The Canterbury Tales

Written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales is what is known as a frame narrative. Middle English is very different to the English we speak today and is often read in translation. It is thought that Geoffrey Chaucer began writing it in 1387, up until his death in 1400. 

The Canterbury Tales The Canterbury Tales

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    The Canterbury Tales tells the story of a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The pilgrims' aim was to reach the shrine of Thomas Beckett. There were 30 pilgrims taking the journey, which would begin at the Tabard's Inn in Southwark, London.

    Frame narrative is when an overarching story is used to frame a second narrative. A story-within-a -story. Frame narrative can also be known as a frame story.

    The Canterbury Tales: summary

    The pilgrims are invited to take part in a storytelling contest by their host, the innkeeper Harry Bailly. Chaucer uses the general prologue to introduce the pilgrims. Chaucer himself is taking the pilgrimage; though it should be noted that the character of Chaucer is markedly different to Chaucer the poet. By using himself as a fellow pilgrim, Chaucer has the ability to express opinions that may not be favourable at the time.

    There are 24 tales in Chaucer's magnum opus. Chaucer uses the framing of the pilgrimage to shine a light on many different aspects of medieval society. Some of the characters range from a knight to a miller, or a priest to a wife. Using a wide range of characters for the tale allowed Chaucer to tell stories not commonly heard but also explore different genres. These different genres ranged from chivalric romance to allegory and fable.

    Chivalric romances are not the romantic stories you might think of today. Chivalric romances are more like adventure stories. They normally feature knights or heroes going on quests.

    Allegory is a story or poem that will have hidden meaning within the narrative. Usually, this could be a political or moral idea.

    Fables are stories that are short and involve animals to represent moral dilemmas. The tortoise and the hare is a famous example of a fable.

    The Canterbury Tales, a large stone building named Pilgrim's Hospital, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Pilgrim's Hospital in Canterbury. A place used to host poor pilgrims.

    Canterbury Tales is told in verse, using iambic pentameter. Geoffrey Chaucer was partly inspired by the Italian frame narrative, 'Decameron' (1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio. In that story, seven women and three men exchange stories while in quarantine from the plague. The difference with Chaucer's tales are that they explore a wider range of medieval society. The tales explore themes such as adultery, social class, religion and corruption.

    There is no conclusion to The Canterbury Tales, the contest winner is unknown to the reader. This could be because Chaucer was continuing to write his tales up until his death. However, Chaucer had written a retraction that features at the end of the frame story. This could serve as a conclusion to the frame element of the narrative.

    In Chaucer's retraction, he apologises for some of the more bawdy stories in the collection, such as 'The Miller's tale'. While apologising, Chaucer also claims that all the individuals in the tales are responsible for their own thoughts and actions. This can be seen as a way of the poet distancing himself from the more outspoken attitudes regarding religion, gender and sex. The Canterbury Tales was banned in the United States for its 'Obscene material'.

    The 'General Prologue' is written in the first-person narration from the point of view of Chaucer the character. The other tales are told in the third person omniscient.

    All the tales are in verse except 'The Tale of Melibee' and 'The parson's Tale', which are written in prose.

    The Canterbury Tales: 'General Prologue'

    The 'General Prologue' begins with the narrator Chaucer describing the start of spring. There are descriptions of familiar tropes of spring; the flowers blooming and birds singing. The narrator goes on to speak of new life coming into the world. This could be a reference to the stirring of sexual appetite. Chaucer then goes on to introduce the idea of pilgrimages and how it is common that they are undertaken in the spring.

    We find out that the narrator himself is embarking on a pilgrimage to Thomas Beckett's shrine in Canterbury. Chaucer the narrator informs us that there are 29 other pilgrims making the journey to Canterbury. The pilgrimage will begin in the Tabard Inn in Southwark, London. The diverse group of thirty pilgrims will spend the night at the inn before setting off in the morning.

    We are told that Chaucer is relaying these events from memory. We know this as he states he has 'tyme and space' to tell his narrative. The narrator then goes on to describe each member of the pilgrimage. Chaucer also lets us know that it is how the characters appeared to him when he met them. This suggests that the descriptions that follow may be biased.

    The pilgrims represent a wide range of medieval society. Chaucer goes on to describe them in order of social hierarchy. First, we hear about the Knight and the squire, who represent the military. Then the narrator describes the clergy; the nun, priests, monk and friar. From there we hear of the landowners, the professionals, labours and church officers. Each description is a satirical look at medieval stereotypes.

    The Canterbury Tales: characters

    There are many different pilgrims featured in The Canterbury Tales and even more who appear in the tales they tell. Here we will look at some of the more prominent pilgrims that feature in the collection.

    Chaucer – the narrator

    Chaucer himself is a character embarking on the pilgrimage; though the reader should not confuse Chaucer the character with Chaucer the poet. The character is referred to as sociable and innocent, but only by himself. Later in the story, the host accuses him of being sullen and quiet. The profiles Chaucer gives of his fellow pilgrims may be prejudiced due to either Chaucer's memory or his personal taste.

