The Canterbury Tales What is the book about? What are some significant historical issues? What are important stylistic elements? Why is The Canterbury Tales important in the development of the English language?
What is the book about? • The Canterbury Tales is a series of 24 tales told by a vast representation of late Middle Age English folk on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, mid-April, 1387.* • They agree to engage in a storytelling contest, mediated by the owner of the pub where they first meet, located in Southwark, just over the London Bridge. • They are heading to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket, the archbishop murdered there on Christmas, 1170, by the knights of Henry II. ** • Originally, it was meant to contain two tales going to the cathedral, and two coming back, as told by each pilgrim, but Chaucer never finished the work, and of the thirty pilgrims, we hear from only these 24, going.
Historic Elements • Recall that Thomas à Becket was murdered because he refused to appease Henry II by petitioning Rome to get rid of the ecclesiastic courts – or at least to put Henry in charge of them. • Thomas is considered a martyr for the Church and was almost immediately canonized. Twelve miracles quickly came to light that he had performed, which are presented in beautiful stained glass windows in the cathedral.* • By the time Chaucer is writing The Canterbury Tales, about 200 years later, society is not exactly so pious…
Historic Elements • The pilgrims in Chaucer’s work are truly a motley group. The Canterbury Tales represents a vast representation of people and occupations from the late Middle Ages in England. Historians have looked to the Prologue to discover aspects of medieval life, including what people did and how they thought. • The changes from the medieval world to the ideology of the Renaissance are beginning, and these are represented in the attitudes of the pilgrims in TheCanterbury Tales.
Historic Elements Some of these changes include: • Social mobility • Physical mobility • Ideals of love • The role of women • The changes in attitude towards the church • Changing attitudes towards the notion of divine rights of kings and nobles, fueled by the 100 Years’ War and the earlier Crusades disaster. The House of Commons gains considerable power during the reign of Edward III.*
Historic Elements • The Catholic Church was suffering from corruption, particularly from offences highlighted in The Canterbury Tales, including selling of indulgences and other individual transgressions. • 1303-1377 the Avignon Papacy, resulting from the corruption of the office of the Pope, Clement V moved to Avignon, France. This is followed by the Great Western Schism (1378-1417) There were two, then three popes! • John Wycliffe (1330-1384)… rumblings of the Protestant Reformation: Separation of church and state – or at least of church and wealth! His followers were called “lollards” (mumblers).
Historic Elements • 100Years’ War: (1294-1444) Long conflict between England and France. English kings wanted to be monarchs of England and France, and visa versa. This conflict intensified under Edward III, during Chaucer’s lifetime, and included conflicts with Scots, Irish and Welsh. (Braveheart. Henry V. Joan of Arc.) England was still struggling to be English. Chaucer sees first-hand the folly of this dispute. • Ravages of the Black Plague in the 13th and 14th centuries increase the property – and prosperity of farmers. Perpetual need for workers leads to commuting labor force…It indirectly leads to the…
Historic Elements • Peasant’s Revolt (1381) which was waged against unfair limiting of wages and taxes on the workers. It’s an early struggle against feudalism, and forced the young king, Richard II, to negotiate with the common people. (All promises made to Wat Tyler are immediately rescinded, and he and his cohorts are executed.) The Plague also leads the population to question faith and the “chain of being” for Death is a great equalizer. • Prosperity spreads: commerce and knowledge increase social mobility.
Historic Elements • Accomplishments in the Arab world begin to spread to Europe from the Arab conquest of Spain (Convivencia) and Crusades onward: try as it might, the Church cannot maintain control of advanced knowledge in astronomy, navigation, mathematics, medicine, technology, architecture, and literature.* Chaucer, a polymath and scholar, reflected this influence in his work. He left unfinished a translation from Latin of a Treatise on the Astrolabe into Middle English, and tips his hat to many of the scholars of the Arab world in the Canterbury Tales.
