”The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the most influential works in English literature.
To understand why, we’ll cover Chaucer’s writing style and language while exploring their impact on the literary landscape.
Geoffrey Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales
Although Geoffrey Chaucer never quit his day job as a civil servant, he’s remembered as one of England’s greatest and most influential poets. He wrote serious histories, allegories, and romances, but his best-known work, The Canterbury Tales, contains an eclectic mixture of literary styles.The Canterbury Tales is a story about a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, England. After meeting at an inn in London, they decide to make the rest of the journey together. The General Prologue to the poem describes this meeting and its setting.
The pilgrims’ journey then functions as a frame narrative for the poem. A frame narrative is a literary technique for setting up a story within a story. For example, The Canterbury Tales‘ prologues and epilogues cover the interactions of the pilgrims with each other, while the tales are self-contained narratives.
The Language(s) of The Canterbury Tales
Chaucer’s works make up a significant part of secular literature in Middle English, the type of English used from about the mid twelfth century to the late fifteenth century. His decision to write in the vernacular language that ordinary folk could understand was significant.
In the late fourteenth century, when The Canterbury Tales was written, Middle English was still coming into its own as a literary medium.Chaucer wrote it at a time when English, French, and Latin all mingled in everyday contexts, and the language of his poem reflects the diverse modes of speech present in England’s society. The choices Chaucer made about language influenced later authors, and have helped scholars and laypeople learn about how people in Chaucer’s England spoke, read, and even thought.To get started reading Middle English, let’s take a look at some lines from the General Prologue:”Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimagesAnd palmeres for to seken straunge strondesTo ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;And specially from every shires endeOf Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,The hooly blisful martir for to sekeThat hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.”You’ll notice that many — indeed most — of these words look familiar. But before we get into what this means in detail, look for clues that will help you in reading it. For starters, although the poetic form might seem intimidating at first glance, the verse will actually help you.
The fact that it rhymes helps you, as the reader, anticipate what comes next.Moreover, like much of Shakespeare’s work, Chaucer’s frame narrative is written in iambic pentameter, an unpretentious, conversational meter with alternate stresses. So now you even know a little bit about how to pronounce Middle English! Reading The Canterbury Tales aloud may help you recognize the modern equivalents of words that look unfamiliar.Rendered in modern English, this reads:”Then do folk long to go on pilgrimageAnd palmers to go seeking out strange strandsTo distant shrines well known in sundry lands;And specially from every shire’s endOf England they to Canterbury wend,The holy blessed martyr there to seekWho helped them when they lay so ill and weak.
”Comparing this to the Middle English original, you’ll notice that many of the words are very close in sound and spelling. ”Ferne halwes” (far hallows) for ”distant shrines” is almost the only tricky bit.
Characters and Language
Most of The Canterbury Tales consists of, well, tales told by the road-tripping pilgrims. Not every character introduced gets an opportunity to tell his or her story, because Chaucer never finished The Canterbury Tales.
Those who do, however, reveal much about their characters in the content of their stories and in the language they tell them in.
The Knight, the first to recount his tale, tells a historical romance set in mythological Greece. His story, like the General Prologue, is in iambic pentameter. The Knight’s choice of a somewhat old-fashioned genre and subject indicate the fact that knights were not as influential in Chaucer’s England as they had been in previous generations.
The characters of other pilgrims are also illustrated by their tales, which draw on diverse literary genres. The Monk’s (which is deadly boring) is told in the form of a religious drama, with multiple biblical characters and personified virtues and vices. The jolly Cook, on the other hand, tells a rather dirty story in which a greedy Miller gets his comeuppance. Everyone loves that one. The Prioress’s Tale, about a little boy who memorized a hymn and sang it to condemn his murderers, is practically a song itself! Each character has distinctive speech patterns and vocabulary. This use of language to indicate character is itself spoofed in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, where some snooty chickens speak French.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is an influential classic. Written at a time when English was coming into its own as a literary language, Chaucer’s pilgrims and the stories they tell have become a familiar part of England’s literary landscape. The frame narrative‘s conversational rhythm of iambic pentameter makes it easy to read aloud. This practice can help you recognize unfamiliar-looking Middle English words.
The stories told by the pilgrims are as diverse as the pilgrims themselves, making use of diverse literary genres.