Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1385-1400) Geoffrey Chaucer's most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, is a frame narrative piece that reflects the stories told by a motley group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury Cathedral. It begins with a General Prologue that describes the Pilgrims and the context, followed by a number of Tales. The plan as outlined by the Host in the General Prologue calls for a total of four tales per Pilgrim; two told on the way to Canterbury, and two told on the way back. However, Chaucer died before even one full set of Tales could be written. He also never arranged the Tales in any particular order, leaving it to modern editors to reconstruct possible arrangements. Generally, editors divide The Canterbury Tales into 10 fragments based on implicit links between
Tales, and other internal clues, as few explicit references to Chaucer's intended organization exist. The most commonly accepted order is:
Fragment 1(A) General Prologue, Knight, Miller,
Reeve, Cook Fragment 2 (B1) Man of Law Fragment 3 (D) Wife of Bath, Friar, Summoner Fragment 4 (E) Clerk, Merchant Fragment 5 (F) Squire, Franklin Fragment 6 (C) Physician, Pardoner Fragment 7 (B2) Shipman, Prioress, Sir Thopas,
Melibee, Monk, Nun's Priest Fragment 8 (G) Second Nun, Canon's Yeoman Fragment 9 (H) Manciple Fragment 10 (I) Parson
Some scholars put Fragment 8 (G) before Fragment 6 (C), while others break up Fragments 4 and 5 and redistribute those Tales among other subsections. The Chaucer Society added the alphabetical designations, based on the earliest accepted edition by Walter Skeat.
The setting of The Canterbury Tales is in motion. The pilgrims meet at the Tabard, an inn in Southwark, which is across the Thames from the actual City of London. All plan to travel to Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, a county south of London, to visit the shrine housing the relics of St. Thomas a Becket. A pilgrimage was, for medieval Christians, a journey undertaken to improve one's faith, to seek spiritual assistance from the saints, and as a measure of penance in reparation for one's sins. Few of Chaucer's Pilgrims, however, particularly appear to be on a pious journey of faith (the Parson is a notable exception, and several other Pilgrims without descriptions may be). The Tales are full of secular mirth, sex, and other sins, and the Pilgrims themselves are variously drunk, lecherous, deviant, deceptive, and so forth, although a few are relatively decorous.
overall, these men and women represent a wide representation of medieval society and various professions. Chaucer is remembered, with reason, as the first writer to accurately depict the various social classes interacting in a single frame on a relatively even level. He is quite careful, also, to match the Tales and their tellers, sometimes startlingly so, often building upon descriptions begun in the General Prologue. Some contain references to other Tales, while others contain explicit debates between Pilgrims. unlike many other frame narratives, then, Chaucer's individual Tales cannot be fully appreciated outside the context of the entire work, although they can certainly be enjoyed individually.
The Canterbury Tales features a variety of genres: FABLIAU, BEAST FABLE, ROMANCE, HAGIOGRAPHY, Breton lai (lay), sermon, fable, confession, autobiography, Virgin miracle, and satire among others. For his sources and inspiration, Chaucer turned to a variety of texts, from Classical to contemporary. Major analogues for the Tales as a whole include: Ovid's Metamorphoses, Boccaccio's Decameron, Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy, John Bromyard's Summa praedicantium, Dante's Divine Comedy, The Distichs of Cato, John Gow-er's Confessio Amantis, St. Jerome's Adversus Jovinia-num, and the Roman de la Rose, as well as the Bible. Scholars continue to debate whether or not Chaucer had these in front of him as he wrote or recalled hearing or reading parts of these texts. As well, many Tales have unique sources, and some appear to be Chaucer's own invention.
Structurally, The Canterbury Tales is an interlocking linear frame narrative. The General Prologue provides the setup: It introduces the Pilgrims and suggests an order for the Tales. The Miller quickly violates this outline by interrupting the proceedings and telling his Tale after the Knight's, disregarding social rank. However, as this interruption is clearly by Chaucer's design, it does not disrupt the linear progression. The accepted order of tales also reflects a series of loose themes, although some general themes can be found throughout the collection. These general themes include a concern with the immediate historical context of the late-14th century: human desire (in multiple senses), the nature of love and friendship, and the role of Fortune. Perhaps the most famous subdivision of tales is the so-called Marriage Group, a topic suggested by the Wife of Bath. It includes "The Wife of Bath's Tale," "The Man of Law's Tale," "The Clerk's Tale," "The Merchant's Tale," and "The Franklin's Tale," and it cuts across several of the accepted fragments.