Historic Elements • Advancements in medicine, unfortunately for Europe, would not progress until well into the 19th Century. Europeans generally had a fascination for this forbidden knowledge, portrayed as witchcraft by the Church, eager to discredit Islam. • Chaucer’s narrative itself reflects the storytelling style of Arab literature, such as The Thousand and One Nights. And, his Franklin’s Tale exposes some of the knowledge he may have gleaned from his study of Arab texts on astronomy.
Historic Elements • Many folks took pilgrimages to make business connections, meet potential mates, appease an irate wife or boss, or to advance your social position – or for entertainment! Remember, society was changing! • In England today, the smaller roads from Southwark to Canterbury * are still lined with pubs, which offered the pilgrims of Chaucer’s time lodging, libations, and sometimes other worldly pleasures… • The pilgrims of the time could also get little pins to wear that said, basically, “I went on a pilgrimage to Canterbury!” and other kitschy things that are now in the British Museum!
Stylistic Elements • Chaucer uses narrative voice to its fullest potential in this work. While the tales themselves are narrated by different characters, a scribe (who describes himself as not too bright) writes them down, sometimes taking the time to apologize or add to the tale that was just told. • This scribe (also called Chaucer) is actually Chaucer’s alter ego, who recites the blithering ballad of Sir Topaz, followed by the Tale of Melibee,* a study in itself. • The tales are connected with “links,” where the pub owner introduces a new tale, the pilgrims fight with each other, and the scribe complains. • Between the tales the pilgrims tell, and the links between them, Chaucer covers a lot of social and ideological ground inside this structure.
Stylistic Elements • Within this narrative voice and plot structure, Chaucer himself is doubly – or triply – hidden and can freely criticize or honor the society around him. Why would Chaucer want to shield himself? (Check out his life!) • Chaucer creates a mock-pilgrimage of sorts, and it should be noted that a pilgrimage is considered as Christian allegory for life itself. (The idea starts with St. Augustine’s CityofGod, and was used by Dante in TheDivine Comedy, and William Langland in Piers Plowman.) • In the pilgrimage of life you encounter moral difficulties and are tested. The shrine you head for is Heaven; you get there if you are humble, and ask God for guidance. There certainly are allegorical elements, albeit sometimes “mock” allegory, to Chaucer’s work.
Stylistic Elements • The Canterbury Tales is written in verse, much of it in iambic pentameter, much of it in heroic couplets. Chaucer utilized this meter and rhyme beautifully and helps to fix it in the ear of English speaking people. He also employs royal rhyme and prose very effectively. • Chaucer also presents an example of almost every popular literary genre in this work: romance, beast fable, fabliaux, saint story, parable, dialectical discourse*, and sermon. • His ironic tone is perhaps unmatched in literature, and he uses gentle satire works to reprimand without evisceration. He also tenderly praises humanity with all its foibles. His ability to balance and change the tonal quality of each tale, and manipulate voice is remarkable – especially for a civil servant!
Stylistic Elements • Perhaps the most notable element of The Canterbury Tales, however, is Chaucer’s superb characterization. The many voices are painted with intensely detailed lines, and each one is unique and realistic. • The narrative voice of each character is subtly maintained throughout the tale that each tells, and the qualities of the individual telling the tale are apparent in the type and context of the tale told! • The Canterbury Tales represents a singular moment of representing psychological reality of character, which Chaucer presents with excruciatingly meticulous accuracy. Not until Shakespeare would this be realized again in the English language.
Importance to the English Language • Chaucer never sought to publish during his lifetime, but his Canterbury Tales was universally admired as soon as it appeared. • It supported efforts of those in England who wanted to separate once and for all from France, and the end of the 100 Years’ War would mark the final change that separated England and English culture from that of France and the rest of Europe. • By 1363, the official language of the court was changed from French to English; English was becoming more commonly taught in schools, superseding Latin. Chaucer’s work provided validation of language and culture that shined proudly during its time.