This lesson will review Geoffrey Chaucer’s ”The Canterbury Tales”, and give an overview of critical responses to this major work of English literature over the course of its history.
Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer was a civil servant, a soldier, and a poet.
In the late 1300s, he produced one of the most famous works of English literature, The Canterbury Tales. This collection of stories, mostly written in verse, tells the stories of 24 pilgrims traveling to Canterbury, England, where a famous saint is buried.It begins with a prologue written by a speaker who briefly describes each of the 29 pilgrims. Chaucer died before finishing it, which is why there are fewer stories than pilgrims!It then tells the stories of these pilgrims, some of them commoners, some noble, and some clerical.
The printing press had not yet been invented, so the stories circulated in handwritten fragments until it could be published.The Canterbury Tales was written in Middle English, an earlier form of English that can be difficult for modern English-speakers to read. It has remained in print for over 600 years, so scholars have proposed many helpful, and sometimes very different, literary criticisms that analyze it in a way that will help us understand it. Let’s take a look.
Style and Language
The first critical responses to The Canterbury Tales came from other poets in his own time and focused on Chaucer’s skill as a writer. They praised him for his mastery of the language and his stylistic innovations.
For example, he used a new pattern in his poetry, and he was among the first to use vernacular English, the language used by common people in conversation. In Chaucer’s time, literary texts were usually written in French, which was considered a more noble and ‘scholarly’ language. These early critical responses generally focused on The Canterbury Tales as a great work of English literature.
Allegory and Morality
Poetry and stories in Chaucer’s time were often used as a form of moral instruction, and other early responses centered on The Canterbury Tales as allegory, a kind of story in which characters and their actions represent larger ideas or concepts.From the 1500s onward, many of the responses involved interpretations of how particular virtues and vices were illustrated by various pilgrims and their tales.
It continued to be imitated and praised by English poets into the 1600s for its language and its moral themes.There was a shift in critical interest in the 1700s and 1800s, when scholars began trying to assemble the fragments of the pilgrims’ stories in the ‘proper’ order. Also, translations from Middle English to modern English began to emerge. This resulted in multiple versions that continue to be discussed and debated.
Chaucer’s Attitude Toward His Time
Critics in more recent times have come to focus on what the work can tell us about the times Chaucer lived in and his attitude towards medieval institutions, particularly the Church. In the 1950s, Chaucer scholars often interpreted him as a champion of the era’s social norms and religious doctrine.
Some focused on certain stories that they thought represented Chaucer’s derogatory opinions about his less noble characters.Since then, others have suggested that Chaucer only created honorable characters to ridicule the ideals of medieval society. They claim that The Canterbury Tales challenges the norms and doctrines of medieval society.Still others have suggested that the work is more complex and less moralistic.
These scholars believe that it portrays sophisticated characters with varied motives and personalities and that Chaucer does not clearly identify with any character’s point-of-view.
Since The Canterbury Tales has been around for more than 600 years, there have been many interpretations and conclusions about it. All of these have become part of a larger conversation about its meaning.
- Early on, poets in his own time and focused on Chaucer’s skill and praised his mastery of the language and his stylistic innovations, including using vernacular (common) English.
- From about 1500 – 1700 the work was seen as an allegory, (characters and their actions represent larger idea) and scholars interpreted how particular virtues and vices were illustrated.
- In the 1700s and 1800s attempts at putting the tales in order was in fashion, as well as translations into modern English. The different versions are discussed and debated to this day.
- In the last century many have tried to glean Chaucer’s attitude toward morality and the Church from his characters. Some say he championed the social norms and religious doctrine of his time; some say he mocked them; some think it’s more complex than any one all-encompassing conclusion.
What do you think?