Survey of British Literature
The Canterbury Tales take place in England of the 14th century. It is spring time and a group of 30 people from all social classes is gathering together in the Tabard Inn in Southwark near London to plan their pilgrimage to Becket’s tomb at Canterbury. To kill time during their journey a story-telling contest is created. Each pilgrim has to tell a story and the winner of the best story will get a free supper.
About the author
Geoffrey Chaucer (ca 1340-1400) was born in London as the son of John Chaucer and Agnes Copton. His father originally was a wine merchant and became very rich after he inherited the property of relatives who had died in the Black Death of 1349. Because of his rich parents Chaucer was sent as a page to the Countess of Ulster. Later on he served the countess’s husband, Prince Lionel, who was the son of King Edward III. As he was fluent in French, Italian and Latin, he worked as a diplomat where he got to know many influential people.
In 1366 he married Philippa De Roet, lady-in-waiting of the queen. Through this marriage Chaucer had influence in the higher social classes. This knowledge of society made it possible to write the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer went on many diplomatic missions to France, Spain (1366) and Italy (1372/73/78). On these travells he gained knowledge about works of Dante Aligherie (1265-1321), an Italian poet who wrote “La Divina Commedia”. He also got to know the works of Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), who was an Italian poet and humanist and famous for the form of his sonnetts. On his two trips to Italy Chaucer might have met Boccaccio, the author of “Il Decamerone”, which is a collection of narrations but structured as a novella. All of these works influenced those of Chaucer.
Between 1374 and 1386 he worked as Controller of the Customs of Hides, Skins and wools in the port of London, which was a most attractive position. After that he went to Kent, the county in which Canterbury is located and where he began writing the Canterbury Tales.
The language of Chaucer
After Chaucer had retired about 1390 he began working on the Canterbury Tales: his innovation was that he wanted to create an English poetry that would be accessible to everybody. Until then most of literature was either written in French, the official language, or in Latin, the clerical language. Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales in Middle Enlish, which was what people spoke in and around London in his days. This vernacular language was also used by Dante and Boccaccio, who wrote in Italian vernacular.
Middle English is very close to Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons, and Norman French, the language of William the Conqueror. Nevertheless students often read the original also because of the language’s beauty and humor of the poetry, which would be lost in translation.
When the language changed in 1400 it was not until the 18th century that Chaucer’s metrical technique was appriciated. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were a great success and the first major secular work that was printed in 1478 after this technique was introduced by Caxton in England.
As John Dryden says:
“…he is the father of English poetry, I hold him in the same degree of veneration as the Grecians held Homer, or the Romans Vigil. […] he has taken into the compass of his Canterbury Tales the various manners and humors […] of the whole English nation in his age. Not a single character has escaped him…”
The Canterbury Tales are structured as a frame narrative. The General Prologue mainly builds the frame where all the characters are introduced and the story-telling competition was invented.
Its structure is very simple. After an introduction in lines 1-34, the narrator begins the series of portraits (lines 35-719). Afterwards the Host
suggests the tale-telling contest which is then accepted by the pilgrims (lines 720-821). In the following the pilgrims gather and decide that the Knight should tell the first story.