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Articles

  1. T H E C A N T E R B U R Y T A L E S
  2. The Canterbury Tales is our reading group book for September
  3. Stephen Rigby
  4. BBC - History - Geoffrey Chaucer

T H E C A N T E R B U R Y T A L E S

There are 84 manuscripts and four incunabula printed before c editions of the work, dating from the late medieval and early Renaissance periods, more than for 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. Determining the text of the work is complicated by the question of the narrator's voice which Chaucer made part of his literary structure.

Even the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Tales are not Chaucer's originals. The most beautiful, on the other hand, is the Ellesmere Manuscript , a manuscript handwritten by one person with illustrations by several illustrators; the tales are put in an order that many later editors have followed for centuries. Only 10 copies of this edition are known to exist, including one held by the British Library and one held by the Folger Shakespeare Library.

In , Linne Mooney claimed that she was able to identify the scrivener who worked for Chaucer as an Adam Pinkhurst. Mooney, then a professor at the University of Maine and a visiting fellow at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge , said she could match Pinkhurst's signature, on an oath he signed, to his handwriting on a copy of The Canterbury Tales that might have been transcribed from Chaucer's working copy. In the absence of consensus as to whether or not a complete version of the Tales exists, there is also no general agreement 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 make up 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.

An alternative ordering seen in an early manuscript containing The Canterbury Tales , the early-fifteenth century Harley MS. Fragments IV and V, by contrast, vary in location from manuscript to manuscript. Chaucer wrote in a London dialect of late Middle English, which has clear differences from Modern English. From philological research, we know some facts about the pronunciation of English during the time of Chaucer.

In some cases, vowel letters in Middle English were pronounced very differently from Modern English, because the Great Vowel Shift had not yet happened. 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 may have worked closely before, giving a high degree of confidence that Chaucer himself wrote the Tales. 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. Like the Tales , it features a number of narrators who tell stories along a journey they have undertaken to flee from the Black Death. It ends with an apology by Boccaccio, much like Chaucer's Retraction to the Tales.

A quarter of the tales in The 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 may have merely read the Decameron at some point. They include poetry by Ovid , the Bible in one of the many vulgate versions in which it was available at the time the exact one is difficult to determine , and the works of Petrarch and Dante.

Chaucer was the first author to use the work of these last two, both Italians.

The Canterbury Tales is our reading group book for September

Boethius ' Consolation of Philosophy appears in several tales, as the works of John Gower do. Gower was 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.

The 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.


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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". 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 Monk following the Knight. However, 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 the characters tell their tales, 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 to 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. The variety of Chaucer's tales shows the breadth of his skill and his familiarity with many literary forms, linguistic styles, and rhetorical devices.

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. Thus Chaucer's work 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.

The Canterbury Tales was written during a turbulent time in English history. The Catholic Church was in the midst of the Western Schism and, although it was still the only Christian authority in Western Europe, it was the subject of heavy controversy. Lollardy , an early English religious movement led by John Wycliffe , is mentioned in the Tales , which also mention a specific incident involving pardoners sellers of indulgences , which were believed to relieve the temporal punishment due for sins that were already forgiven in the Sacrament of Confession who nefariously claimed to be collecting for St.

Mary Rouncesval hospital in England. The Canterbury Tales is among the first English literary works to mention paper, a relatively new invention that allowed dissemination of the written word never before seen in England. Political clashes, such as the Peasants' Revolt and clashes ending in the deposing of King Richard II , further reveal the complex turmoil surrounding Chaucer in the time of the Tales' writing. Many of his close friends were executed and he himself moved to Kent to get away from events in London. While some readers look to interpret the characters of The Canterbury Tales as historical figures, other readers choose to interpret its significance in less literal terms.

After analysis of Chaucer's diction and historical context, his work appears to develop a critique of society during his lifetime. Within a number of his descriptions, his comments can appear complimentary in nature, but through clever language, the statements are ultimately critical of the pilgrim's actions.

It is unclear whether Chaucer would intend for the reader to link his characters with actual persons. Instead, it appears that Chaucer creates fictional characters to be general representations of people in such fields of work.

Chaucer, Lesson 1: Historical Context for the Canterbury Tales

With an understanding of medieval society, one can detect subtle satire at work. The Tales reflect diverse views of the Church in Chaucer's England. After the Black Death , many Europeans began to question the authority of the established Church. Some turned to lollardy , while others chose less extreme paths, starting new monastic orders or smaller movements exposing church corruption in the behaviour of the clergy, false church relics or abuse of indulgences.

