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The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, (written c. 1387), is a richly varied compilation of fictional stories as told by a group of twenty-nine persons involved in a religious pilgrimage to Canterbury, England during the fourteenth century. This journey is to take those travelers who desire religious catharsis to the shrine of the holy martyr St. Thomas a Becket of Canterbury. The device of a springtime pilgrimage provided Chaucer with a diverse range of characters and experiences, with him being both a narrator and an observer. Written in Middle English, each tale depicts parables from each traveler.
England, in Chaucer's time, was a nation of social and economic growth. Medievalism was a dominant influence in the lives of Englishmen, but the Renaissance had assumed definite form, and the country stood on the threshold of the modern world. Medieval Europeans asserted that the ideals of spiritual community, social groups and national interests were greater than individualism. In Chaucer's time, there were many manifestations of rebellion against the old order of things, including an influx of mysticism and materialism. People demanded more voice in the affairs of their government and viewed the Catholic Church as corrupt. An emerging religious reformation, which placed emphasis on individualism and national patriotism, along with the upsurge of manufacturing and commerce, gave rise to the English middle class.
The Canterbury Tales is a literary work that deals with the personal concerns and solutions of an evolving Medieval society. In Medieval Europe pilgrimages were common for personal reflection, penance, and spiritual renewal. Chaucer chose the framework of a pilgrimage for its naturally plausible diversity of people and mix of pious purpose and holiday spirit.
Geoffrey Chaucer, England's first great poet, was born in 1343, during a time of social, political, religious and literary ferment. Chaucer, who was the descendent of a prosperous family from Ipswich, received the impetus for writing from fourteenth-century Italian and French poets. Chaucer--whose father was a successful wine dealer in London and whose mother, Agnes de Compton, a member of the English court--was reared in an intellectual environment of high society. He was well educated, having studied at the Universities of the Court. He lived among nobility in his service to the Court.
The project of writing The Canterbury Tales took Chaucer thirteen years of unremitting toil, a work that was both continually evolving and unfinished.
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Chaucer's own affable and delicate social position among the aristocracy led him to never pronounce moral judgments. He uses a cross-section of society for the characters of his pilgrims. Chaucer maintains a conservative and conventional viewpoint in the area of political and social questions. To maintain his social status and impartiality, Chaucer never maligns his contemporaries or church doctrines. He makes generally structured and aesthetic references to government, social class, and the poor. He utilizes classical allusion, subtle satire, irony and allegory to reveal society's shortcomings. The Canterbury Tales parodies individuals and situations, while religious tenets are revered.
In The Prologue, Chaucer introduces the reader to a vivid characterization of each pilgrim and an apt description of the country through the use of poetic rhyme descriptions in iambic pentameter. Through The Prologue the reader can readily see examples of similarities in both appearance and attributes within social classes that exist with each person and upcoming fable. The Prologue also conveys an accounting of medieval life along with the pilgrim's mindset to be expected during the journey. The Prologue is Chaucer's most explicit, admired and commented-upon account of his society. He intentionally has an absence of aristocracy in his group of travelers, and every phase of life in England except royalty is represented. This is illustrated by there being no social rank higher than the Knight, and the lowest social class represented is the Plowman. These are examples of Chaucer being critical of authority figures and heightening the nature and role of the common man.
During the fourteenth century, the literary device of allegory was created. Chaucer relies heavily on allegory in his stories. Even though the events described in The Canterbury Tales are fictional, the stories nevertheless are relevant and sensible. Chaucer's overall main focus of the tales is to give the reader an idea of the ostensible and underlying traits of human nature that were both impacted and illustrated by events during his and previous eras in history.
While Latin was considered the literary language of European literature, Chaucer chose to write in Middle English, the language most often used by the common man. His main audience would have been highly educated, worldly and sophisticated. Chaucer's narrative framework of tales includes a variety of literary genres or types.
For example, Chaucer utilizes courtly romance or the stately love story in the tale of the Knight. By prominence in social rank, the Knight is the first to tell his tale, and receives accolades from his fellow travelers. As a man who fought only in religious wars, he is considered a "genteel" man who loves truth, freedom, chivalry and honor. Chaucer views the attributes of respect and sovereignty as venerable ideals on which all societies and relationships of equality should be based. The Man of Law's and the Squire's tales share the same premises.
The Miller's, Reeve's, and Merchant's tales are to be classified as fabliaux--comic, frank short stories with a cynical and sharp ending. Intended purely for amusement and humor, these vulgar tales of promiscuity did prove offensive to some readers, due to their harsh and ribald content. Fabliaux were popular in medieval story-telling, and they show the continual delight in practical jokes.
The Breton lay--a narrative romantic poem--is illustrated by the Franklin's tale. Chaucer utilizes this rhymed and often sung method to manifest the undaunted patience and nobility of true love, being virtuous in any era.
An exemplum is a short medieval sermon or anecdote which provides examples to depict the theme of the passage, as seen in The Pardoner's tale. Chaucer uses a tragic fable to illustrate a timeless lesson: the love of money is the root of all evil, and those who covet money and covet death will find it.
The Monk's Tale is a medieval tragedy, and also a narrative poem which describes the downfalls of great men such as Samson, Adam and Hercules. These stories are rudimentary parables and provide a well-founded moral in each case. Other types are the Prioress' tale, which demonstrates idealism through a saint's legend. The Wife of Bath's tale provides an original story of a loathsome lady, beautiful in youth and frightful as an old woman, who provides a great comic character, with an idealism of love combined with female domination.
In conclusion, The Canterbury Tales provides the reader with a great scope of stories, which although written simply, give humorous, ironic, and poignant examples of medieval life, some of which may relate to similar moral and ethical dilemmas of the present day and throughout the history of civilization. Since virtually all of the tales are borrowed, Chaucer owed a great deal to the authors who came before him. Chaucer reassembled his material, gave it fresh meanings and revealed new truths, thus giving new insights to his readers. He wished to create a real life setting for his tales to communicate principles and the essential irony of human existence. His goal was to show the humor, sorrow, and foibles of human nature through ordinary people in ordinary circumstances by satirizing or exposing individuals.
Geoffrey Chaucer. Twayne's English Authors Series, Ed. Sylvia Bowman, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1964.
Modern Critical Views: Geoffrey Chaucer, Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.
Pearsall, Derek. The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer. Blackwell Critical Biographies. Ed. Claude Rawson. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992.