Chaucer and “The Canterbury Tales”

Grace Chalhoub, Staff writer; copy editor

Geoffrey Chaucer: 

As with many important figures from this period, Chaucer’s life can be difficult to definitively trace , but thanks to his civil service career, we have some detailed records of his life and works. Chaucer was born between 1340-45, the son of a wealthy wine merchant. As a teenager, he became a page to the Countess of Ulster, the wife of Lionel of Antwerp, a son of Edward III, thus launching him into a longtime career of civil service. He was sent on expeditions to France, Genoa and Florence and, during one of his earliest expeditions to Brittany, was seized by the French and ransomed by Edward III. Through his travels, he discovered literature that would inspire his works, including the works of Dante and Boccaccio, the French romances and classical texts, as reflected in his epic poems “Troilus and Cresidye”and “Anelida and Arcite.” 

From the 1370s to 1380s, he acquired many influential and demanding positions, including comptroller of London customs, member of Parliament, justice of the peace and clerk for the King, under the rule of both Edward III and Richard II.  He also gained a reputation as an astronomer (in his day, a job that included science and astrology) and philosopher. Chaucer was not a professional writer like Shakespeare or many of the 19th-century greats, but wrote in his free time, probably for the entertainment of his friends and family. However, he gained many influential patrons, including Lionel’s brother  John of Gaunt, promoting his reputation as a writer and storyteller.

Throughout his lifetime, Chaucer wrote at least eight major works and produced several translations, often in the London dialect of Middle English, and one of the first major writers to do so at a time when French and Latin were the languages of intellectuals and the written word. Chaucer’s knowledge of Latin and French influenced his vocabulary choice, and he is now credited with the first use in print of about 2000 words (whether he invented these words, or if he was merely the first to use them in print, is up to debate). 

It is believed that Chaucer died in 1400, since records of him disappear around this time. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, a testimonial to his importance as a writer. 

“The Canterbury Tales”:

“The Canterbury Tales” follows a group of pilgrims en route to Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury. While Chaucer originally planned to write 100 stories, he ended up completing only 24. Despite its incomplete status, the amount of copies surviving from the period indicates that the “Tales” became relatively popular. The book is narrated by Chaucer himself, observing and recording the stories of the other pilgrims. The storyline–a pilgrimage to a shrine undertaken for religious, financial and personal reasons–allows for Chaucer to interact with a diverse ensemble, including a chivalrous knight, vulgar miller and witty housewife. The mix of characters that Chaucer meets also allows him to comment on certain aspects of society–for instance, he indirectly comments on corruption in the Church by portraying a seller of indulgences eager to dupe potential buyers. However, regardless of the pilgrims’ actions, Chaucer never applies moral judgement to his characters, leaving the reader to decide the moral lesson for himself, a unique tactic at a time when stories generally expressed an explicit moral lesson.

“The Canterbury Tales” clearly pays homage to the foreign writers that Chaucer had discovered through the French-speaking court of the King and his travels. It closely follows the format and style of  Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” a collection of witty, bawdy and tragic stories following ten Florentines fleeing the plague-ridden city to a countryside villa. He also drew inspiration from the French romances he had read in France and at court, imitating French emphasis on emotion and love as opposed to the English-language storytelling tradition’s preference of epic adventure. 

Chaucer’s use of English as a literary language and adoption of the French and Italian influences changed the history of English-language literature. He has been affectionately dubbed the “Father of English literature,” and was a noted influence on the works of Shakespeare, who imitated his witty style, and J.K. Rowling, who cited Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale” as an influence on the “The Tale of the Three Brothers” in the “Harry Potter” series.