Chaucer’s Influence (Part 2): The Canterbury Tales

1414477077What should every learner of British literature know of Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”? Chaucer, in the persona of the narrator and civil servant relates the stories from the different characters found within the tales. The pilgrims are making a journey to Canterbury to the site of the assassination of Saint Thomas a Becket. Chaucer meant to write his stories to “create” a national literature to replace the French influence (after the Conquest of 1066) on English language and literature. The tales were to reflect the English “experience.” 

(For Part I of Chaucer’s Influence on British Literature, specifically his minor stories and poems, look HERE.)

He lifted the common vernacular, using it to develop a literary language. Chaucer sowed the seeds of modern English poetry and turned the English language into an acceptable form of literary expression. 

The original plan was for 120 stories (30 pilgrims telling 2 stories each on the way to Canterbury and 2 more each on their return journey). Unfortunately, only 22 stories were completed, but those 22 provide us with a historical glimpse into 14th Century English life. The description of the characters in the prologue provide us a cross section of English society of the time: the good, the bad and the ugly. There are characters of every rank and a variety of professions and both genders. The prologue provides the reader a telescope into the accepted rituals, etiquette, beliefs and superstitions, food, dress, religious beliefs, etc., of the time. 

The travelers were…

A worthy Knight who had never once spoke discourtesy to any living creature. He was the “perfect” knight and not gaily clad. Though he was valorous, he was prudent and meek as a maid of his bearing. 

A young squire who was the knight’s son. The squire was twenty years of age and described as courteous, modest, and helpful. He sang often and loved to play upon the flute. 

A yeoman served as their attendant. He understood well all the practice of woodcraft.

A Prioress by the name of Madame Eglantine who took her in all courtesy. She was full diverting, pleasant and amiable of bearing and was said to possess a charitable heart. 

Another nun, a chaplain, and three priests traveled with the Prioress. 

A Monk, who was a great rider about the countryside and a lover of hunting. He followed the ways of the newer world. His pleasure was in hunting the hare, and he spared no cost in doing so. 

A begging Friar, who was wanton and jolly. He was an easy man to give penance when he looked to have a good dinner. If a man gave, the friar knew the man was contrite. He possessed a pleasant voice while singing and was competent on the fiddle. Anywhere that advantage might follow he was courteous, lowly and serviceable. He was the best beggar in his convent. 

Another traveler was a Merchant, who uttered his opinions pompously, ever tending to the increase of his own profit. 

The Oxford Clerk possessed a hollow-cheeked and grave appearance. He was a philosopher. He held little gold in his money box, but was rich in his desire to learn and to teach. 

There was a discreet Sergeant of the Law, a man of great distinction (or so he seemed as such). It was said that nowhere was there so busy a man; yet, he seemed busier than he was. 

Next, we have a ruddy faced and sanguine tempered Franklin, who held the opinion that perfect felicity stood in pleasure alone.

We find a Haberdasher, a carpenter, a weaver, a dyer, and upholsterer, as well as a cook among the traveling party. 

The Shipman paid no heed to nice conscience. In an enterprise, he acted both bold and shrewd. 

The Doctor of Physic was known for his skill in medicine and surgery. Not another could be held above him. However, he was moderate in spending and kept what he won during the pestilence. 

The Goodwife was from near Bath. She had had five husbands, as well as other company, in her youth. She was said to know about about love and its remedies. She could laugh well and prate in company. Reportedly, she was somewhat deaf. In appearance, her countenance was bold and fair and red, and she was gap toothed.

The Parson was poor, but rich in holy thought and deed. He was known to be benign, wondrously diligent, and patient in adversity. In little did he find deficiency. First, he wraught and afterwards taught. He was not pitiless to sinful men. There was nowhere a better priest than he. 

The Ploughman was the Parson’s brother. He was a faithful and good toiler, who lived his life in peace and perfect charity. 

The Miller was a stout man, full of bones and brawn. He was a loud orator and a ribald jester, and it was mostly of sin and scurrility. 

