The Canterbury Tales tell the story of a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury who engage in a tale-telling contest to pass the time. Besides watching the interactions between the characters, we get to read 24 of the tales the pilgrims tell.
Geoffrey Chaucer likely wrote The Canterbury Tales in the late 1380s and early 1390s, after his retirement from life as a civil servant. In this professional life, Chaucer was able to travel from his home in England to France and Italy. There, he not only had the chance to read Italian and French literature, but possibly, even to meet Boccaccio, whose Decameron – a collection of tales told by Italian nobility holed up in a country house to escape the plague ravaging their city – may have inspired the frame story of The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer's decision to write in his country's language, English, rather than in the Latin of so many of his educated colleagues, was something of a risk, and a big break with learned tradition. The risk paid off – we know The Canterbury Tales were enormously popular because so many more manuscripts of the tales survive than of almost any other work of this time period. The Canterbury Tales were still going strong when the first printers made their way to England. William Caxton published the first printed version of The Canterbury Tales in 1470.
One of the things that makes The Canterbury Tales so fun to read is the great (and often grotesque) detail with which the narrator describes each of the pilgrims. We learn, for example, that the cook has a pustule on his leg that very much resembles one of the desserts he cooks, or that the miller has a huge, pug nose. For many of his portraits, Chaucer is relying on a medieval tradition of "estates satire," a collection of stereotypes about people based on what occupation they had or what social class they belonged to. Another medieval idea his portraits draw upon is "anticlericalism," a tradition that got its start in reaction to a lot of abuses by clergy in the medieval church, but which basically became a collection of stereotypes about friars, monks, nuns, priests, and the like.
Chaucer draws upon these traditions, but he doesn't necessarily regurgitate them whole: as you'll see when you examine the portraits of the pilgrims more closely, many of them are not what they appear. What does that say about the strength of the conclusions we draw about people based upon first impressions, or appearances?
Since The Canterbury Tales is a story about a storytelling competition, many of the questions it asks are about stories: what makes for a good story? why do we tell stories? why should we tell stories? As the pilgrims tell their stories, though, they turn out to be talking not just about fairytale people in far-off lands, but also about themselves and their society. This leads to a lot of conflict in a group of pilgrims formed by members of that same society, who often take offense at the versions of themselves they see portrayed in the tales. The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, and the interactions between the pilgrims that occur in between the tales, then, form a story of their own – dare we say, a Canterbury tale?
You know those movies where a new kid moves to town and has to go to a new high school, like Mean Girls? On his first day of school, the new kid meets a friendly nerd who takes him to the cafeteria and introduces him to all the cliques that make up his new social existence: "And here we have the jocks. And here are the math geeks…" Well, in The Canterbury Tales, you're the new kid, and Chaucer is your friendly nerd, serving as your guide to the jocks, cheerleaders, and math geeks of medieval society. Like your friendly nerd, he's witty and sarcastic, revealing all of the posing and preening that's going on in this cafeteria while at the same time desperately longing to be a part of it.
Of course, the same thing always happens in the course of those movies: the new kid ends up wanting to date outside of, or socialize beyond, the clique into which he's immediately cast because of his "new kid" status. Angst ensues, but, at the end of the day, everybody figures out that the cheerleader really isn't shallow after all, the jock has a heart of gold, and the math geek a beautiful soul. Everybody is hiding something interesting. Nobody is exactly what they first appeared to be. Well, in The Canterbury Tales, the same thing is true: appearances can be deceiving.
Or can they? The Canterbury Tales are written in a society that, to some extent, believed you could judge a book by its cover – that the physical characteristics, or the mere category of a person, might reveal something about what was on the inside. In some ways, the pilgrims' portraits in The Canterbury Tales confirm the common stereotypes: the lower-class person is extremely physical, the consummate wife is lustful. But, as the Tales progress, these people have the chance to speak for themselves. What happens then isn't exactly a contradiction of the stereotypes about them, but it isn't exactly a confirmation of them, either. As so often happens when you really get to know someone, what you find out in The Canterbury Tales is that people, even the ones we think we have figured out, are never one-dimensional and always worth getting to know better.