The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories that are told by numerous storytellers that come from different social classes. Although the stories are told by various characters, it was in fact created by one man only and that man is Geoffrey Chaucer (1340? - 1400). The setting is fairly simple. A group of pilgrims plan to travel from London to Canterbury to see the shrine of St Thomas á Becket at the Canterbury Cathedral. Their starting point is the
Tabard Inn, which is in Southwark. In order to make the journey more pleasant—a journey that could take about four days on horseback— the Host of the Tabard Inn suggests that everyone tell two tales on their way to Canterbury, and two tales on their way homeward. It is fascinating to see how through the storytelling, each character reveals their misdeeds and good deeds by the way they tell their tale and we learn more from the listeners by the way they react to each individual tale. Chaucer himself, as a narrator, gives a description of the characters in the General Prologue after which the individual tales follow. All of this put together grants the readers the opportunity to peek into the fourteenth-century culture of English men and women’s way of thinking, their attitudes and behavior. Interestingly enough, modern readers will realize that sometimes they can be exactly like them, but at other times, they might appear a little strange.
The Canterbury Tales were left unfinished. It was Chaucer’s intention to write one hundred and twenty tales but only managed to write twenty-four of them of which two are fragments. The plots of the tales are not original, but Chaucer added his own flavour and originality to the plots and it was his way of telling stories that was captivating and showed great craftmanship. His skills to write stories were appreciated by audiences of educated friends and maybe even by the ruling class. Since storytelling was considered a free time activity, the Tales were expected to be read aloud since many people could not read (about ninety-five of the society), and Chaucer, therefore, composed the Tales in a way that would sound like music to the ears. In order to enthral audience, Chaucer wrote the tales in what became known as heroic couplets. It means that every line is comprised of ten syllables and every two lines rhyme with each other. More specifically, when there is one weak syllable followed by a strong one, it is called an iamb. In other words, in a line of ten syllables, there are five iambs. Because there are five iambs, it is called an iambic pentameter. “Penta-” means five. The Canterbury Tales were all written in heroic couplets except for two of the Tales which were written in prose (no metrical structure).
Common categories of the Tales
It is important to bear in mind that medieval stories were intended to instruct and entertain the audience and Chaucer’s tales, therefore, varied greatly in content and tone. Here are some of the categories that most of the Tales cover at least in certain aspects.
Sermons: Sermons are stories that have a theme with a moral point, and of course, they had to be good and very dramatic. A good example is greed for money or excessive eating or drinking in the Pardoner's Tale. To support the theme and highlight a preacher's point, classical and biblical sources were used. Sometimes the preacher’s point could be made through an exemplum which is a story used to demonstrate a point like the story of the three rioters in the Pardoner's Tale.
Courtly romances: These are tales that are befitting of the royal court. Usually it is about the forbidden love between two people of the royal court; a male courtier madly in love with a lady that usually is married to a member of the royal family, often the king himself. The lady is often not in love with her husband who is often at least twice her age or is perhaps almost never at home. An example of this category is The Knight’s Tale.
Fables: These are stories that make use of animals to make a moral point. The animals, such as in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale are anthropomorphic, they have human characteristics or behaviour.
Fabliaux: These are humorous stories dealing with sexual matters. The Miller’s Tale is a good example.
Confessions: In these stories wrongdoing and sadness, sorrow or despair are disclosed to the listeners as a way of reflecting over the storyteller’s own life. The Wife of Bath’s Tale fits perfectly within this category.
There is a total of 83 manuscripts (MS) of which 55 contained the complete Tales, but some of them have been tempered with. The remaining 28 MS do not include all the Tales. It can vary from one to various tales. Sometimes it is even difficult to say whether individual Tales once belonged to a MS that contained the complete work.
The earliest extant MS (still in existence) now resides in the National Library of Wales known as “Hengwrt” (MS Peniarth 392 D). This MS is apparently the best, or nearest text to that which Chaucer himself wrote. However, because the scribe received his copy in parts, his venture to order the tales has failed and the MS has been rendered as worse than the Ellesmere (Ellesmere 26.C.9) The Ellesmere which is preserved in Huntington Library in San Marino, California, is considered the best and most beautiful extant MS. The work is complete and elegantly done. The order of the tales in contrast to the Hengwrt, makes more sense and editors were inclined to use it as a base text even though it may have not been Chaucer’s own order. Even so, some of the reading is considered inferior to the dilapidated Hengwrt MS.
Have a look at the map below. Try to find the route that pilgrims took from London to Canterbury.
Source: By http://www.geographicus.com/mm5/cartographers/cruttwell.txt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By http://www.geographicus.com/mm5/cartographers/cruttwell.txt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons