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Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales'

Image from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales'
British Library Harley MS 1758, f.76
Copyright © The British Library Board
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Chaucer wrote his collection of stories, told as if by pilgrims on the road from London to Canterbury, in the last two decades of the 14th century. The book was unfinished when he died in 1400. No text in his own hand still exists, but the surprising number of near-contemporary copies that do survive - over 80 - suggests the tales proved a medieval 'bestseller'. This early and richly ornamented manuscript copy was made within a generation of Chaucer's death.

Who was Chaucer?

Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London, around 1345, into a well-connected family of wine-merchants. As a young teenager he was taken into an aristocratic household. Still in his teens, he fought in Edward III's army in France. During a botched attack on Rheims, Chaucer was taken prisoner, but released after a ransom was paid, in part by the king himself.

By 1367, he had entered royal service under the patronage of the king's son, the powerful John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. When the duke's wife died two years later, Chaucer composed the 'Book of the Duchess' in her memory, his first known poem.

For the rest of his life, Chaucer's fortunes were tied to the political intrigues of court life. While John of Gaunt's influence was in the ascendant he did well, obtaining generous pensions and lucrative administrative appointments, such as Comptroller of the Custom and Subsidy of Wools, Hides and Woodfells. Diplomatic duties took him to France and Italy, where he became familiar with the works of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio - authors who would inspire his own poetry.

When Edward III died in 1377, he was succeeded by his young grandson, Richard II. As the new king's uncle, John of Gaunt's authority grew stronger - much to the advantage of Chaucer, who reached the top of his public career when he became one of the two knights for the county of Kent in 1386.

But a turbulent power struggle between John of Gaunt and Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester would soon lead to a decline in Chaucer's circumstances. His last years were spent using his court connections to secure protection from his creditors as he waited for royal pensions to be paid. Chaucer died in 1400.

What is the 'Canterbury Tales' about?

Chaucer's long poem follows the journey of a group of pilgrims, 31 including Chaucer himself, from the Tabard Inn in Southwark to St Thomas à Becket's shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. 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 100 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.

Why was Chaucer important?

Chaucer is credited with having set the style for Middle English literature. Earlier Anglo-Saxon poetry, such as 'Beowulf', had been succeeded by a taste for French literature, in large part the result of England being ruled by Norman French kings after the Conquest of 1066. Even by Chaucer's day, the royal court was still bilingual.

His first works are either translations of French originals or much influenced by them. Later, Chaucer's writing picked up an Italian flavour through his diplomatic visits there. Finally, he blended French, Italian and classical influences into a truly English style in two great works: 'Troilus and Criseyed' and the 'Canterbury Tales'.

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.

How did this manuscript come to the British Library?

It was among the large manuscript collection assembled by father and son, Robert and Edward Harley, successive Earls of Oxford in the first half of the 18th century. The rich and diverse collection was built with the help of Humfrey Wanley, a distinguished scholar who served as their librarian. 12 years after Edward Harley's death in 1741, the Countess of Oxford and her daughter sold the Harley library to the nation, and it became one of the three foundation collections of the British Museum Library, now the British Library.

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