Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales as a Written Monument of Middle English

September 15th, 20112:56 pm

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Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales as a Written Monument of Middle English

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 collection of pilgrims on a pilgrimage from Southward to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

The pilgrims agree to tell four stories each, two on the way to Canterbury, and two on the way back. The person who tells the best story, as determined by the host, will have his way paid by the rest of the group. Actually, no winner is chosen by the host in the end, and only a few of the pilgrims have told their tales by the time the story ends. Chaucer ends the work with a retraction apologising for anything in the stories which may have been inappropriate.

The Canterbury Tales are written in Middle English. The work on the poem as a whole probably began in the late 1380s and continued as Chaucer neared his death in the year 1400. A total of 83 medieval manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales are known to exist, more than any other vernacular medieval literary work except The Prick of Conscience. This is taken as evidence of the tales’ popularity during the 15th century. Fifty-five of these manuscripts are thought to have once been complete, while 28 more are so fragmentary that it is difficult to tell whether they were copied individually or were part of a larger set.

No official, complete version of the Tales exists and it is impossible with the information available to determine the order Chaucer intended them to be placed in or even, in some cases, whether he even had any intention in mind.

Canterbury Tales falls into the same category or genre as many other works of its day as a collection of stories organized into a frame narrative or frame tale. Chaucer’s Tales differed from other stories in this genre chiefly in its intense variation, not only in theme, but in the social class of the tellers and the meter and style of each story told. The idea of a pilgrimage appears to have been a useful device to get such a diverse collection of people together for literary purposes, and was also unprecedented. Lastly, Chaucer does not pay much attention to the progress of the trip, to the time passing as the pilgrims travel, or specific locations along the way to Canterbury. His writing of the story seems focused primarily on the stories being told, and not on the pilgrimage itself.

The themes of the tales vary, and include topics such as courtly love, treachery, and avarice. Religious malpractice is also a major theme. The genres also vary, and include romance, Breton lai, sermon, beast fable, and fabliaux. Some of the tales are serious and others comical.

Though there is an overall frame, there is no single poetic structure to the work; Chaucer utilizes a variety of rhyme schemes and metrical patterns, and there are also two prose tales.

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