Geoffrey Chaucer is regarded as the father of English literature. This is so because it is sometimes argued that the greatest contribution that his work made to English literature was in popularizing the literary use of the vernacular, English, rather than French or Latin. English had, however, been used as a literary language for centuries before Chaucer’s life, and several of Chaucer’s contemporaries such as John Gower, William Langland, and the Pearl Poet also wrote major literary works in English. This unit therefore, examines Chaucer’s major poem, The Canterbury Tales.
Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London sometime around 1343, though the precise date and location of his birth remain unknown. His father and grandfather were both London vintners, several previous generations had been merchants in Ipswich. (His family name derives from the French “Chausseur” meaning “Shoemaker”). In 1324 John Chaucer, Geoffrey’s father, was kidnapped by an aunt in the hope of marrying the twelve-year-old boy to her daughter so that she could keep the property in Ipswich. The aunt was imprisoned and the £250 fine levied suggests that the family was financially secure – bourgeois, if not elite.
John Chaucer married Agnes Copton, who, in 1349, inherited properties including 24 shops in London from her uncle, Hamo de Copton, who is described in a will dated 3 April 1354 and listed in the city Hustings Roll as “Moneyer”; he was said to be Moneyer at the Tower of London.
Geoffrey Chaucer worked for Elizabeth de Burgh, the countess of Ulster as a courtier. He also worked as a diplomat and a civil servant. In 1359, in the early stages of the Hundred Years’ War, Edward III invaded France and Chaucer travelled with Lionel of Antwerp, 1st Duke of Clarence, Elizabeth’s husband, as part of the English army. In 1360, he was captured during the siege of Rheims. Edward paid £16 for his ransom, a considerable sum, and Chaucer was released. Around 1366, Chaucer married Phllipa (de) Roet. She was lady-in-waiting to Edward III’s queen, Philippa of Hainaubt.
Chaucer probably studied law in the Inner Temple in London. He became a member of the Royal court of Edward III as a variet de Chambre on 20 June, 1367, a position which could entail a wide variety of tasks. He travelled abroad many times, at least some of them in his role as a varlet. Chaucer travelled to Picardy as part of a military expedition, and visited Genoa and Florence in 1373. Numerous scholars such as Skeat, Boitani, and Rowland suggested that, on this Italian trip, he came into contact with Petrarch or Boccaccio. They introduced him to medieval Italian poetry, the forms and stories of which he would use later.
A widespread knowledge of Chaucer’s works is attested to by the many poets who imitated or responded to his writing. John Lydgate was one of the earliest poets to write continuations of Chaucer’s unfinished Tales while Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cressied completed the story of Cressida left unfinished in his “Troilus and Criseyde”. Many of the manuscripts of Chaucer’s works contain material from these poets and later appreciations by the romantic era poets were shaped by their failure to distinguish the later “additions” from original Chaucer.
Seventeenth and eighteenth century writers such as John Dryden admired Chaucer for his stories, but not for his rhythm and rhyme, as few critics could then read Middle English and the text had been butchered by printers. It was not until the late 19th century that the official Chaucerian canon, accepted today, was decided upon, largely as a result of Walter William Skeat’s work.
Roughly seventy-five years after Chaucer’s death, the Canterbury Tales was selected by William Caxton to be one of the first books to be printed in England.
Chaucer’s poetry is different from the Anglo-Saxon poetry. Chaucer wrote in continental accentual-syllabic meter, a style which had developed around the twelfth century as an alternative to the alliterative Anglo-Saxon metre. Chaucer is known for his metrical innovation, inventing the rhyme royal, and being one of the first English poets to use the five-stress line, decasyllabic, in his work; only a few anonymous short works used it before him.
The arrangement of these five-stress lines into rhyming couplets, first seen in his “The Legend of Good Women”, was used in much of his later work and became one of the standard poetic forms in English. His early influence as a satirist is also important, with the common humorous device, the funny accent of a regional dialect, apparently making its first appearance in “The Reeve’s Tale”. Chaucer’s poetry along with other writers of the era, is credited with helping to standardize the London dialect of the Middle English language from a combination of the Kentish and Midlands dialects.
This is probably overstated; the influence of the court, chancery and bureaucracy of which Chaucer was a part remains a more probable influence on the development of Standard English. Modern English is somewhat distanced from the language of Chaucer’s poems owing to the effect of the Great Vowel Shift some time after his death. This change in the pronunciation of English, still not fully understood, makes the reading of Chaucer difficult for the audience. The status of the final “-e” in Chaucer’s verse is uncertain: it seems likely that during the period of Chaucer’s writing the final “-e” was dropping out of colloquial English and that its use was somewhat irregular. Chaucer’s versification suggests that the final “-e” is sometimes to be vocalized, and sometimes to be silent; however, this remains a point on which there is disagreement. When it is vocalized, most scholars pronounce it as a schwa. Apart from the irregular spelling, much of the vocabulary is recognizable to the modern reader.
The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century. The tales are presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from Southwark to 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 innovation of spring with which the General Prologue begins is lengthy and formal compared to the language of the rest of the prologue.
When April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower,
When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath
Upon the tander shoots, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the has run,
And the small fowl are making melody
That sleep sway the night with open eye
(So nature pricks them and their heart engages)
Then people long tto go on pilgrimages
And palmers long to seek the stranger strands
Of far-off saints, hallowed in sundry lands,
And specially, from every shire’s end
Of England, down to Canterbury they wend
To seek the holy blissful martyr, quick
To give his help to them when they were sick
(The Canterbury Tales)
The first lines situate the story in a particular time and place, but the speaker does this in cosmic and cyclical terms, celebrating the vitality and richness of spring. This approach gives the opening lines a dreamy, timeless, unspecified locality, and it is therefore surprising when the narrator reveals that he is going to describe a pilgrimage that he himself took rather than telling a love story.
