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The Canterbury Tales

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 group of pilgrims on their way from Southwark to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The Canterbury Tales are written in Middle English.

The themes of the tales vary, and include topics such as courtly love, treachery and avarice. The genres also vary, and include romance, Breton lai, sermon, and fabliau. The characters, introduced in the General Prologue of the book, tell tales of great cultural relevance.

Chaucer

Some of the tales are serious and others humorous; however, all are very precise in describing the traits and faults of human nature. Religious malpractice is a major theme as well as focusing on the division of the three estates. Most of the tales are interlinked with similar themes running through them and some are told in retaliation for other tales in the form of an argument. 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. This would have meant a possible 120 tales, which would have dwarfed the 26 tales actually written.

People have sought political overtones within the tales, particularly as Chaucer himself was a significant courtier and political figure at the time, close to the corridors of power. There are many hints at contemporary events, although few are proven, and the theme of marriage common in the tales is presumed to refer to several different marriages, most often those of John of Gaunt. Aside from Chaucer himself, Harry Bailly of the Tabard Inn was a real person and the Cook has been identified as quite likely to be Roger Knight de Ware, a contemporary London cook.

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 covert in nature.

The idea of a pilgrimage appears to have been mainly a useful device to get such a diverse collection of people together for literary purposes. The Monk would probably not be allowed to undertake the pilgrimage and some of the other characters would be unlikely ever to want to attend. Also all of the pilgrims ride horses, there is no suggestion of them suffering for their religion. None of the popular shrines along the way are visited and there is no suggestion that anyone attends mass, so that it seems much more like a tourist's jaunt.

ChaucerChaucer does not pay that much attention to the progress of the trip. He hints that the tales take several days but he does not detail any overnight stays. Although the journey could be done in one day this speed would make telling tales difficult and three to four days was the usual duration for such pilgrimages. The 18th of April is mentioned in the tales and Walter William Skeat, a 19th century editor, determined 17 April 1387 as the probable first day of the tales.

The work was begun some time in the 1380s with Chaucer stopping work on it in the late 1390s. It was not written down fully conceived: it seems to have had many revisions with the addition of new tales at various times. The plan for 120 tales is from the general prologue. It is announced by Harry Bailly, the host, that there will be four tales each. This is not necessarily the opinion of Chaucer himself, who appears as the only character to tell more than one tale. It has been suggested that the unfinished state was deliberate on Chaucer's part.

The structure of The Canterbury Tales is easy to find in other contemporary works, such as The Book of Good Love by Juan Ruiz and Boccaccio's Decameron, which may have been one of Chaucer's main sources of inspiration. Chaucer indeed adapted several of Boccaccio's stories to put in the mouths of his own pilgrims, but what sets Chaucer's work apart from his contemporaries' is his characters. Compared to Boccaccio's main characters -- seven women and three men, all young, fresh and well-to-do, and given Classical names -- the characters in Chaucer are of extremely varied stock, including representatives of most of the branches of the middle classes at that time. Not only are the participants very different, but they tell very different types of tales, with their personalities showing through both in their choices of tales and in the way they tell them.

It is sometimes argued that the greatest contribution that this work made to English literature was in popularising the literary use of the vernacular language, English (rather than French or Latin). However, several of Chaucer's contemporaries -- John Gower, William Langland, and the Pearl Poet -- also wrote major literary works in English, making it unclear how much Chaucer was responsible for starting a trend rather than simply being part of it.

Two early manuscripts of the tale are the Hengwrt manuscript and the Ellesmere manuscript. Altogether, the Tales survives in 84 manuscripts and four printed editions dating from before 1500. In 2004, Professor Linne Mooney was able to identify the scrivener who worked for Chaucer as an Adam Pinkhurst. Professor Mooney, working at the University of 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.

Scholars divide the tales into ten fragments. The tales that make up a fragment are directly connected, usually with one character speaking to and handing over to another character, but there is no connection between most of the other fragments. This means that there are several possible permutations for the order of the fragments and consequently the tales themselves. The listing below is perhaps the most common in modern times. It is assumed that Chaucer would have amended his manuscript or inserted more tales to fill the time.

The Tales:

  • The General Prologue
  • The Knight's Tale
  • The Miller's Prologue and Tale
  • The Reeve's Prologue and Tale
  • The Cook's Prologue and Tale
  • The Man of Law's Prologue and Tale
  • The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale
  • The Friar's Prologue and Tale
  • The Summoner's Prologue and Tale
  • The Clerk's Prologue and Tale
  • The Merchant's Prologue and Tale
  • The Squire's Prologue and Tale
  • The Franklin's Prologue and Tale
  • The Physician's Tale
  • The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale
  • The Shipman's Tale
  • The Prioress' Prologue and Tale
  • Chaucer's Tale of Sir Topas
  • The Tale of Melibee
  • The Monk's Prologue and Tale
  • The Nun's Priest's Prologue and Tale
  • The Second Nun's Prologue and Tale
  • The Canon's Yeoman's Prologue and Tale
  • The Manciple's Prologue and Tale
  • The Parson's Prologue and Tale
  • Chaucer's Retraction

Related Articles:

Canterbury: Still the Perfect Pilgrimage!, by Julia Hickey
http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/towns/canterbury.shtml

Canterbury Cathedral, by John P. Seely
http://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/churches/canterbury.shtml

More Information:

Canterbury Tales on Project Gutenberg
http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2383

Caxton's Chaucer
Images of William Caxton's two editions of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, probably printed in 1476 and 1483. The originals are both in the British Library.
http://www.bl.uk/treasures/caxton/homepage.html

Caxton's Chaucer
A site that gives you the pages from Caxton's publication of Canterbury Tales with the transliterated text (i.e., a bit more readable).
http://www.cts.dmu.ac.uk/Caxtons/

Canterbury Tales
A modern English translation.
http://www.librarius.com/

Article reprinted from Wikipedia.org

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