Turn over the leef and chese another tale • The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
Renaissance to Enlightenment • 1300–1800
The frame narrative
c.8th—13th century One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of tales by different authors from across the Islamic world, is framed within the story of Scheherazade.
1348—53 The Decameron, by Italian Giovanni Boccaccio, contains 100 stories set within a tale of people fleeing the Black Death.
1558 The Heptameron, by French author Marguerite de Navarre, contains 72 short stories, framed within a story of 10 stranded travellers.
2004 English writer David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas follows the frame-narrative tradition, including stories within stories that travel over centuries.
The use of an outer narrative that envelops within it a story (or a collection of stories, or even stories inside other stories) is a long-established literary device. “Frame narratives” provide context and structure for a tale and often include a narrator, or narrators, who can help engage the reader directly. One Thousand and One Nights successfully employed this technique, as did Giovanni Boccaccio in his Decameron. Although most earlier works used the frame narrative to hold stories around a single theme — often religion — Geoffrey Chaucer used it to far more colourful effect in The Canterbury Tales, opening up the narrative to include a range of personalities, whose stories encompassed diverse themes.
Early editions of The Canterbury Tales contained woodcuts to help make the text more accessible to a wide range of readers. Shown here are the pilgrims sharing a meal.
Later works of the genre include Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes detective stories. The technique is still in use and many works of Modernist and Postmodernist fiction play with framing narratives, for example Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. The device is also often used in plays and films.
Chaucer probably began writing The Canterbury Tales in about 1387, during a brief absence from his official court duties and career as a civil servant. It marked a significant change in his literary direction: his other poems — including his first major work (an elegy in the form of a dream vision) and Troilus and Criseyde, his retelling of the love story set during the siege of Troy — were mainly concerned with courtly themes and written primarily to he heard by court audiences. The Canterbury Tales, however, was written for a far wider audience, who were probably intended to read the work rather than just listen to it.
The text is written in Middle English, as opposed to the Latin or French that was commonly used for courtly poetry of the time. Chaucer was not the first to do this, but it has been argued that he played a major role in popularizing the use of the vernacular in English literature. Significantly, too, The Canterbury Tales paints a remarkable picture of late medieval English society, depicting men and women of all classes, from the nobility through to the labouring classes.
"At nyght was come into that hostelrye Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye Of sondry folk…"
The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales opens with a General Prologue that sets the scene and creates a framework for the tales that follow. The frame story concerns a group of 29 pilgrims on their way to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, in southern England. The pilgrims meet at the Tabard Inn, in Southwark, near London, where the narrator, Geoffrey Chaucer, joins them. Pilgrimages were an everyday occurrence in medieval Europe, and Chaucer describes the pilgrims as “sondry folk”, people of all social classes and occupations.
Most of the General Prologue, which consists of 858 lines of verse, describes the pilgrims, their social class, clothing, and personalities (including the narrator himself). Having introduced the pilgrims, or most of them, the Prologue ends with the innkeeper, or Host, a man called Harry Bailly, suggesting a competition. He proposes that each of the pilgrims should tell four tales, two on the outward journey and two on their return. The teller of the best tale will be rewarded with a free meal, paid for by the other pilgrims, when they return to the inn. The pilgrims draw lots and it is decided that the Knight will tell the first story.
The 24 tales within the framework include two related by the narrator, or Chaucer himself. Most are written in rhyming couplets, a few in prose. They vary enormously because Chaucer made use of a wide range of themes and literary styles. These include animal and other fables, fabliaux (ribald and satiric tales), romantic verse, pious homilies, sermons, allegories, and exempla (moral narratives). Where the Knight’s Tale is a romance, which tells of a love rivalry between two brothers, the Miller’s Tale is bawdy and comic, taking as its theme the cuckolding of an Oxford carpenter. The raucous and vulgar Summoner’s Tale includes a description of a friar being tricked into accepting a fart as payment, while, in contrast, the Second Nun’s Tale is the story of St Cecilia, a deeply spiritual woman martyred for her faith.
The tales vary considerably in length; one of the longest, and perhaps the best known, is the Wife of Bath’s Tale. This begins with a prologue developing the Wife’s character — domineering and pleasure-seeking — before continuing with her account of her eventful life with five husbands, the theme being women’s mastery over men.