The Manciple of the Inns of Court was said to be an example of how other stewards might practice craftiness in buying victuals. 

The Reeve was a slender, bilious man. There was no churl whose tricks and craftiness he knew not. He knew how to pick up wealth and had a rich privy hoard. 

The Sumner was a fine, red cherubim-faced fellow, as hot and lecherous as a sparrow. He was a kind rogue and gentle. However, his visage frightened children. 

The Pardoner was gentle of nature. As for his grade there was not such another pardoner. With flattering deceit, he made the parson and the people his dupes. He could well read a lesson and best of all sing an offertory to win silver.

Now, let’s take a quick look at the more popular tales:

The Prioresses’ Tale

There was a Jewish quarter in a great Asian city, and at the end of it stood a Christian school. A widow’s son of seven was among the schoolboys. He would always kneel and say his Ave Maria when he viewed the image of Christ’s mother. One day he heard Alma Redemptoris Mater sung and was captivated by the melody. He learned the first verse by heart and begged his fellow to explain the meaning of it to him. He learned that the song was a salute to the blessed Lady and instructed that she be his succor when he died. Pleased, he set out to learn the hymn by heart. He would sing it on his way to and from school each day. The Devil convinced the Jews that boy was being irreverent to their faith and should be eliminated. The Jews seized him. slit his throat, and cast the boy’s body into a well. 

His mother searched extensively for him. At length, she came near the well and called his name. The boy sang loudly and clearly so the whole quarter could hear the Alma Redemptoris. The child was drawn up and the Jews punished for their deeds. As he lay on his bier, the child continued to sing. When questioned why he sang, he explained that he imagined a grain placed on his tongue by his Lady. He would sing until the grain was removed. A holy monk took the grain from the child’s tongue, and the boy straightway died. 

The Friar’s Tale

The Friar’s tale is directed against the summoner. He tells a tale of one of this profession who accepted the bribes from the people. Once he met a yeoman who professed to be a bailiff. As they began to exchange secrets of the profession, the bailiff confessed that he was the Devil, but like the summoner, engaged in winning profits. The two struck a bargain to become partners and divide their gain. They came upon a carter whose cart was in a ditch. The carter cursed his horse, saying “The Devil take you!” But the Devil did not act for he knew the carter did not mean his words. Later, they encountered a woman of whom the summoner demanded money. In return, she wished that the Devil would take the summoner, and as she meant her words, the Devil took his profits off to Hell. 

The Nun’s Priest Tale

A poor widow had a cock named Chanticleer. This noble cock, of grand and austere appearance, had seven hens, his sisters and paramours, of whom the fairest was Damoiselle Parltet. One night he groaned in his sleep, and upon begin chided by Partlet told her that he dreamed of beast like a hound, between red and yellow in color, who would kill him. Partlet said the dream is caused by a superfluity of red choler. But the learned reference Chanticleer shows that dreams are to be feared.

One night a fox, sly and unrighteous, burst through the hedge. Chanticleer was out walking in the sun and singing when he spotted the shadow of the fox, but the fox spoke so kindly that Chanticleer did not run away. The fox praises Chanticleer’s father, saying the father was a great singer. The fox suggests that if Chanticleer wishes to be as great as his father, he must stand on tip-toe, stretching his neck forth, and closing both eyes. Chanticleer imitated his father. Sir Russel, the fox, caught Chanticleer by the neck and carried him home to his den. 

The widow sends out the hounds to track the fox, and Chanticleer advises the fox to turn and tell them to turn back since he intends to eat the cock. The fox did, and as he opened his mouth, Chanticleer skipped free. The fox tried to say he was just scaring him and never meant any harm. But Chanticleer saw through the guile. The Nun’s Priest moral is “take the fruit and leave the chaff.”

The Wife of Bath’s Tale 

In the prologue, she discusses in a highly realistic manner the concepts of virginity and marriage. She holds little respect for the former, and in detail describes her relationship with her various husbands, emphasizing how she henpecked some and really loved the one who beat her. Her tale is that of the Knight who would be put to death unless he could find the answer to a riddle: What is woman’s greatest desire? It is another version of the Tale of Florent told by John Gower. 

