Chaucer's poem, The Canterbury Tales, follows the story of a group of pilgrims who are travelling the long journey from London to Canterbury Cathedral. Setting off from a London inn, the innkeeper suggests that, during the journey, each pilgrim should tell two tales to help while away the time on the road. The best storyteller, he says, will be rewarded with a free supper on his return.
Chaucer introduces us to a vivid cast of characters, including a carpenter, a cook, a knight, a monk, a prioress, a haberdasher, a dyer, a clerk, a merchant and a very bawdy miller. These characters come from all corners of 14th century society, and give Chaucer the chance to speak in many different voices. Some of the characters' tales are humorous, rude and naughty, while others are moral and reflective.
For three centuries after the Norman Invasion (1066) French became the language of power, spoken by royalty, aristocrats and high-powered officials. However, most ordinary people in England continued to speak English in their everyday lives. French was used in most official documents and in literature; remember written texts were still a very expensive luxury.
One of the reasons that Chaucer is so important is that he made the decision to write in English and not French. Following the Norman invasion, The Canterbury Tales was one of the first major works in literature to be written in English.
Chaucer's verse is a rich example of how medieval poets experimented with the English language. Chaucer uses all kinds of spoken styles (through the voices of different characters), while also trying out different rhythms and sounds, and sculpting new linguistic structures.
In the second half of the 14th century, many more people in England, from across the social scale, were speaking English. But it was a enlarged and transformed English, peppered with new words from French and Latin. Since the Conquest, many new French and Latin words had entered the English vocabulary. So, compared to Anglo-Saxon poets, Chaucer was able choose from a rich and colourful spectrum of words. View the chart below to see the way the palette of language from which Chaucer could paint had grown.
No text in Chaucer's own hand still exists, but a surprising number of copies survive from the 1500s - over 80. This suggests that the tales were enormously popular in medieval England. This early and handsomely ornamented manuscript copy was made within a generation of Chaucer's death.
Continue to explore the Written Word Timeline, or else try out some Chaucer activities