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Chaucer, however, came up with the ingenuous literary device of having a pilgrimage, a technique that allowed him to bring together a diverse group of people. Thus Chaucer's narrators represent a wide spectrum of society with various ranks and occupations.


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From the distinguished and noble Knight, we descend through the pious abbess the Prioress , the honorable Clerk, the rich landowner the Franklin , the worldly and crude Wife, and on down the scale to the low, vulgar Miller and Carpenter, and the corrupt Pardoner. Aside from the high literary standard of The Canterbury Tales, the work stands as a historical and sociological introduction to the life and times of the late Middle Ages. During Chaucer's time, regardless how brilliant and talented one might be, there was no way for a commoner to move from his class into the aristocracy. Chaucer, however, made that leap as well as anyone could.

As a commoner, he was familiar with and was accepted by the lower classes as well as by the higher classes; thus, throughout his life, he was able to observe both the highest and the lowest, and his gifted mind made the best of these opportunities. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer c. Its popularity may be due to the fact that the tales were written in Middle English , a language that developed after the Norman invasion, after which those in power would have spoken French.

Continuous publication of The Canterbury Tales since Chaucer's death, and the inspiration it has provided for other writers and artists, are testimony to the enduring appeal of his characters and their stories: proof that people's hopes and fears — and the English sense of humour — are little changed by six centuries of history. The host at the inn suggests each pilgrim tell two tales on the way out and two on the way home to help while away their time on the road. The best storyteller is to be rewarded with a free supper on their return.

This literary device gives Chaucer the opportunity to paint a series of vivid word portraits of a cross-section of his society, from a knight and prioress, to a carpenter and cook; a much-married wife of Bath, to a bawdy miller — an occupation regarded in Chaucer's day as shifty and dishonest. Chaucer mixes satire and realism in lively characterisations of his pilgrims.

The tone of their tales ranges from pious to comic, with humour veering between erudite wit and good honest vulgarity. Taken together, the tales offer a fascinating insight into English life during the late 14th century. Chaucer's original plan was for over stories, but only 24 were completed, some of which had already been written for earlier works. Their order varies in different surviving copies, the Hengwrt manuscript being valued most for its accuracy.

After a long list of works written earlier in his career, including Troilus and Criseyde , House of Fame , and Parliament of Fowls , The Canterbury Tales is near-unanimously seen as Chaucer's magnum opus. He uses the tales and descriptions of its characters to paint an ironic and critical portrait of English society at the time, and particularly of the Church. Chaucer's use of such a wide range of classes and types of people was without precedent in English. Although the characters are fictional, they still offer a variety of insights into customs and practices of the time.

ADDITIONAL MEDIA

Often, such insight leads to a variety of discussions and disagreements among people in the 14th century. For example, although various social classes are represented in these stories and all of the pilgrims are on a spiritual quest, it is apparent that they are more concerned with worldly things than spiritual. Structurally, the collection resembles Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron , which Chaucer may have read during his first diplomatic mission to Italy in It has been suggested that the greatest contribution of The Canterbury Tales to English literature was the popularisation of the English vernacular in mainstream literature, as opposed to French, Italian or Latin.

English had, however, been used as a literary language centuries before Chaucer's time, and several of Chaucer's contemporaries— John Gower , William Langland , the Pearl Poet , and Julian of Norwich —also wrote major literary works in English. It is unclear to what extent Chaucer was seminal in this evolution of literary preference. While Chaucer clearly states the addressees of many of his poems, 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 nobility.

The Canterbury Tales is generally thought to have been incomplete at the end of Chaucer's life.


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In the General Prologue , [5] some 30 pilgrims are introduced. According to the Prologue, Chaucer's intention was to write four stories from the perspective of each pilgrim, two each on the way to and from their ultimate destination, St. Thomas Becket's shrine making for a total of about stories. Although perhaps incomplete, The Canterbury Tales is revered as one of the most important works in English literature. It is also open to a wide range of interpretations. The question of whether The Canterbury Tales is a finished work has not been answered to date. 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.

Canterbury Tales

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.

The Canterbury Tales: Chaucer's 'plein speke' is a raucous read

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

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.

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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.