Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • The Canterbury Tales The Canterbury Tales is a collection of over

  • 20 stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century, during

  • the time of the Hundred Years' War. The tales are presented as part of a story-telling contest

  • by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine

  • of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The prize for this contest is a free meal

  • at the Tabard Inn at Southwark on their return. After a long list of works written earlier

  • in his career, including Troilus and Criseyde, House of Fame, and "Parliament of Fowls",

  • The Canterbury Tales was Chaucer's magnum opus. He uses the tales and the descriptions

  • of its characters to paint an ironic and critical portrait of English society at the time, and

  • particularly of the Church. Structurally, the collection resembles The Decameron, which

  • Chaucer may have read during his first diplomatic mission to Italy in 1372.

  • It is sometimes argued that the greatest contribution that this work made to English literature

  • was in popularising the literary use of the vernacular, English, rather than French or

  • Latin. English had, however, been used as a literary language for centuries before Chaucer's

  • life, and several of Chaucer's contemporariesJohn Gower, William Langland, and the Pearl Poetalso

  • wrote major literary works in English. It is unclear to what extent Chaucer was responsible

  • for starting a trend rather than simply being part of it.

  • While Chaucer clearly states the addressees of many of his poems, the intended audience

  • of The Canterbury Tales is more difficult to determine. Chaucer was a courtier, leading

  • some to believe that he was mainly a court poet who wrote exclusively for nobility.

  • Text The question of whether The Canterbury Tales

  • is finished has not yet been answered. There are 83 known manuscripts of the work from

  • the late medieval and early Renaissance period, more than any other vernacular literary text

  • with the exception of The Prick of Conscience. This is taken as evidence of the tales' popularity

  • during the century after Chaucer's death. Fifty-five of these manuscripts are thought

  • to have been complete at one time, while 28 are so fragmentary that it is difficult to

  • ascertain whether they were copied individually or as part of a set. The Tales vary in both

  • minor and major ways from manuscript to manuscript; many of the minor variations are due to copyists'

  • errors, while others suggest that Chaucer added to and revised his work as it was being

  • copied and (possibly) distributed. Even the earliest surviving manuscripts are

  • not Chaucer's originals, the oldest being MS Peniarth 392 D (called "Hengwrt"), compiled

  • by a scribe shortly after Chaucer's death. The most beautiful of the manuscripts of the

  • tales is the Ellesmere Manuscript, and many editors have followed the order of the Ellesmere

  • over the centuries, even down to the present day. The first version of The Canterbury Tales

  • to be published in print was William Caxton's 1478 edition. Since this print edition was

  • created from a now-lost manuscript, it is counted as among the 83 manuscripts.

  • Order No authorial, arguably complete version of

  • the Tales exists and no consensus has been reached regarding the order in which Chaucer

  • intended the stories to be placed. Textual and manuscript clues have been adduced

  • to support the two most popular modern methods of ordering the tales. Some scholarly editions

  • divide the Tales into ten "Fragments". The tales that comprise a Fragment are closely

  • related and contain internal indications of their order of presentation, usually with

  • one character speaking to and then stepping aside for another character. However, between

  • Fragments, the connection is less obvious. Consequently, there are several possible orders;

  • the one most frequently seen in modern editions follows the numbering of the Fragments (ultimately

  • based on the Ellesmere order). Victorians frequently used the nine "Groups", which was

  • the order used by Walter William Skeat whose edition Chaucer: Complete Works was used by

  • Oxford University Press for most of the twentieth century, but this order is now seldom followed.

  • An alternative ordering (seen in an early manuscript containing the Canterbury Tales,

  • the early-fifteenth century Harley MS. 7334) places Fragment VIII before VI. Fragments

  • I and II almost always follow each other, as do VI and VII, IX and X in the oldest manuscripts.

  • Fragments IV and V, by contrast are located in varying locations from manuscript to manuscript.

