Canterbury Tales, The

Canterbury Tales, The
   by Geoffrey Chaucer
   The Canterbury Tales, composed by Geoffrey CHAUCER, is the most celebrated literary work of the English Middle Ages. The book is a collection of stories purportedly told by a diverse company of English men and women on pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas BECKET at Canterbury Cathedral. Left unfinished on Chaucer’s death in 1400, the volume includes a prologue and 24 tales of varying length.
   Chaucer was a popular author in the 15th century, and The Canterbury Tales survives in whole or in part in 82 manuscripts. None of these manuscripts is in Chaucer’s handwriting, and none was transcribed during his lifetime. The two earliest, the HENGWRT MS (owned by the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth) and the ELLESMERE MS (owned by the Huntington Library in San Marino, California),were copied in part by the same scribe. Hengwrt is the earlier of the two and its text is thought by some scholars to be the more accurate. Ellesmere is a luxurious volume with fine illustrations of the individual pilgrims, and its text may reflect a correction of errors in the earlier manuscript. The Ellesmere MS is used as the base text for most modern editions of the Tales.
   The language of The Canterbury Tales is a MIDDLE ENGLISH dialect spoken in London and southeast England in the last quarter of the 14th century. Chaucer’s decision to write his book in the English vernacular perhaps reflects his appreciation of DANTE and BOCCACCIO, who composed their most important works in Italian, and of the many French poets who crafted lyrics and ROMANCES in the French vernacular. Unlike his friend John GOWER, who wrote major works in English, French, and Latin, and unlike Dante, Boccaccio, and PETRARCH, who crafted lengthy works in Latin as well as in the vernacular, Chaucer, so far as we know, composed significant narratives in English only.
   All but two of the tales are in verse, the two exceptions being lengthy prose treatises on moral and spiritual matters (The TALE OF MELIBEE and The PARSON’S TALE). Chaucer’s characteristic poetic line in The Canterbury Tales contains 10 syllables, five of them stressed: Along with Gower, he seems to have invented the iambic pentameter, which was to become the dominant line in English narrative poetry. It is this line that he employs so brilliantly in the flexible rhymed couplets of the GENERAL PROLOGUE and 16 tales.
   Chaucer composed The Canterbury Tales over a stretch of at least 20 years, but the date of no tale is known exactly; it is unclear in what year he started work on the tales, and even the relative chronology of the tales is uncertain. A few works (The KNIGHT’S TALE, The PHYSICIAN’S TALE, The MONK’S TALE, and The SECOND NUN’S TALE) appear to have been written relatively early, but they may well have been revised for inclusion in the Tales. The four texts using the seven-line RHYME ROYAL stanza (The MAN OF LAW’S TALE, The CLERK’S TALE, The PRIORESS’S TALE, and The SECOND NUN’S TALE) are often assumed to have been composed as a group, but this is conjectural. A few stories respond to earlier ones (The MILLER’S TALE, The REEVE’S TALE, The MERCHANT’S TALE, The PARDONER’S TALE, The NUN’S PRIEST’S TALE, and The CANON’S YEOMAN’S TALE) and therefore appear to have been written relatively late. It is often speculated that The SHIPMAN’S TALE was assigned initially to the Wife of Bath, and that the General Prologue was revised in conjunction with the writing of individual tales, but there is no sure knowledge of this.What does seem certain is that Chaucer did not write the tales in the order in which they appear in any manuscript or printed volume, and that when he died he left behind a collection of fragments including as few as one tale (Fragment II) and as many as six (Fragment VII), without clear indication of how they were to be joined together.
   The premise underlying The Canterbury Tales is that when Chaucer, on springtime pilgrimage to Canterbury, arrived at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, he encountered a group of pilgrims making the same trip. Chaucer joined the merry company, whom he describes individually in the General Prologue. At the suggestion of innkeeper Harry Bailly, the pilgrims agreed to a storytelling contest so as to make the route seem shorter. Each pilgrim would “telle tales tweye / To Caunterbury-ward” (Benson 1987, 36, I 792–93) and two more on the way home. This plan is not fulfilled—only one pilgrim, Chaucer himself, tells two tales, and some do not tell any—and it may not in fact represent Chaucer’s ultimate intention. At one point Chaucer talks of each pilgrim telling a tale or two, and in the prologue to the final tale Harry Bailly tells the Parson that “every man, save thou, hath toold his tale” (Benson 1987, 287, l. 25). As we do not know when these three passages were written, we cannot determine which of them—if any— represents Chaucer’s final word. In any event, The Canterbury Tales claims to be the accurate record of the stories recounted by the pilgrims in their contest.
   Chaucer used this liminal setting of pilgrimage as the vehicle for an unprecedented exploration of the social, economic, and political world of late 14th-century England. The pilgrims’ occupations span the social classes of his time, including military vocations from knight to yeoman; religious vocations from monk and prioress to pardoner and parson; countrymen from franklin to plowman; professionals from lawyer to manciple; entrepreneurs from merchant to sea captain; and tradespeople from weaver to miller to the clothmaking Wife of Bath. The tales widen the frame both chronologically and spatially, stretching from ancient Greece and Rome at the one extreme, to contemporary London, Bath, Oxford, and Cambridge at the other, and incorporating settings as diverse as Lombard towns and countryside, the coast of Brittany, a suburb of Paris, “Asie,” the realm of Genghis Khan, a poor widow’s farm, and hell.
   The tales span a wide range of genres, from idealistic romance to bawdy FABLIAU to devout SAINT’S LIFE to philosophical meditation, with many tales mixing genres in unexpected ways. A connection may often be found between the character or social position of a narrator and the type of story assigned to that narrator, though some connections are loose. The texts where the linkage is most fully developed are The WIFE OF BATH’S TALE, The PARDONER’S TALE, and The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, each of which has a substantial prologue. A limited range of occupations were available to women in medieval England, which may explain why only three of the 30-odd pilgrims are female. Chaucer overcomes this gender constraint by having women play large roles in many of the tales, often as a story’s protagonist. Chaucer’s women range from children to wives to aged widows, from virgins to flirts to prostitutes. Two mothers-in-law are wicked, and some of the wives are adulterous, but an equal number of women serve as moral foci.
   In the General Prologue and in the prologue to The Miller’s Tale Chaucer apologizes for the bawdy language in some of his writing, attributing it to the churlish character of particular pilgrims. He invites a discriminating reader to “Turne over the leef and chese another tale” (Benson 1987, 67, l. 3177). In the Retraction that closes The Canterbury Tales he revokes his many “translacions and enditynges of worldly vanities” (Benson 1987, 328, l. 1085) and asks forgiveness for having written them.Whether one takes these apologies as earnest or dismisses them as rhetorical artifice, readers who have immersed themselves in the brilliance of Chaucer’s unfinished book cannot help but be glad for every page that he did write, both the earthy and the sublime, and to wish that he had lived to write still more. Harry Bailly declares in the General Prologue that the finest story is one “of best sentence and moost solace” (Benson 1987, 36, I 798). The phrase defines Chaucer’s accomplishment in The Canterbury Tales.
   ■ Benson, Larry D., gen. ed. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
   ■ Cooper, Helen. Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
   ■ Patterson, Lee. Chaucer and the Subject of History. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
   ■ Pearsall, Derek. The Canterbury Tales. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1985.
   ■ Whittock, Trevor. A Reading of the Canterbury Tales. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.
   David Raybin

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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