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  • A portly miller, barely sober enough to sit on his horse,

  • rambles on about the flighty wife of a crotchety old carpenter

  • and the scholar she takes as her lover.

  • To get some time alone together,

  • the scholar and the wife play various tricks

  • that involve feigning madness,

  • staging a biblical flood,

  • and exposing themselves in public.

  • But the parish clerk is also lusting after the wife,

  • and comes by every night to sing outside her house.

  • This becomes so tiresome that she tries to scare him away

  • by hanging her rear end out the window for him to kiss.

  • When this appears not to work,

  • her scholar decides to try farting in the same position,

  • but this time, the clerk is waiting with a red-hot poker.

  • This might all sound like a bawdy joke,

  • but it's part of one of the most esteemed works of English literature ever created:

  • The Canterbury Tales,

  • which seamlessly blends the lofty and the lowly.

  • The work consists of 24 stories,

  • each told by one of Chaucer's spirited characters.

  • Narrators include familiar Medieval figures

  • such as a Knight,

  • a Clerk,

  • and a Nun,

  • and the less recognizable reeve,

  • and Manciple,

  • and others.

  • The Tales are written in Middle English,

  • which often looks entirely different from the language spoken today.

  • It was used between the 12th and 15th centuries, and evolved from Old English

  • due to increased contact with European romantic languages after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

  • Most of the Middle English alphabet is still familiar today,

  • with the inclusion of a few archaic symbols,

  • such as "yogh", which denotes the "y",

  • j,

  • or gh sound.

  • The loquacious cast of the Tales first meet at the Tabard Inn in Southwark.

  • They have a journey in common:

  • a pilgrimage to Canterbury to visit the shrine of St. Thomas Beckett,

  • a martyred archbishop who was murdered in his own Cathedral.

  • Eager and nosy for some personal details, the host of the Inn proposes a competition:

  • whoever tells the best tale will be treated to dinner.

  • If not for their pilgrimage,

  • many of these figures would never have had the chance to interact.

  • This is because Medieval society followed a feudal system

  • that divided the clergy and nobility from the working classes,

  • made up of peasants and serfs.

  • By Chaucer's time,

  • a professional class of merchants and intellectuals had also emerged.

  • Chaucer spent most of his life as a government official during the Hundred Years' War,

  • traveling throughout Italy and France, as well as his native England.

  • This may have influenced the panoramic vision of his work,

  • and in the Tales, no level of society is above mockery.

  • Chaucer uses the quirks of the characters' language

  • the ribald humor of the cook,

  • the solemn prose of the parson,

  • and the lofty notions of the squire

  • to satirize their worldviews.

  • The varied dialects, genres, and literary tropes

  • also make the work a vivid record of the different ways Medieval audiences entertained themselves.

  • For instance, the Knight's tale of courtly love,

  • chivalry,

  • and destiny

  • riffs on romance,

  • while the tales of working-class narrators are generally comedies filled with scatological language,

  • sexual deviance,

  • and slapstick.

  • This variation includes something for everyone,

  • and that's one reason why readers continue to delight in the work in both Middle English and translation.

  • While the narrative runs to over 17,000 lines,

  • it's apparently unfinished,

  • as the prologue ambitiously introduces 29 pilgrims

  • and promises four stories apiece,

  • and the innkeeper never crowns a victor.

  • It's possible that Chaucer was so caught up in his sumptuous creations

  • that he delayed picking a winner -

  • or perhaps he was so fond of each character

  • that he just couldn't choose.

  • Whatever the reason,

  • this means that every reader is free to judge;

  • the question of who wins is up to you.

A portly miller, barely sober enough to sit on his horse,

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B2 US TED-Ed chaucer canterbury clerk medieval scholar

Everything you need to know to read "The Canterbury Tales" - Iseult Gillespie

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    April Lu posted on 2018/10/18
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