Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales


Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1971


Geoffrey Chaucer writes his monumental “Canterbury Tales” between 1387 and 1400, only few decades after Boccaccio’s “Decameron”. That the two classics of world literature bear resemblances in form and content is no coincidence. Chaucer, who as a diplomat for England also travels Italy and France, has at least encountered Boccaccio’s work, at best even the poet himself. Both literary works follow the same principle of construction, a collection of novellas embedded in a frame narrative, which paint a colourful portrait of society by employing a plethora of different narrators.


In the “Canterbury Tales”, 30 pilgrims on their way to Canterbury meet at an inn. They decide not only to travel together, but also to launch a story-telling contest. Each pilgrim will tell four tales, two on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. The traveller with the best tale, which in this case translates into that “of best sentence and most solace”, wins a free meal at an inn. Chaucer never finishes his mammoth task; he completes only 24 of the 120 tales promised in the prologue before he dies.


But 24 tales are enough to make his work immortal. The great number of preserved manuscripts suggests that his stories must have become popular soon after his death. In the history of the English language, the Canterbury Tales enjoy an almost singular status as the most important work of Late Middle English. What Dante’s work did for Italian, Chaucer’s tales do for English: they establish it as a language of literature, a position that has been occupied exclusively by Latin and French until now. While the original is written in verse, the prose translation of this Manesse edition makes the well-known and often quoted tales more accessible for the modern reader.


And the tales are more than accessible. While Boccaccio’s characters form a very homogenous group, Chaucer’s painting of medieval society bears greater resemblance to a page from a wimmelbilderbuch, or hidden picture book: all estates and ranks are represented except for king and beggar. Here, knight and miller, merchant and nun, reeve, cook, and doctor all come together. Among the pilgrims are beautiful and ugly fellows, some thin, others fat, some dumb and others wise. According to the differences in social standing, the tales’ style significantly varies between an elevated and a very simple language, but also with respect to the way one topic is approached. Often two or more tales address the same theme but view it from different perspectives. So the ideal of courtly love in the Knight’s Tale is contrasted with the much bawdier version of the miller, which ends with adultery and a naked butt.


Like Boccaccio, Chaucer’s critique of the Church is anything but subtle: The clergy drink like a fish, break their celibate and make a mint by extorting indulgences from the people. Chaucer’s irony, by contrast, is very subtle, which makes reading the tales enormously pleasurable. And should the esteemed reader still consider one tale or another to be too bawdy, Chaucer tells us, just skip it and remember that it’s all just a merry sport.


by Teresa Teklić

Signet Sunflower Foundation