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Geoffrey Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer was man who spoke his mind. He has been a member of Parliament, a justice of the peace, and a soldier, but he is best known for his work as an English poet and his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer was born in the year 1343 in London to a prosperous wine merchant, John Chaucer and his wife Agnes de Copton. At the age of 13, Chaucer became a page under Prince Lionel, son of King Edward II, and later in 1359 went to war with him during the Hundred Years' War. During the war, he was captured by the French and later ransomed off for quite a bit of money by the king.
No really knows what happens in his life over the next seven years, but by 1367, he became married to Philippa and became a squire. His wife was a member of the queen's household, so Chaucer has already set himself up for some success just by marrying up. Chaucer then wrote his first narrative poem, The Book of the Duchess, for the John of Gaunt whose wife had from plague. John was another of King Edward's sons. This poem was written as a, “dream allegory, in which an allegorical tale is represented in the narrative framework of a dream” (Brittanica).
For the next eight years of his life from 1370-1378, Chaucer went on several missions to Italy, France, and Flanders (Belgium). While he was in Italy, he came into contact of the three influential writers of the Renaissance that we talked about in class: Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, all of which were to influence him as well. After all of this, he began writing in the signature style that we all know and love, starting off with his greatest poem of the decade, House of Fame, which he never finished. Afterward in 1380, he wrote, Parliament of Fowls, which was his work on love. It was then that five years later he would be appointed justice of the peace, which is someone who just tries to keep the peace in unruly areas, and then one year later in 1386 sat for one term in the Parliament of England.
In 1387, Chaucer's wife Philippa dies, which adds to the difficulty that was going on in England at the time, with Richard II taking the throne. It was then that Chaucer began his magnum opus, The Canterbury Tales, which he never completely finished in the next thirteen years of his life. He was soon after put in charge of Westminster Palace and the Tower of London. He was also put in charge of repairs of roads and to St. George's Chapel at Windsor. He did not keep this dream job for the rest of his life which he had hoped, but was reassigned as a sub forester at one of the king's parks. He worked here until he died on October 25, 1400. Before he died, he had bought a house in the gardens of Westminster Abbey, so he was then buried there in the sector that would later become known as the Poets' Corner.
During Chaucer's time, Middle English was the language of everyday people while the Church's language was Latin. No one could even read Latin except maybe one person in an entire clergy and that was it. This is why Chaucer decided to write his poems in Middle English, so that the common person could read his works and not just a few. His dialect of Middle English is where our Modern English derived from, probably because the influence his books had on everybody.
Chaucer has been involved in many areas in his lifetime as shown earlier. He has met people from all walks of life and from all classes in society, from the peasants to the nobles to the king himself. He also knew professional men of medicine and the law as he studied them when he was a boy. He mingled with everyone because he was a people person. All of the places he had visited and all the people he had ran into in his life helped create inspiration for the characters in The Canterbury Tales.
The Canterbury Tales was Chaucer's most famous work and his last since he didn't even finish it before his death. He had planned for the book to have 120 tales in it, but he only finished 20 and parts of others. The book was first printed in 1476 by the first English printer, William Caxton.
To give you some background information of The Canterbury Tales, during the time it was written, people made pilgrimages to shrines dedicated to saints in the Church. And in this particular story, a group of people were making a pilgrimage to the most famous shrine in England at the time, the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket in Canterbury. Thomas was an archbishop who became a martyr in the 12th century. Canterbury was a town that located southeast of London, about 55 miles away, so it wasn't too bad of a hike as compared to some pilgrimages, like to Mecca or somewhere else considered holy.
The book starts off at the Tabard Inn near the Thames River in London in April 1387. There were 29 characters there, and he himself is a pilgrim in the story, adding to the number already listed. The characters that are with him are: a Knight, Squire, Yeoman, Prioress, Monk, Friar, Merchant, Clerk, Man of Law, Franklin, Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer, Tapicer, Cook, Shipmen, Doctor of Physic, Alice, Wife of Bath, Parson, Plowman, Miller, Manciple, Reeve, Summoner, Pardoner, and the Host of the Inn, Harry Bailey. Harry is the one who decided that they should all go on the pilgrimage together and to each tell two stories on the way to the sacred shrine and two on the way back.
