotland through the work of his slightly earlier contemporary, John Barbour, and was likely to have been even more general, as is evidenced by the example of the Pearl Poet in the north of England.
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century. The tales (mostly in verse, although some are in prose) are told as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. In a long list of works, including Troilus and Criseyde, House of Fame, and Parliament of Fowls, The Canterbury Tales was Chaucer's magnum opus. He uses the tales and the descriptions of the characters to paint an ironic and critical portrait of English society at the time, and particularly of the Church. Structurally, the collection bears the influence of The Decameron, which Chaucer is said to have come across during his first diplomatic mission to Italy in 1372. However, Chaucer peoples his tales with 'sondry folk' rather than Boccaccio's fleeing nobles.
Historical context and themes
The Canterbury Tales was written during a turbulent time in English history. The Catholic Church was in the midst of the Western Schism and, though it was still the only Christian authority in Europe, 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 Peasants' Revolt and clashes ending in the deposing 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 Tales reflect diverse views of the Church in Chaucer's England. After the Black Death, many Europeans began to question the authority of the established Church. Some turned to lollardy, while others chose less extreme paths, starting new monastic orders or smaller movements exposing church corruption in the behavior of the clergy, false church relics or abuse of indulgences. Several characters in the Tales are religious figures, and the very setting of the pilgrimage to Canterbury is religious (although the prologue comments ironically on its merely seasonal attractions), making religion a significant theme of the work. Two characters, the Pardoner and the Summoner, whose roles apply the church's secular power, are both portrayed as deeply corrupt, greedy, and abusive. A pardoner in Chaucer's day was a person from whom one bought Church "indulgences" for forgiveness of sins, but pardoners were often thought guilty of abusing their office for their own gain. Chaucer's Pardoner openly admits the corruption of his practice while hawking his wares. The Summoner is a Church officer who brought sinners to the church court for possible excommunication and other penalties. Corrupt summoners would write false citations and frighten people into bribing them in order to protect their interests. Chaucer's Summoner is portrayed as guilty of the very kinds of sins he is threatening to bring others to court for, and is hinted as having a corrupt relationship with the Pardoner. In The Friar's Tale, one of the characters is a summoner who is shown to be working on the side of the devil, not God. Churchmen of various kinds are represented by the Monk, the Prioress, the Nun's Priest, and the Second Nun. Monastic orders, which originated from a desire to follow an ascetic lifestyle separated from the world, had by Chaucer's time become increasingly entangled in worldly matters. Monasteries frequently controlled huge tracts of land on which they made significant sums of money, while peasants worked in their employ. The Second Nun is an example of what a Nun was expected to be: her tale is about a woman whose chaste example brings people into the church. The Monk and the Prioress, on the other hand, while not as corrupt as the Summoner or Pardoner, fall far short of the ideal for their orders. Both are expensively dressed, show signs of lives of luxury and flirtatiousness and show a lack of spiritual depth. The Prioress's Tale is an account of Jews murdering a deeply pious and innocent Christian boy, a blood libel against Jews which became a part of English literary tradition. The story did not originate in the works of Chaucer and was well known in the 14th century. Pilgrimage was a very prominent feature of medieval society. The ultimate pilgrimage destination was Jerusalem, but within England Canterbury was a popular destination. Pilgrims would journey to cathedrals that preserved relics of saints, believing that such relics held miraculous powers. Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, had been murdered in Canterbury cathedral by knights of Henry II during a disagreement between Church and Crown. Miracle stories connected to his remains sprang up soon after his death, and the cathedral became a popular pilgrimage destination. The pilgrimage in the work ties all of the stories together, and may be considered a representation of Christians' striving for heaven, despite weaknesses, disagreement, and diversity of opinion.
Social class and convention
The upper class or nobility, represented chiefly by the Knight and his Squire, was in Chaucer's time steeped in a culture of chivalry and courtliness. Nobles were expected to be powerful warriors who could be ruthless on the battlefield, yet mannerly in the King's Court and Christian in their actions. Knights were expected to form a strong social bond with the men who fought alongside them, but an even stronger bond with a woman whom they idealized in order to strengthen their fighting ability. Though the aim of chivalry was to noble action, often its conflicting values degenerated into violence. Church leaders often tried to place restrictions on jousts and tournaments, which at times ended in the death of the loser. The Knight's Tale shows how the brotherly love of two fellow knights turns into a deadly feud at the sight of a woman whom both idealize, with both knights willing to fight the other to the death in order to win her. Chivalry was in Chaucer's day on the decline, and it is possible that The Knight's Tale was intended to show its flaws, although this is disputed. Chaucer himself had fought in the Hundred Years' War under Edward III, who heavily emphasized chivalry during his reign. Two tales, The Tale of Sir Topas and The Tale of Melibee are told by Chaucer himself, who is travelling with the pilgrims in his own story. Both tales seem to focus on the ill-effects of chivalry—the first making fun of chivalric rules and the second warning against violence. The Tales constantly reflect the conflict between classes. For example, the division of the three estates; the characters are all divided into three distinct classes, the classes being "those who pray" (the clergy), "those who fight" (the nobility), and "those who work" (the commoners and peasantry). Most of the tales are interlinked by common themes, and some "quit" (reply to or retaliate against) other tales. Convention is followed when the Knight begins the game with a tale, as he represents the highest social class in the group. But when he is followed by the Miller, who represents a lower class, it sets the stage for the Tales to reflect both a respect for and a disregard for upper class rules. Helen Cooper, as well as Mikhail Bakhtin and Derek Brewer, call this opposition "the ordered and the grotesque, Lent and Carnival, officially approved culture and its riotous, and high-spirited underside." Several works of the time contained the same opposition.
Relativism vs. realism
Chaucer's characters each express different—sometimes vastly different—views of reality, creating an atmosphere of relativism. As Helen Cooper says, "Different genres give different readings of the world: the fabliau scarcely notices the operations of God, the saint's life focuses on those at the expense of physical reality, tracts and sermons insist on prudential or orthodox morality, romances privilege human emotion." The sheer number of varying persons and stories renders the Tales as a set unable to arrive at any definite truth or reality.