Geoffrey Chaucer [c.1343-1400] “The Canterbury Tales”

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Geoffrey Chaucer

In his own lifetime, Geoffrey was considered the greatest English poet, and the centuries have not dimmed his reputation. With a single exception of William Shakespeare, no English writer has surpassed Chaucer’s achievements. His unfinished masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, ranks as one of the world’s finest works of literature. It also provides the best contemporary picture we have of 14th century England.

Although the exact date of Geoffrey’s birth is unknown, official records furnish many details of his active life as a public servant. His father was a well-to-do wine merchant in London, a man with sufficient influence to secure young Geoffrey a position as page in a household connected with that of King Edward III. As a page Chaucer’s duties were humble, but the job provided him an opportunity to observe the ruling aristocracy, thus broadening his knowledge of the various classes of society. In 1359, while serving in the English army in France, he was captured and held prisoner. The King paid 16 pounds ransom for his release.

Phillippa Pan

 

In 1366 Chaucer married a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. His marriage to Philippa Pan lasted until her death in 1387. Scholars believe that Chaucer and his wife had 3 children. Their, eldest Thomas, was apparently ambitious and advanced higher in the world than his father had, Little is know about a son, probably called Lewis, and a daughter called Elizabeth.

Throughout his life Chaucer served in key government positions. He was controller of customs, a justice of the peace, and a one term member of Parliament. He spent time in France and Italy on diplomatic missions, served as a supervisor of construction and repairs at Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London, and late in life, acted as a subforester to the King’s Forest.

I might seem that Chaucer has little time for writing, but in fact he was able to produce a great deal. He began writing poetry in his twenties and continued to do so the rest of his life. Moreover, as he grew older, his literary works showed increasing depth and sophistication. In Troilus and Criseyde, a long poem dealing with themes from classical antiquity, he displays the dramatic flair and penetrating insight into human character that are his hallmarks. The Canterbury Tales, of which only 24 of the projected 124 tales were completed, shows Chaucer’s absolute mastery of the storyteller’s art.

Chaucer was the first person to buried in what is now the poet’s corner of Westminster Abbey.

Pilgrims_from_Canterbury

People in Medieval England sometimes made pilgrimages to sacred shrines. One such shrine was the Cathedral in Canterbury, a town about 50 miles southeast of London, where Archbishop Thomas A Becket was murdered in 1170. The pilgrim’s often traveled in groups from companionship and protection. Chaucer’s masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, introduces a group of “nine and twenty” pilgrims, one of whom is Chaucer himself. These pilgrims appear first at the Tabbard Inn in Southwark, near London, and later on the road to Canterbury.

The Canterbury Tales, is a frame story; that is, a story that includes, or frames, another story or stories. Chaucer’s frame is the pilgrimage, which he originally planned as a round trip but which remained incomplete at his death. Within this frame are 24 individual stories the pilgrims tell. Chaucer did not invent the frame story device. The same structural scheme had been used centuries earlier in The Thousand and One Nights, and Boccaccio, an Italian contemporary of Chaucer, used it in Decameron, published about 1350.

Chaucer’s handling of his pilgrimage frame is brilliant. The stories are mostly familiar ones, superbly retold. Perhaps even more impressive than the stories and the storytellers. Chaucer’s pilgrims, all of whom are introduced in his Prologue, are memorable, vividly drawn individuals whose personalities are unique but whose character traits are universal. The pilgrims interact with one another; clashes erupt among them as one pilgrim takes offense at another’s tale and proceeds to retaliate with his or her own story.

By using the vehicle of the pilgrimage, Chaucer brings together people from 3 main segments of medieval society- the church, the court, and the common people. His pilgrims are drawn from the class structure of feudalism (a knight, a squire, a reeve, for example) as well as from the more open classes in the emerging cities (a merchant, an innkeeper) and the powerful, hierarchical church of the time (a nun, a friar, a pardoner). Chaucer’s interest in all these people and the shrewd but affectionate pictures he draws of them make them stand out in such distinct detail that they seem real, alive, and almost modern in their foibles and concerns.

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