It is thought that Geoffrey Chaucer started The Canterbury Tales in the 1380s, but he never finished them. They are a collection of 24 stories that runs to over 17,000 lines written in Middle English, mostly in verse, although some are in prose.
They are presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The prize for this contest is a free meal at the Tabard Inn at Southwark on their return.
The tales paint an ironic and critical portrait of English society at the time, and particularly of the Church. While Chaucer seems to have respected and admired Christians and to have been one himself, he also recognised that many people in the church were venal and corrupt. He writes in Canterbury Tales, “now I beg all those that listen to this little treatise, or read it, that if there be anything in it that pleases them, they thank our Lord Jesus Christ for it, from whom proceeds all understanding and goodness.”
The Canterbury Tales are also sometimes considered the source of the English vernacular tradition, as opposed to French, Italian or Latin. English had, however, been used as a literary language centuries before Chaucer’s time.
The 24 Tales include:
- The Knight’s Tale
- The Miller’s Prologue and Tale
- The Reeve’s Prologue and Tale
- The Cook’s Prologue and Tale
- The Man of Law’s Prologue and Tale
- The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
- The Friar’s Prologue and Tale
- The Summoner’s Prologue and Tale
- The Clerk’s Prologue and Tale
- The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale
- The Squire’s Prologue and Tale
- The Franklin’s Prologue and Tale
- The Physician’s Tale
- The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale
- The Shipman’s Tale
- The Prioress’ Prologue and Tale
- Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Topas
- The Tale of Melibee
- The Monk’s Tale
- The Nun’s Priest’s Tale
- The Second Nun’s Prologue and Tale
- The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale
- The Manciple’s Prologue and Tale
- The Parson’s Prologue and Tale
- Chaucer’s Retraction
There is much speculation as to why Chaucer left The Canterbury Tales unfinished. One theory is that he left off writing them in the mid 1390s, some five or six years before his death. It is possible that the enormousness of the task had overwhelmed him, as he had been working on The Canterbury Tales for ten years or more, and he was not one quarter through his original plan.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "The Canterbury Tales" https://englishhistory.net/middle-ages/the-canterbury-tales/, January 12, 2022