  • Language Although no manuscript exists in Chaucer's

  • own hand, two were copied around the time of his death by Adam Pinkhurst, a scribe with

  • whom he seems to have worked closely before, giving a high degree of confidence that Chaucer

  • himself wrote the Tales. Chaucer's generation of English-speakers was among the last to

  • pronounce e at the end of words (so for Chaucer the word "care" was pronounced, not /ˈkɛər/

  • as in modern English). This meant that later copyists tended to be inconsistent in their

  • copying of final -e and this for many years gave scholars the impression that Chaucer

  • himself was inconsistent in using it. It has now been established, however, that -e was

  • an important part of Chaucer's morphology (having a role in distinguishing, for example,

  • singular adjectives from plural and subjunctive verbs from indicative). The pronunciation

  • of Chaucer's writing otherwise differs most prominently from Modern English in that his

  • language had not undergone the Great Vowel Shift: pronouncing Chaucer's vowels as they

  • would be pronounced today in European languages like Italian, Spanish or German generally

  • produces pronunciations more like Chaucer's own than Modern English pronunciation would.

  • In addition, sounds now written in English but not pronounced were still pronounced by

  • Chaucer: the word less than knightgreater than for Chaucer was, not. The pronunciation

  • of Chaucer's poetry can now be reconstructed fairly confidently through detailed philological

  • research; the following gives an IPA reconstruction of the opening lines of The Merchant's Prologue;

  • it is likely, moreover, that when a word ending in a vowel was followed by a word beginning

  • in a vowel, the two vowels were elided into one syllable, as seen here (with care and...):

  • Sources No other work prior to Chaucer's is known

  • to have set a collection of tales within the framework of pilgrims on a pilgrimage. It

  • is obvious, however, that Chaucer borrowed portions, sometimes very large portions, of

  • his stories from earlier stories, and that his work was influenced by the general state

  • of the literary world in which he lived. Storytelling was the main entertainment in England at the

  • time, and storytelling contests had been around for hundreds of years. In 14th-century England

  • the English Pui was a group with an appointed leader who would judge the songs of the group.

  • The winner received a crown and, as with the winner of the Canterbury Tales, a free dinner.

  • It was common for pilgrims on a pilgrimage to have a chosen "master of ceremonies" to

  • guide them and organise the journey. Harold Bloom suggests that the structure is mostly

  • original, but inspired by the "pilgrim" figures of Dante and Virgil in The Divine Comedy.

  • The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio contains more parallels to the Canterbury Tales than

  • any other work. Like the Tales, it features a number of narrators who tell stories along

  • a journey they have undertaken (to flee from the Black Plague). It ends with an apology

  • by Boccaccio, much like Chaucer's Retraction to the Tales. A quarter of the tales in Canterbury

  • Tales parallel a tale in the Decameron, although most of them have closer parallels in other

  • stories. Some scholars thus find it unlikely that Chaucer had a copy of the work on hand,

  • surmising instead that he must have merely read the Decameron at some point. Each of

  • the tales has its own set of sources which have been suggested by scholars, but a few

  • sources are used frequently over several tales. These include poetry by Ovid, the Bible in

  • one of the many vulgate versions it was available in at the time (the exact one is difficult

  • to determine), and the works of Petrarch and Dante. Chaucer was the first author to utilise

  • the work of these last two, both Italians. Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy appears

  • in several tales, as do the works of John Gower, a known friend to Chaucer. A full list

  • is impossible to outline in little space, but Chaucer also, lastly, seems to have borrowed

  • from numerous religious encyclopaedias and liturgical writings, such as John Bromyard's

  • Summa praedicantium, a preacher's handbook, and Jerome's Adversus Jovinianum. Many scholars

  • say there is a good possibility Chaucer met Petrarch or Boccaccio.