The first fragment consists of "The Knight's Tale," "The Miller's Prologue and Tale," "The Reeve's Prologue and Tale," and the fragment of "The Cook's Prologue and Tale." "The Knight's Tale," a chivalric romance concerned with courtly love and war, matters of the aristocracy, and Boethian philosophy, begins The Canterbury Tales. The rest of the fragment is a series of fabliaux, bawdy tales that offset the Knight's elevated style. By deliberately disrupting the social order and allowing the coarse middle-class Tales to overcome the stately aristocratic one, Chaucer displays a concern with the changing social and economic structures of the late 14th century. That the Tales get increasingly more vulgar, however, demonstrates that too much social freedom can result in amoral chaos.
The second fragment consists solely of the Man of Law's Introduction, Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue. The complicated astronomical calculations at the beginning indicate this tale is told on April 18 at 10:00 a.m. It is based on an Anglo-Norman story by Nicholas Trivet and John Gower's version of that, found in the Confessio Amantis. Alternately termed a secular hagiography or a romance, this Tale is lengthy and complicated, and it features numerous reversals of Fortune. The epilogue features the typical interruption found in other prologues and epilogues, but the manuscripts vary as to which Pilgrim interrupts—the Squire, the Sum-moner, or the Shipman. Internal evidence points to the reassignment of both "The Man of Law's Tale" and the following Tale.
The third fragment includes "The Wife of Bath's Prologue" and "The Wife of Bath's Tale," "The Friar's Prologue and Tale," and "The Summoner's Tale." There is no explicit link between Fragments 2 and 3; however, the subject matter implicitly suggests a "quiting" (an offset)—the Man of Law's ideal woman being offset by voracious women (the Wife and her characters). "The Friar's Tale," however, does not concern relations between the sexes; rather, it is an exemplum about the corruption of the ecclesiastical courts. The Summoner, at whom the Friar's tale was directed, retaliates with a tale about a long-winded hypocritical Friar that is part fabliau and part satire.
The fourth fragment consists of "The Clerk's Prologue," "The Clerk's Tale," "The Merchant's Prologue,"
"The Merchant's Tale," and "The Merchant's Epilogue." Both of these tales concern marriage, one an idealized portrait in which man is completely dominant and woman completely submissive, and the other a fabliau-style tale about an old husband with a young wife that follows romance conventions and incorporates numerous poetic devices. Internal references link these two tales together into a set, with "The Merchant's Tale" serving as a foil for "The Clerk's Tale."
The fifth fragment consists of "The Squire's Introduction," "The Squire's Tale," "The Franklin's Prologue," and "The Franklin's Tale." The Squire relates a romance, but this is a different romance than told by the Knight. Gone is Boethian philosophy and stilted discourse; included is high sentiment and fantastic, supernatural events. This tale is left unfinished. The Franklin interrupts the Squire at an opportune moment, leading many scholars to believe "The Squire's Tale" remains unfinished on purpose. "The Franklin's Tale" itself is a Breton lai, a type of short supernatural romance, usually based on Celtic antecedents. This tale takes up the subject of wedlock once again, exploring a marriage based on love and mutual respect.
Fragment 6 is composed of "The Physician's Tale," "The Pardoner's Introduction," "The Pardoner's Prologue," and "The Pardoner's Tale." "The Physician's Tale" has been called an exercise in pathos by many critics; it derives from the Roman tradition. Ultimately, it illustrates shame and the public punishment of sin, just as its companion piece, "The Pardoner's Tale," aptly demonstrates guilt and the internal punishment of sin.
The seventh fragment covers a number of tales: "The Shipman's Tale," "The Prioress's Tale," "The Prioress's Prologue," "The Prologue of Sir Thopas," "The Tale of Sir Thopas," "The Tale of Melibee," "The Monk's Prologue," "The Monk's Tale," "The Nun's Priest's Prologue," "The Nun's Priest's Tale," and "The Nun's Priest's Epilogue." "The Shipman's Tale" is considered Chaucer's earliest fabliau, and the tale was probably first assigned to the Wife of Bath. It is followed by the violently anti-Semitic Prioress's tale, which plays with popular devotional literature of the time.
Two prose tales are next. Chaucer the Pilgrim—the narrator persona inserted into the Pilgrimage by the author—tells the first, "The Tale of Sir Thopas." Despite his naïve appearance, the narrator relates a slightly bawdy minstrel romance. Minstrel romances were shorter than standard ones and specifically designed for oral presentation, with frequent asides to the audience. Topically, they are adventure tales characterized by rough meter and crude formulas. Chaucer's version, however, is a parody. Chaucer also tells Melibee's Tale after Sir Thopas's Tale has been interrupted by the Host. It is a long allegorical treatise couched as a discussion between Melibee and Prudence covering a number of moral and political issues. Some scholars believe this Tale is told in Chaucer's own voice, rather than by his narrator persona.