Two characters, the Pardoner and the Summoner, whose roles apply the Church's secular power, are both portrayed as deeply corrupt, greedy, and abusive. Pardoners in Chaucer's day were those people from whom one bought Church "indulgences" for forgiveness of sins, who were guilty of abusing their office for their own gain.

Stephen Rigby

Chaucer's Pardoner openly admits the corruption of his practice while hawking his wares. Corrupt summoners would write false citations and frighten people into bribing them to protect their interests. Chaucer's Summoner is portrayed as guilty of the very kinds of sins for which he is threatening to bring others to court, and is hinted as having a corrupt relationship with the Pardoner. Monastic orders, which originated from a desire to follow an ascetic lifestyle separated from the world, had by Chaucer's time become increasingly entangled in worldly matters.

Monasteries frequently controlled huge tracts of land on which they made significant sums of money, while peasants worked in their employ. The Monk and the Prioress, on the other hand, while not as corrupt as the Summoner or Pardoner, fall far short of the ideal for their orders. Both are expensively dressed, show signs of lives of luxury and flirtatiousness and show a lack of spiritual depth.

BBC - History - Geoffrey Chaucer

Pilgrimage was a very prominent feature of medieval society. The ultimate pilgrimage destination was Jerusalem, [50] but within England Canterbury was a popular destination. Pilgrims would journey to cathedrals that preserved relics of saints, believing that such relics held miraculous powers.

Miracle stories connected to his remains sprang up soon after his death, and the cathedral became a popular pilgrimage destination. The upper class or nobility, represented chiefly by the Knight and his Squire, was in Chaucer's time steeped in a culture of chivalry and courtliness. Nobles were expected to be powerful warriors who could be ruthless on the battlefield yet mannerly in the King's Court and Christian in their actions.

Church leaders frequently tried to place restrictions on jousts and tournaments, which at times ended in the death of the loser. The Knight's Tale shows how the brotherly love of two fellow knights turns into a deadly feud at the sight of a woman whom both idealise. To win her, both are willing to fight to the death. Chivalry was on the decline in Chaucer's day, and it is possible that The Knight's Tale was intended to show its flaws, although this is disputed.

Both tales seem to focus on the ill-effects of chivalry—the first making fun of chivalric rules and the second warning against violence. The Tales constantly reflect the conflict between classes. For example, the division of the three estates : the characters are all divided into three distinct classes, the classes being "those who pray" the clergy , "those who fight" the nobility , and "those who work" the commoners and peasantry.

Convention is followed when the Knight begins the game with a tale, as he represents the highest social class in the group. But when he is followed by the Miller, who represents a lower class, it sets the stage for the Tales to reflect both a respect for and a disregard for upper class rules.

Helen Cooper, as well as Mikhail Bakhtin and Derek Brewer, call this opposition "the ordered and the grotesque, Lent and Carnival , officially approved culture and its riotous, and high-spirited underside. Chaucer's characters each express different—sometimes vastly different—views of reality, creating an atmosphere of testing , empathy , and relativism.

The concept of liminality figures prominently within The Canterbury Tales. Thus, the structure of The Canterbury Tales itself is liminal; it not only covers the distance between London and Canterbury, but the majority of the tales refer to places entirely outside the geography of the pilgrimage. Jean Jost summarises the function of liminality in The Canterbury Tales ,. Both appropriately and ironically in this raucous and subversive liminal space, a ragtag assembly gather together and tell their equally unconventional tales. In this unruly place, the rules of tale telling are established, themselves to be both disordered and broken; here the tales of game and earnest, solas and sentence, will be set and interrupted.

Here the sacred and profane adventure begins, but does not end. Here, the condition of peril is as prominent as that of protection. The act of pilgrimaging itself consists of moving from one urban space, through liminal rural space, to the next urban space with an ever fluctuating series of events and narratives punctuating those spaces. The goal of pilgrimage may well be a religious or spiritual space at its conclusion, and reflect a psychological progression of the spirit, in yet another kind of emotional space.

Liminality is also evident in the individual tales. 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 contemporaries— John Gower , William Langland , and the Pearl Poet —also 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 Book of the Duchess is believed to have been written for John of Gaunt on the occasion of his wife's death in , 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 the nobility.

He is referred to as a noble translator and poet by Eustache Deschamps and by his contemporary John Gower. It has been suggested that the poem was intended to be read aloud, which is probable as this was a common activity at the time. However, it also seems to have been intended for private reading as well, since Chaucer frequently refers to himself as the writer, rather than the speaker, of the work.

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