The Pardoner’s Tale

The theme of the prologue is “My aim is all for gain and not at all for correction of sin.” In Flanders there lived a company of young people who followed after folly, living riotous evil lives spent in gluttony, drinking, gaming, swearing, and vice. In this group were three rioters in particular whom this tale concerns. They discover that a corpse passing was that of an old friend. The three said that if Death was such a terrible person, they would search Death out and “kill” him. 

Meeting an old man they greet him churlishly. They ask what he knows of Death. The man tells the three that can find Death waiting for them by a certain tree. They go to the spot and find almost eight bushels of gold florins. They draw lots as to who shall go to town for bread and wine to tide them over until they can move their treasure to safety during the dark of night. The youngest does the biding. 

The two who remain behind plan to kill the youngest upon his return so they can split the fortune only two ways instead of three. Meanwhile, the youngest decides to poison the other two with the wine upon his return to the tree. The youngest is slain by the other two. They drink merry, but fall dead from the poison. 

The Franklin’s Tale

Arveragus was forced to journey and leave his wife Dorigen behind. Aurelius thereupon falls in love with her. In jest, she tells him that she will return his love when he can remove all the rocks from the sea coast. Through a magician, Aurelius has the rocks removed and asks for his reward. Rather than be untrue, Dorigen determines she must die. Before she can take her life, however, Arveragus returns and bids her keep her word. When Aurelius learns of Averagus’ goodness, he repents and frees Dorigen of her promise. She and Averagus live happily. 

The Basic Criticisms of Chaucer’s Tales:

  1. Chaucer’s tales are reproductions of old stories. It was Chaucer’s function to tell the story better than it was told before. The pardoner tells his story as a pardoner might have told it, not as Chaucer would have told it if he were telling the story. 
  2. Chaucer made his group of pilgrims into a picture of the society of his times, the life of which is hardly to be found elsewhere. Except for royalty and the nobles on the one hand, and dregs of the people on the other, two classes which probability excluded from taking a pilgrimage, he painted in brief, the whole English nation. 
  3. There is an omnipresent sense of humor and the Tales are characterized by astonishingly brilliant types, individualized by the freshness and sharpness of the impression. They are the greatest evidence of Chaucer’s dramatic power. 

GradeSaver says, “Scholars do not know whether the Tales we have are a complete text, and the textual history of the Tales is long and checkered. The first printed edition, printed by William Caxton in 1478, was based on a manuscript now lost, and the 82 manuscripts which survive include 14 perfect (or nearly perfect) copies containing all of the Tales, 41 which are very nearly complete, only missing a few pages, 7 copies which are very fragmentary, and 20 which contain a single tale or a single passage deliberately cut out of the larger work. No manuscript can be dated within Chaucer’s lifetime, meaning that every manuscript was written between 1400 and the time of Caxton’s printing press (just less than a century later).

“There are two basic camps into which these manuscripts fall into: and these two differing texts of the Tales are known as the Ellesmere and the Hengwrt manuscripts respectively.

“The Ellesmere manuscript contains the most complete text of the Tales that we have, written in a large, clear book hand which covers 232 leaves of fine quality thin vellum, printed on unusually large pages with unusually generous margins. Famously, the main attraction of the manuscript is the lavish illumination, illustration and decoration: huge, golden and colorful initials joined to elaborate borders appear on seventy-one pages. Facing the first line of each of the Tales is an illustration of its narrator (the very famous illustration of Chaucer is featured opposite).

“The Hengwrt manuscript of the Tales is less complete than the Ellesmere, and its tales are in a different and unique order. The manuscript, made of vellum, is in poor condition, stained, and with vermin having eaten about 9cm from the outer corners of its pages. However, its text is very regular, and is therefore now used by most modern editors.”

For a closer look at Chaucer’s influence, check out Bachelor and Master HERE.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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