  • Genre and structure Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories

  • built around a frame narrative or frame tale, a common and already long established genre

  • of its period. Chaucer's Tales differs from most other story "collections" in this genre

  • chiefly in its intense variation. Most story collections focused on a theme, usually a

  • religious one. Even in the Decameron, storytellers are encouraged to stick to the theme decided

  • on for the day. The idea of a pilgrimage to get such a diverse collection of people together

  • for literary purposes was also unprecedented, though "the association of pilgrims and storytelling

  • was a familiar one". Introducing a competition among the tales encourages the reader to compare

  • the tales in all their variety, and allows Chaucer to showcase the breadth of his skill

  • in different genres and literary forms. While the structure of the Tales is largely

  • linear, with one story following another, it is also much more than that. In the General

  • Prologue, Chaucer describes, not the tales to be told, but the people who will tell them,

  • making it clear that structure will depend on the characters rather than a general theme

  • or moral. This idea is reinforced when the Miller interrupts to tell his tale after the

  • Knight has finished his. Having the Knight go first, gives one the idea that all will

  • tell their stories by class, with the Knight going first, followed by the Monk, but the

  • Miller's interruption makes it clear that this structure will be abandoned in favour

  • of a free and open exchange of stories among all classes present. General themes and points

  • of view arise as tales are told which are responded to by other characters in their

  • own tales, sometimes after a long lapse in which the theme has not been addressed.

  • 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.

  • Style The variety of Chaucer's tales shows the breadth

  • of his skill and his familiarity with countless rhetorical forms and linguistic styles. Medieval

  • schools of rhetoric at the time encouraged such diversity, dividing literature (as Virgil

  • suggests) into high, middle, and low styles as measured by the density of rhetorical forms

  • and vocabulary. Another popular method of division came from St. Augustine, who focused

  • more on audience response and less on subject matter (a Virgilian concern). Augustine divided

  • literature into "majestic persuades", "temperate pleases", and "subdued teaches". Writers were

  • encouraged to write in a way that kept in mind the speaker, subject, audience, purpose,

  • manner, and occasion. Chaucer moves freely between all of these styles, showing favouritism

  • to none. He not only considers the readers of his work as an audience, but the other

  • pilgrims within the story as well, creating a multi-layered rhetorical puzzle of ambiguities.

  • Chaucer's work thus far surpasses the ability of any single medieval theory to uncover.

  • With this Chaucer avoids targeting any specific audience or social class of readers, focusing

  • instead on the characters of the story and writing their tales with a skill proportional

  • to their social status and learning. However, even the lowest characters, such as the Miller,

  • show surprising rhetorical ability, although their subject matter is more lowbrow. Vocabulary

  • also plays an important part, as those of the higher classes refer to a woman as a "lady",

  • while the lower classes use the word "wenche", with no exceptions. At times the same word

  • will mean entirely different things between classes. The word "pitee", for example, is

  • a noble concept to the upper classes, while in the Merchant's Tale it refers to sexual

  • intercourse. Again, however, tales such as the Nun's Priest's Tale show surprising skill

  • with words among the lower classes of the group, while the Knight's Tale is at times

  • extremely simple. Chaucer uses the same meter throughout almost

  • all of his tales, with the exception of Sir Thopas and his prose tales. It is a decasyllable

  • line, probably borrowed from French and Italian forms, with riding rhyme and, occasionally,

  • a caesura in the middle of a line. His meter would later develop into the heroic meter

  • of the 15th and 16th centuries and is an ancestor of iambic pentameter. He avoids allowing couplets

  • to become too prominent in the poem, and four of the tales (the Man of Law's, Clerk's, Prioress',

  • and Second Nun's) use rhyme royal. Historical context and themes

  • The Canterbury Tales was written during a turbulent time in English history. The Catholic

  • Church was in the midst of the Western Schism and, though it was still the only Christian

  • authority in Europe, was the subject of heavy controversy. Lollardy, an early English religious

  • movement led by John Wycliffe, is mentioned in the Tales, as is a specific incident involving

  • pardoners (who gathered money in exchange for absolution from sin) who nefariously claimed