"This world nys but a thurghfare full of wo..."
The Canterbury Tales
A colourful picture
Chaucer brings each story to life by ensuring that the tone and style are appropriate to each respective storyteller, reflecting his or her own status, occupation, and character. The vividness is enhanced by the use of the framing devices, which link the stories to one another through dialogue and interactions among the characters. The storytellers frequently interrupt each other with arguments, insults, or sometimes even praise. The Prioress’s Tale, for example, begins after the Host has politely invited the Prioress to tell her story, while on another occasion, the Knight interrupts the Monk because he finds his tale too miserable. The wider framing story adds a further dimension to the individual tales.
The Canterbury Tales presents a colourful picture of late medieval England, its people and events. Chaucer was living and writing during a particularly turbulent period. The Black Death of 1348—49 had killed a third of the population, the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 had demonstrated cracks in the feudal system, and the authority of the Church was being questioned, not least for its corrupt practices.
Chaucer’s tales reflect many of these events, often mocking and satirizing the hypocrisy of the Church. In the Pardoner’s Tale, the Pardoner is shown to be guilty of the very sins he is preaching against, while the Friar’s Tale is a satirical attack on summoners — ecclesiastical officers whose role was to summon to court sinful members of the diocese. It is not surprising that the Summoner’s Tale is an attack on friars.
The Ellesmere manuscript (c.1410) is a beautiful, exquisitely illuminated copy of The Canterbury Tales and is the basis for most modern versions of Chaucer’s text.
Chaucer borrowed from numerous sources when writing The Canterbury Tales. The Knight’s Tale is based on Boccaccio’s epic poem Teseida, and there are other references within the Tales to Boccaccio’s work. Chaucer’s other sources included Ovid, the Bible, chivalric works such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and, possibly, works by his friend the English poet John Gower.
Scholars do not know what Chaucer’s final intention was for The Canterbury Tales, nor even the order in which he wished the tales to appear, or whether the work was finished. The only clue is in the General Prologue, with its plan for the pilgrims to tell four stories each. However, there are only 24 tales, so not all the pilgrims tell even one tale. Nor do any of the storytellers or the Host indicate the sequence or numbering of any tale.
"For though we sleep or wake, or roam, or ride, Ay fleeth the time; it nyl no man abyde."
The Canterbury Tales
Evidence indicates that Chaucer was still working on the Tales when he died. There is no original manuscript in his own hand; instead there are fragments that would have been scribed by someone else. The earliest is the Hengwrt manuscript, produced shortly after Chaucer’s death. The sequence most commonly used today, however, is based on the 15th-century Ellesmere manuscript, which divides the text into 10 fragments, containing varying numbers of tales. The tales are grouped according to clues or links within the text, and end with the Parson’s Tale, a long prose sermon on the Seven Deadly Sins. This is followed by Chaucer’s Retraction, a curious apology in which the author asks forgiveness for the vulgar, secular elements of his works. The exact significance of this apology is unclear, although some have seen it as a deathbed repentance.
Despite the uncertainties surrounding its structure and plot, The Canterbury Tales is recognized as a masterpiece, and one of the most important literary works in the English language. Its humour, bawdiness, pathos, and satirical observations remain unequalled today, more than 600 years after it was written.
Not just a great English poet but also a courtier, civil servant, and diplomat, Chaucer was probably born in London around 1343. His father, a wine merchant, was keen to advance his son’s career and secured a place for him as a page in the Countess of Ulster’s household. From there, Chaucer entered the service of Edward III, first as a soldier, then as a diplomat, travelling to France and Italy, where he would have read the works of Dante and Boccaccio. From 1374 to 1386 he held a post as controller of customs.
Chaucer married in 1366, and gained a patron — John of Gaunt, the king’s fourth son. Chaucer wrote his first major poem, Book of the Duchess (1369) as an elegy to Gaunt’s first wife, Blanche. He fell on hard times during Richard II’s reign; however, in 1389 was appointed clerk of the king’s royal building projects. He died in 1400 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Other key works
1379 The House of Fame
c.1385 Troilus and Criseyde
c.1388 The Legend of Good Women
See also: One Thousand and One Nights • The Decameron • Wuthering Heights • The Hound of the Baskervilles • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller • The Blind Assassin