CANTERBURY TALES: On April 17, 1397, Geoffrey Chaucer was reported to have given the first presentation of Canterbury Tales at the English court of Richard II. A radio show of story songs, rather than a pilgrimage with folk tales, finds John on Crosscurrents, Monday, April 17 at 8 AM. Listen live at www.KRNN.org, 102.7fm, or 103.1fm.
On April 17, 1397, Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400) was recorded to have given the first presentation of his Canterbury Tales at the English royal court of Richard II. The Canterbury Tales are a collection of 24 stories that run to over 17,000 lines written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer, the Father of English literature, widely considered the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages.
For generations, Geoffrey Chaucer’s family had been in service of the British court and moved up the ranks. The family’s last name in French would have been Chaussier – shoemaker, while Chaucer’s father was the wine merchant to Edward III. Young Geoffrey, born of a French attendant of the court, enjoyed a solidly upper-middle-class upbringing, including service in the diplomatic corps in Europe during the Hundred Years War, where he got the inspiration to write his famous tales. Readings were the mass entertainment of the day — though readings of English-language literature rarely were.
Born in London, England, in the 1340s, Geoffrey Chaucer was a famed poet, writer, and civil servant later dubbed the “father of English literature.” “The Canterbury Tales” is widely considered to be his magnum opus or masterpiece. Aside from his great contributions to English literature, he was also an accomplished philosopher, astronomer, and diplomat. His resting place is in Westminster Abbey, London, in a commemorated section known as the Poets’ Corner.
The use of a pilgrimage as the framing device enabled Chaucer to bring together people from many walks of life: knight, prioress, monk; merchant, man of law, franklin, scholarly clerk; miller, reeve, pardoner; wife of Bath and many others. The stories and links together offer complex depictions of the pilgrims, while, at the same time, the tales present remarkable examples of short narratives in verse, plus two expositions in prose. The pilgrimage, which in medieval practice combined a fundamentally religious purpose with the secular benefit of a spring vacation, made possible extended consideration of the relationship between the pleasures and vices of this world and the spiritual aspirations for the next.
The tales present a critical picture of mediaeval English society, focused mainly on the Church. They encompass the whole range of classes and types of people inhabiting England. It becomes clear that although they are on a pilgrimage, there is a distinct holiday atmosphere and the stories show that they are almost all concerned more with worldly than spiritual things. The different styles invoke thoughtfulness at times and laughter at others, with some of the funniest, most bawdy stories in English literature. The whole represents the range of customs and practices of the time, and it is from this work that much of our understanding of mediaeval English society comes.
One of the most important aspects of The Canterbury Tales and its main contribution to English literature was its popularising the literary use of vernacular English. Other mediaeval English writers also wrote in English but because of Chaucer’s vivid and humorous verse and lively and lifelike characters his text was more accessible and he certainly brought English in from the cold to displace French and Latin in English writing.
Before Chaucer, depictions of English society were more or less restricted to the doings of the elevated – knights, monarchs etc. but Chaucer gave us beggars, poor students, lusty housewives, thugs and out and out crooks. He gave us insights into the considerations that preoccupied ordinary people and was unabashed at offering the crude sexual antics of ordinary people. The result is that he has represented people who lived several centuries before us who are just like us, showing that you can change the facilities we enjoy, the clothes we wear, and all external things but the people who went before us are just like us. Chaucer’s characters are as fresh and alive as though they are living today, and they are not alien to us but highly recognisable.
SOURCE: AncientPages; Britanca Ency.; Chamberlains Univ.
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