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The Canterbury Tales

From Academic Kids

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Canterbury Tales Woodcut 1484

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 Becket's at Canterbury Cathedral. (The shrine was later destroyed by Henry VIII; a visitor attraction called The Canterbury Tales may nowadays be seen in Canterbury). The Canterbury Tales are written in Middle English.

Contents

The individual tales

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.

The Tales include:

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Portrait of Chaucer as a Canterbury pilgrim in the Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales

Some of the tales are serious and others are humorous; however, all are very precise in describing the traits and faults of human nature. Religious malpractice is a major theme. Another important element of the tales is their focus 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 on hundred and twenty tales which would have dwarfed the existing twenty-six 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 provable, 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 complete work

The work was begun some time in the 1380s and Chaucer stopped working on it in the late 1390s. It was not written down fully conceived as it seems to have had many revisions with the addition of new tales at various times. It has been suggested that the unfinished state in which it comes down to us was actually deliberate on Chaucer's part and it should be noted that the plan for one hundred and twenty tales is actually from the general prologue. It is announced by Harry Bailly, the host, that there will be four tales each and this is not necessarily the opinion of Chaucer himself; who appears as the only character to tell more then one tale.

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, five men and five women all well off nobles, 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 and their personalities show through, both in their choices of tales but also in the way they tell them.

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 it seems much more like a tourist's jaunt. Chaucer 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.

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 tales although the above listing is perhaps the most common in modern times. The exception to the separated nature of the fragments are fragments IX and X. The Manciple's tale is the last tale in XI but fragment X starts with the parson's prologue by saying the Manciple had finished his tale. The reason that they are kept as two different fragments is that the Manciple starts his short tale in the morning but the parson's tale is told at four in the afternoon. It is assumed that Chaucer would have amended his manuscript or inserted more tales to fill the time.

Two early manuscripts of the tale are the Hengwrt manuscript and the Ellesmere manuscript.

Significance

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.

The title of the work has become an everyday phrase in the language and has been variously adapted and adopted. Recently an animated version of some of the tales has been produced for British television. As well as a version with Modern English dialogue, there were versions in the original Middle English and Welsh.

The postulated return journey has intrigued many and continuations have been written as well as tales written for the characters who are mentioned but not given a chance to speak. The Tale of Beryn is a tale by an anonymous author within a 15th century manuscript of the work. The tales are rearranged and there are some interludes in Canterbury, which they had finally reached, and Beryn is the first tale on the return journey, told by the Merchant. John Lydgate's Siege of Thebes is also a depiction of the return journey but the tales themselves are actually prequels to the tale of classical origin told by the Knight in Chaucer's work.

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.

External links

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