Written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century, The Canterbury Tales tells the story of a group of 31 pilgrims who meet while travelling from the Tabard Inn in Southwark to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury. To pass the time on the journey, they decide to each tell two tales to the assembled company on the journey there and the journey home. The result is regarded as a masterpiece of medieval literature, and The Canterbury Tales holds a central place in the English literary canon.
What is distinctive about The Canterbury Tales?
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories held together by a framing device (the story of the pilgrimage). In this way, two narratives are operating at the same time within the work. In the links between the tales, the pilgrims bicker and chatter in a way that brings the characters to life. When the pilgrims begin to tell their stories, however, there is a change of gear. There is often a shift in form: ‘The Monk’s Tale’ is written in rhyme royal (a seven-line form), ‘The Friar’s Tale’ is in rhyming couplets and ‘The Parson’s Tale’ is in prose. This formal variation is matched by contrasts in genre and tone: racy fabliaux sit cheek by jowl with sombre descriptions of Christian martyrdom. The effect is a shimmering variation which reflects the social world depicted by Chaucer. This interaction between the individual tales and the frame narrative is a layered and masterful exercise in characterisation – and one of the great joys of the work.
The Canterbury Tales is sometimes compared to The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), a tale-collection written in the mid 14th century. There are key differences between the two works, however. The Decameron describes a group of young aristocrats who are journeying through the countryside, avoiding plague-stricken Florence. They tell each other tales in an orderly fashion, and the work lacks the boisterousness and social diversity of Chaucer’s Tales. Chaucer presents us with medieval society in all its glory, from the pompous Knight to the revolting Pardoner, via the chatty Wife of Bath and the weird, nerdy Clerk.
When was The Canterbury Tales written?
Tragically, The Canterbury Tales is unfinished. The pilgrims never reach Canterbury, the return journey is not described, and not all the pilgrims who appear in the poem's prologue end up telling a tale. The Prologue describes a ploughman among the company, for example, whose tale is nowhere to be found. Whereas Chaucer’s original plan presumably envisaged over 100 stories, only 24 survive.
The Canterbury Tales is traditionally dated to 1387 (although some tales appear to have been written before then). The poem survives in 92 manuscripts, but no manuscript of the work dates from Chaucer’s lifetime. The poem as we know it is the product of 15th-century scribes. The number of pilgrims' tales and their ordering differs between the copies, and debate continues to rage about what Chaucer intended.