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.
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.
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. Twelve 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.
You can see more of this item in our catalogue of illuminated manuscripts.