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The Canterbury Tales is the world's weirdest road trip.
It tells the story of a group of pilgrims (fancy word for travelers) 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.
And as it turns out, Medieval storytellers had some 'tude.
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 a big break with learned tradition. But 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, and William Caxton published the first printed version of The Canterbury Tales in 1476.
One of the things that makes The Canterbury Tales so fun to read is the great (and often, uh, 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...and 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.
Sounds funny? It is.
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:
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.
Full Text of the Tales
Handy online version of the Tales, with facing-page modern English "translation" next to the original Middle English. Within the text itself, you can click on many of the words to be taken directly to the word's definition.
Searchable Full Text
The Electronic Literature Foundation (ELF)'s version of the Tales are fully searchable, available in facing page Middle English – modern English "translation," and illustrated with pictures from the Ellesmere manuscript.
Tales Background Info
The late, great Professor Jane Zatta's website compiles helpful background information on many of the tales, including current scholarly opinions and probable sources for the tales.
2003 BBC Miniseries
This is a modern adaptation of some of the tales. In the first episode, "The Miller's Tale," a tenant tries to seduce his landlord's wife.
A Knight's Tale, 2001
No, it doesn't actually have anything to do with the Knight's tale we find in the Canterbury Tales. But Paul Bettany delightfully plays the character Chaucer, who's funny, self-deprecating, and kind of like we've always imagined he would be if he showed up at a dinner party.
The Hengwrt Chaucer
You have to pay if you want the full digital edition of the Hengwrt manuscript, but the demonstration lets you view a few pages for free! The coolest feature is the part that lets you view the Hengwrt manuscript side by side with the Ellesmere.
Blake Painting Fights Old Battle
News blurb about the Tate Britain obtaining William Blake's engraving The Canterbury Pilgrims to hang next to rival Thomas Stothard's composition of the same theme. Story accompanied by images of both compositions.
"The Criyng and the Soun"
This page collects audio files of Chaucer read aloud from all over the web. Most of the recordings are meant as resources to help students learn the pronunciation of Middle English.
The Canterbury Road to Modern England
NPR reporting follows the road from London to Canterbury – the same route followed by the Canterbury pilgrims – to have a look at English society as it has evolved over the last six centuries. Some surprising parallels between medieval and modern characters are revealed.
Listen to medievalist Jane Zatta read lines 1-42 of the "General Prologue" in Middle English.
Teach Yourself to Read Middle English
This page, provided by Harvard, offers ten lessons that start with a general explanation of the principles of Middle English pronunciation and move on to actual practice with the tales themselves.
A Basic Chaucer Glossary
This is a helpful glossary of Middle English terms often used in Chaucer. The 100 most common words are denoted by an asterisk.