"The Monk's Tale" follows. Most scholars believe this Tale was composed prior to when work was begun on The Canterbury Tales proper. Described as a collection of tragedies, "The Monk's Tale" is designed to illustrate the workings of Fortune in a manner similar to John Lydgate's The Fall of Princes. Fragment 7 concludes with the "The Nun's Priest's Tale," Chaucer's only beast fable, which draws on the tradition of Reynard literature alongside courtly discourse. Thoroughly entertaining, this Tale nonetheless provides a number of morals for improving one's life.
The eighth fragment comprises "The Second Nun's Prologue," "The Second Nun's Tale," "The Canon's Yeoman's Prologue," and "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale." Both the tales, as well as "The Second Nun's Prologue," are thought to have been composed for another occasion but then inserted into the overall collection. "The Canon's Yeoman's Prologue," however, was composed strictly for The Canterbury Tales and provides a more complete introduction to a Pilgrim only briefly described in the General Prologue. "The Second Nun's Prologue" is an exercise in etymology, while "The Second Nun's Tale" is a hagiography of St. Cecilia, a virgin martyr. She is a powerfully active character, unlike many of Chaucer's other women. "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale" is a two-part occupational satire about the trickery of alchemists and a greedy canon. The two Tales incorporate the language of science and pseudoscience but ultimately reject both in favor of faith.
Fragment 9 consists solely of "The Manciple's Prologue" and "The Manciple's Tale." This Tale is a fable based on a story from Ovid—the story of Phoebus and the crow, a tale-telling bird. Ultimately it becomes a warning about the dangers of telling tales, "wheither they been false or trewe" (9.360).
The final division, Fragment 10, includes "The Parson's Prologue" and "The Parson's Tale," along with "Chaucer's Retraction." "The Parson's Tale" is clearly meant to end the collection, whether or not Chaucer intended to expand it later. It is a penitential tract that includes an examination of conscience and an overview of the seven deadly sins. Coming where it does, it serves as a reminder to the other pilgrims of their purpose for traveling to Canterbury. The Retraction follows, and is a traditional apology for Chaucer's lifetime of writing, not just The Canterbury Tales. Ultimately it concludes that salvation is more important than literature, a standard medieval perspective.
There are a total of 83 manuscripts that contain some portion of The Canterbury Tales—55 with the complete collection of tales (or intentions thereof) and 28 with one or more individual tales. There are also six early printed versions, the earliest of which is the 1478 edition by William Caxton. He printed a second version in 1484, claiming in the preface to have revised the text based on a manuscript supplied by a reader. The other four editions, dating to the late 15th and early 16th centuries, were printed by Richard Pynson (1492 and 1526), Wynkyn de Worde (1498), and William Thynne (1532). Various references in wills, letters, and catalogues imply the existence of a number of other copies, both in manuscript and early printed form, all now lost.
Of all the manuscripts, the earliest is MS Peniarth 392D, National Library of Wales, dubbed the "Heng-wrt manuscript." Copied around the time of Chaucer's death, it is considered the most authoritative copy of the materials it contains. The same scribe produced the beautiful and complete Ellesmere manuscript (Elles-mere 26 9 C, Huntington Library, San Marino, California), which sets out the most accepted order of the Tales. The popularity of The Canterbury Tales has resulted in a multitude of editions and translations, dating as early as 1492.
Scholarship concerning The Canterbury Tales is vast. As is typical in literary scholarship, early studies tended to focus on textual variants, manuscript issues, structural concerns, linguistic puzzles, and so forth. Also of concern was connecting details of Chaucer's life with his work. Genre studies and examinations of poetic devices (e.g., irony, narrative, morals, and so on) followed, as did a spate of exegetic approaches (see exegesis). These works provide a solid background to any student of Chaucer. other studies have examined the social and historical contexts of Chaucer's works, placing them within contemporary events. Marxist critics have investigated the economic contexts surrounding The Canterbury Tales's production and reception, as well as the economic structures within individual tales (e.g., the exchange of money for sex or similar favors). Feminist, gender, and queer theories have dominated the last decade or so of Chaucer scholarship, providing insight into areas not previously explored in depth.
See also General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.
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