Culture and Recreation
Why is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales important to literature?
The unfinished work, which was begun about 1486 and written during the last 14 years of its author’s life, is considered a masterpiece of Middle English, the language spoken by Anglo-Saxons in England from c. 1200 into the late 1400s. In the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (1340–1400), who was the son of a wealthy wine merchant, weaves together stories told by 28 pilgrims whom the storyteller (the poet himself) met at an inn. The pilgrims, along with the innkeeper who joins them and the poet, represent all facets of English social life—aristocracy, clergy, commoners, and even a middle class, which was not officially recognized by the social structure of the day, but which, in fact, existed.
To connect the tales, Chaucer uses the framing device of a journey to the shrine of Thomas Becket (c.1118–1170), the archbishop of Canterbury who in 1170 was killed by overzealous knights in the service of England’s King Henry II. In his prologue, Chaucer indicates that each traveler was to tell two tales out and two tales back from Canterbury Cathedral, for a total of 120 stories, which were intended to entertain the pilgrims during their trip. But Chaucer wrote only 24 tales, two of which are incomplete. The tales include bawdy humor, fables, and lessons. While the pilgrims reach the shrine, they do not return—a device some scholars have interpreted as deliberate on the author’s part, as it suggests the human journey from earth to heaven. Whatever the intention, The Canterbury Tales reveal the author’s ability as a storyteller, as the editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature assert, rivaling Shakespeare “in the art of providing entertainment on the most primitive level, and at the same time, of significantly increasing the reader’s ability to comprehend reality.”
The tales were extremely popular in late medieval England, printed and reprinted numerous times, particularly during the 1400s. Chaucer’s rendering of details reveal both story and storyteller (pilgrim) at once, giving the reader a remarkable insight into the characters and revealing basic human paradoxes—which transcend time.