Poetry

The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is a series of stories told from the perspectives of twenty-nine pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury in order to venerate the shrine of Thomas Becket. The host of a tavern proposes a contest to determine who can tell the best story, and the characters craft tales ranging from chivalric romance to moral allegory to low farce. Geoffrey Chaucer’s structure resembles the Italian Decameron, and the attributes he assigns to each of his characters resembles a medieval estate satire in which people were described through the stereotypes associated with their class. While Chaucer only completed 24 of the 120 stories he proposed, the lines we have give scholars a better understanding of the social and political makeup of medieval England, because each story is written in the style and tone of each character’s social class. The text as a whole was originally written in Middle English and passed down in various handwritten manuscripts. Its ability to survive in so many copies demonstrates both its popularity and the acceptance of the unique quality that makes this set of tales so significant: it was written in the vernacular language rather than Latin, French or Italian. The Canterbury Tales has been credited as popularizing the English vernacular as an acceptable language for artistic expression, laying the groundwork for all great English works to come.

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