The Canterbury Tales (Middle English: Tales of Caunterbury) is a collection of 24 stories that runs to over 17,000 lines written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer between 1387 and 1400. In 1386, Chaucer became Controller of Customs and Justice of Peace and, in 1389, Clerk of the King’s work. It was during these years that Chaucer began working on his most famous text, The Canterbury Tales. The tales (mostly written in verse, although some are in prose) are presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The prize for this contest is a free meal at the Tabard Inn at Southwark on their return.
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. 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 1372.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 25 October 1400) was an English poet and author, widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages, best known for The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer is known as the “Father of English literature”, and the first writer to be buried in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey.
Chaucer achieved fame during his lifetime as an author, philosopher, and astronomer, composing the scientific A Treatise on the Astrolabe for his 10 year-old son Lewis. He also maintained an active career in the civil service as a bureaucrat, courtier, and diplomat. Among Chaucer’s many works are The Canterbury Tales, The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Legend of Good Women, and Troilus and Criseyde. His work was crucial in legitimizing the literary use of the Middle English vernacular at a time when the dominant literary languages in England were French and Latin.