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“The Father of English Literature”, “The Morning star of The Renaissance”, all of these titles have been conferred upon Geoffrey Chaucer. He was known to be the Greatest English Medieval poet. He was born in c1340 in London. Apart from being a poet he was an important public servant to the British Court and also known for his excellence in diplomacy, bureaucracy, civil service. His major works include, “The Book of The Duchess”, “House of Fames”, “The Legend of Good Women”, “Troilus and Criseyde”, “Parliament of Foules” and most importantly “The Canterbury Tales”. Chaucer died on 25th October 1400 and was the first poet to be buried in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner. Today we’ll discuss “The Canterbury Tales”.
Written at the end of the 14th century, “The Canterbury Tales” is considered to be the magnum opus of Chaucer. Resembling the storytelling mode, the entire thing is a collection of 24 stories written in Medieval English language. According to the author, the tales are the part of a storytelling contest, held by a group of pilgrims from Southwark, on their way to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The prize for the winner is a free meal at Tabard Inn, the resting place of the pilgrims. Each traveller was supposed to tell 4 stories making it 120 stories all together but only 24 stories had been completed and the book ends abruptly, even before they reach the shrine. Through the characters, Chaucer portrayed a critical picture of the English society which resembles “The Decameron” by Boccaccio.
The first print edition of “The Canterbury Tales” was William Caxton’s 1478 print edition. Some later editions divided the book into 10 fragments or groups.
Chaucer drew his elements from many sources. The story-telling mode was an important part of the English society like The England Pui, the leader of which contemporary group would judge the songs of a certain group and give a reward to the winner. There are various references to Boccaccio’s “Decameron”, Boethius’ “Consolation of Philosophy”, John Bromyard’s “Summa praedicantium”, Jerome’s “Adversus Jovinium”.
Chaucer begins the tales with the General Prologue which is considered to be the most popular part of the entire work due to Chaucer’s excellent portrayal of the characters from different strata of society. The recent criticism has claimed that the portrayals are a part of a tradition of social satire, called ‘The Estate Satire’ rather than individual types.
Respectively the speakers are the Knight, the Miller, the Reeve, the Cook, the Man of Law, the Wife of Bath, the Friar, the Summoner, the Clerk, the Merchant, the Squire, the Franklin, the Physician, the Pardoner, the Shipman, Prioresses, Sir Thopas, the Melibee, the Monk, the Nun’s Priest, the Second Nun, The Canon’s Yeoman, the Manciple, the Parson.
Chaucer depicted the characters with vigorous details with their manner of dressing, moral qualities, behaviour, and idiosyncrasies. The Wife of Bath’s natural vibrancy is evident in her scarlet stocking and laughing, the ugliness of the Summoner is obvious in his red face full of pimples and his drunken nature, the Monk’s corruption is evident in his knack for rich clothes. No just people of one type, “The Canterbury Tales” give us a glimpse of the whole world at its best.
After Black Death, many Europeans started having doubts about the supreme power of the Church. Some of them followed Lollardy. This discrepancy between the reality and ideal has been represented through the characters. Characters like the Summoner and the Pardoner, the Monk represent the corruption of the church whereas the Parson and the ploughman represent the ideal Christian values.
The contemporary feudal society was divided into three estates. The first was the ‘Clergy’ or ‘Oratore’ or the churchmen like the monks, priests; the second was the ‘Nobility’ or ‘Bellator’ like the knights, kings and other aristocrats and the third was ‘Peasantry’ or ‘Laberatores’ like the ploughman. Chaucer here through the tales shows the discrepancy between the expectancy and reality of their characters and satirises the topsy-turvy carnivalesque situation. This general prologue establishes the framework for the entire narrative with its abundance of characters from all strata of society, from higher to lower class which enabled Dryden to comment about the prologue, “Here is God’s plenty”.
“The Canterbury Tales” popularises the vernacular language instead of French or Latin, unlike the contemporary literature. Science fiction writer Dan Simmon framed his novel “Hyperion” based on a group of pilgrims like “The Canterbury Tales”. Similarly, Richard Dawkins used the same motif of pilgrimage in “The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution” and so on.
In the conclusion, we can say that Aldous Huxley has rightly pointed out that this work is the "vision of prodigal earth, of harvest fields, of innumerable beasts and birds, of teeming life. And it is in the heart of this living and material world of Nature that Chaucer lives."
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