    The Host – Harry Bailly

    Harry Bailly is the innkeeper of the Tabard Inn. He acts as host for the pilgrimage and emcee for the storytelling contest. The host is portrayed as cheerful and welcoming. It is Bailly who suggests that the pilgrims engage in the contest while travelling. He guides the tales throughout the journey, sometimes suggesting their tone or content.

    At other points, Bailly interrupts stories that he feels are being told poorly. Though this may seem annoying he does so with charm and friendliness. Bailly also treats all pilgrims equally, a reflection of his occupation as innkeeper.

    The Knight

    Of the characters to tell a tale, the Knight is the first to be introduced. It is his tale that we first hear. This is because of the Knight's standing among the rest of the pilgrims. He is an old knight, who has taken part in fifteen crusades. Chaucer portrays the Knight as being the chivalric ideal - a perfect gentleman. The Knight is said to be brave, wise and noble. The Knight has a gentle manner and does not like to hear stories of 'tragic falls'.

    The Canterbury Tales, a knight's helmet and sword, StudySmarterFig. 2 - An example of Knight's armour. Possibly what Chaucer's Knight would wear.

    The Wife of Bath

    Named after the English town rather than her husband. The Wife is a seamstress by trade and has married five times. She claims to have had many romances in her youth and is well versed in matters of love and sex. The Wife of Bath loves fine clothes and heated discussion. She is seen as attractive with a gap in her teeth. The Wife is also an experienced pilgrim, having visited Jerusalem three times. She is one of the two female storytellers.

    The Pardoner

    A pardoner is someone who travels around the country selling forgiveness. These would be official pardons from the church and signed by bishops. These roles were often used for exploitation. The Pardoner would frequently collect profits for himself and would sell fraudulent relics. One such relic he claimed was the veil of the Virgin Mary. He has long, greasy hair, a trait that was considered untrustworthy in Chaucer's time.

    The Miller

    Known for his imposing size and physical strength, the Miller is said to have opened doors with the butt of his head. He is intimidating to the other pilgrims, often interrupting their tales. He is seen as a lout and is frequently drunk throughout the journey. The Miller is also corrupt, like the pardoner. He takes a larger than fair profit for his grain. The Miller's tale is one of the more sordid in the collection. It reveals Chaucer's thoughts on the rowdy nature of his social class.

    The Canterbury Tales: list of tales

    Below is a list of some of the more famous tales that appear in The Canterbury Tales;

    • 'The Knight's Tale' 'The Cook's Tale' 'The Man of Law's Tale' 'The Wife of Bath's Tale'
    • 'The Miller's Tale' 'The Reeves Tale' 'The Summoner's Tale' 'The Pardoner's Tale'
    • 'The Friars Tale' 'The Merchant's Tale' 'The Squires' Tale' 'The Second Nun's Tale'

    The Canterbury Tales: Geoffrey Chaucer

    Geoffrey Chaucer was an English poet and civil servant born in the 1340s. His most famous work was The Canterbury Tales but he had many other talents. He was known for his work in philosophy and astronomy and was also a member of parliament. Chaucer also worked as a translator for the King, often travelling through Europe on diplomatic missions.

    As a writer, Chaucer is often thought of as the father of English literature. The Canterbury Tales was one of the first major works written in English. Poetry and romances were traditionally told in French. The Canterbury Tales also exposed audiences to a wider range of medieval society rather than the nobility. His dextrous use of voice and variety of genre was much admired in its time and still is today.

    Geoffrey Chaucer continued to work on The Canterbury Tales up until his death in 1400. He was the first to be buried in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner. His works are still studied around the world today, a legacy lasting over 600 years.

    The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) - Key takeaways

    • The Canterbury Tales is a frame narrative written by Geoffrey Chaucer between the years 1387 and 1400.
    • Geoffrey Chaucer's frame narrative The Canterbury Tales was considered one of the first major works of literature written in Middle English.
    • The Canterbury Tales tells the story of 30 pilgrims travelling to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Thomas Beckett.
    • The pilgrims are invited to partake in a storytelling contest, where each pilgrim shares a story.
    • Geoffrey Chaucer is widely considered the 'Father of English Literature'.
    Frequently Asked Questions about The Canterbury Tales

    What is The Canterbury Tales about?

    The Canterbury Tales tells the story of 30 pilgrims travelling to Canterbury.

    Why is The Canterbury Tales important?

    The Canterbury Tales is important because it is the first major work of literature written in English.

    Is The Canterbury Tales hard to read?

    The Canterbury Tales is written in Middle English, which is very different to the English of today.

    What is the meaning of The Canterbury Tales?

    The Canterbury Tales was written to tell stories from a range of medieval society.

    Why was The Canterbury Tales banned?

    The Canterbury Tales was banned in the United States in 1873 for its 'obscene material'.

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