Once the party sets out, they draw lots to see who should tell the first tale. The Knight got the luck of the draw and tells his story first. His narrative is about two knights competing in a tournament to win over the love of a princess. His story represents chivalry as he had grown up with it and the idea of courtly love expressing it towards women as he is used to. The Miller, who is a drunkard, is my favorite character in whole story because of his blatant vulgarity and he is such a rude man that the narrator warns the audience that if they are offended by his tale, that they can skip ahead to another one. His tale goes directly against that of the Knight's and his proposal of courtly love by introducing a “no-strings attached” type of relationship. His story is about a carpenter and his wife and how a clerk slept with his wife and how the Miller is a married man and doesn't worry about whether his wife is sleeping with other men because it's none of his business.
The Reeve, who tells the next story, is offended by the tale the Miller tells because he is also a carpenter, so then in retaliation he tells a story about a miller that steals flour from some students who end up staying the night at his house. These students then sleep with his wife and his daughter and when the miller finds out what happens, his wife mistakenly hits him over the head while the students leave. This is just great how the Miller and the Reeve bash each other so bluntly. I wish there was more of this type of grotesque humor in the world today. The Cook likes the Reeve's story so much that he himself tells yet another funny tale about an apprentice who drinks a lot and has his master dismiss him from his home. He ends up staying at his friend's house that has a prostitute as a wife. The Cook's tale is one that is left unfinished.
The Host asks the Man of Law to tell the next tale and he gladly obliges. He tells a story of a princess and sultan who are in love, but they can only marry if the sultan converts to Christianity. His mother then sends the princess off to sea, where she lands and meets a king whom she has a baby with and the boy becomes emperor of Rome after the princess's father dies. The Shipman tells then a story of a merchant and the Prioress tells one of a choirboy. Chaucer then, who is also along on the pilgrimage, tells two tales because the first one made the Host's ears hurt.
Next, the Monk tells short stories about men who have held a high position and then have fallen down to the depths, starting with Lucifer and Adam. The Host wants him to tell a different story, but he denies and tells someone else to narrate a tale, so another priest tells one. The Doctor speaks a boring story according to the Host, so the Pardoner subsequently starts preaching about greed and swearing, along with a story about three men and their ultimate greed for gold that leads to their demises.
The infamous Wife of Bath speaks after that. She is a woman that speaks from experience, having traveled on many pilgrimages around the world and having five husbands of her own. In a time where women had little or no power, she had the ability to control men by withholding sexual activity and used it as a bargaining tool to get what she wants. She is also quite wealthy, which you can see from what she wears. She goes on to tell a charming story about a knight in King Arthur's court who goes on a quest to find out what women truly desire. The answer that this knight came up with was that they wanted the mastery in their marriage, which he only got the answer once he promised to marry the ugly woman who gave him the answer. I find this quite ironic, since this is probably what the Wife of Bath did in all of her marriages since she was an ugly husky woman herself.
The Summoner and the Friar consequently hurl barrages of insults at each other, and thus creating the tales that bash the other in them, much like that of the Reeve and the Miller's tales. The Clerk and the Merchant then go on to tell stories that are contradictory to one another just as the tales previous go against each other as well.
The Squire tells a story on the trend of the Knight's Tale and the concept of courtly romance about a princess and a magic ring that allowed her to hear what birds were saying. The Franklin then enlightens the pilgrims with a parable of a wife who willingly agrees to betray her husband if her so-called lover could move all the rocks on the coast of Brittany. He does surprisingly, with the help of magic, but then he goes on his merry way and disowns the vow he made with the woman. The Yeoman speaks of a canon (alchemist) and a priest, while the Manciple and the Cook start a fight because the Cook is drunk. The Manciple finally narrates a tale that goes on and on to explaining why crows are black, which is quite interesting by the way if you read it. The Parson ends it on a sermon on the seven deadly sins and The Canterbury Tales finally ends abruptly, maybe because they finally reached Canterbury after the duration of four days.
In the end, Geoffrey Chaucer was a man of great influence on the Modern English language and helps define it through his dialect of Middle English. He was also greatly influenced by the Renaissance writers of the time, and even the ancient writers that we spoke of earlier in the year such as Virgil, Ovid, and Livy. His Canterbury Tales has been read for centuries and people continue to find it original in the content that he wrote it and creative in the anthological way he fashioned it.
"Geoffrey Chaucer." Compton's Encyclopædia Britannica. 4. Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2007. Print.
"The Canterbury Tales." The Electronic Literature Foundation. 2006. ELF, Web. 11 Dec 2009. <http://www.canterburytales.org/canterbury_tales.html>.