A pilgrimage is a religious journey undertaken for penance and grace. As pilgrimages went, Canterbury was not a very difficult destination for an English person to reach. It was, therefore, very popular in fourteenth–century England, as the narrator mentions. Pilgrims travelled to visit the remains of Saint Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered in 1170 by Knights of King Henry II. Soon after his death, he became the most popular saint in England. The pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales should not be thought of as an entirely solemn occasion, because it also offered the pilgrims an opportunity to abandon work and take a vacation.
In line 20, the narrator abandons his unspecified, all-knowing point of view, identifying himself as an actual person for the first time by inserting the first person “I” as he relates how he met the group of pilgrims while staying at the Tabard Inn. He emphasizes that this group, which he encountered by accident, was itself formed quite by chance (25-26). He then shifts into the first-person plural, referring to the pilgrims as “we” beginning in line 29, asserting his status as a member of the group.
The narrator ends the introductory portion of his prologue by noting that he has “tyme and space” to tell his narrative. His comments underscore the fact that he is writing some time after the events of his story, and that he is describing the characters from memory. He has spoken and met with these people, but he has waited a certain length of time before sitting down and describing them. He seeks to describe each pilgrim as he or she seemed to him is also important, for it emphasizes that his descriptions are not only subject to his memory but are also shaped by his individual perceptions and opinions regarding each of the characters. He positions himself as a mediator between two groups: the group of pilgrims, of which he was a member, and us, the audience, whom the narrator explicitly addresses as “you” in lines 34 and 38.
On the other hand, the narrator’s declaration that he will tell us about the “condition”, “degree” and “array” (dress) of each of the pilgrims suggests that his portraits will be based on observed facts as well as his own opinions. He spends considerable time characterizing the group member according to their social positions. The pilgrims represent a diverse cross section of fourteenth – century English society. Medieval social theory divided society into three broad classes, called “estates”: the military, the clergy, and the laity. In the portraits that are seen in the rest of the “General Prologue”, the knight and squire represent the military estate.
The clergy is represented by the prioress (and her nun and three priests), the Monk, the Frair, and the Parson. The other characters, from the wealthy Frankling to the poor Polyman, are the members of the laity. These lay characters can be further subdivided into landowners (the Franklin), professionals (the Clerk, the Man of the Law, the Guildsmen, the physician, and the shipman). Labourers (the cook and the Polyman), stewards (the Miller, the Manciple, and the Reeve), and church offers (the Summoner and the Pardoner). Chaucer’s descriptions of the various characters and their social roles reveal the influence of the medieval genre of estates satire.
The variety of Chaucer’s tales shows the breadth of his skill and his familiarity with countless rhetorical forms and linguistic styles. Medieval schools of rhetoric at the time encouraged such diversity, dividing literature into high, middle, and low styles as measured by the density of rhetorical forms and vocabulary. Another popular method of division came from St. Augustine, who focused more on audience response and less on subject matter. Augustine divided literature into “majestic persuades”, “temperature pleases”, and “subdued teaches”. Writers were encouraged to write in a way that kept in mind the speaker, subject, audience, purpose, manner, and occasion. Chaucer moves freely between all of these styles. He not only considers the readers of his work as an audience but the other pilgrims within the story as well, creating a multi-layered rhetorical puzzle of ambiguities. Chaucer’s rises above medieval theories of style and rhetoric.
It can be said that Chaucer avoids targeting any specific audience or social class of readers, focusing instead on the characters of the story and writing their tales with a skill proportional to their social status and learning. However, even the lowest characters, such as the Miller, show surprising rhetorical ability, although their subject matter is more lowbrow. Vocabulary also plays an important part, as those of the higher classes refer to a woman as a “lady”, while the lower classes use the word “wenche”, with no exceptions. At times the same word will mean entirely different things between classes. The word “pitee”, for example, is a noble concept to the upper classes, while in the “Merchant’s Tales” it refers to sexual intercourse. Again, however, tales such as the Nun’s Priest’s Tale show surprising skill with words among the lower classes of the group, while the “Knight’s Tale” is at times extremely simple.
Chaucer uses the same meter throughout in most of the tales, with the exception of “Sir Thomas” and his prose tales. It is a decasyllable line, probably borrowed from French and Italian forms, with riding rhyme and, occasionally, with a Caesura in the middle of a line. His meter would later develop into the heroic meter of the 15th and 16th centuries and is an ancestor of iambic pentameter.
Themes of the Canterbury Tales
There are various themes in the work. The major themes are discussed below.
The Tales reflect various views of the church in Chaucer’s England. After the Black Death, many Europeans began to question the authority of the established church. Some turned to “lollardy”, while others chose less extreme paths, starting new monastic orders or smaller movements exposing church corruption in the behaviour of the clergy, false church relics or abuse of indulgences. Many of the characters in the tales are religious figures, and the very setting of the pilgrimage to Canterbury is religious making religion a significant theme of the work. Two characters, the pardoner and the summoner, whose roles apply the church’s secular power, are both portrayed as deeply corrupt, greedy, and abusive.
A pardoner in Chaucer’s days was a person from whom one bought Church “indulgences” for forgiveness of sins, but pardoners were often thought guilty of abusing their office for their own gain. Chaucer’s pardoner openly admits the corruption of his practice while hawking his wares. The summoner is a church officer who brought sinners to the church court for possible excommunication and other penalties. Corrupt summoners would write false citations and frighten people into bribing them in order to protect their interests. Chaucer’s summoner is portrayed as guilty of the very kinds of sins he is threatening to bring others to court for, and is hinted as having a corruption relationship with the pardoner.
Social Class and Convention
The upper class or nobility, represented chiefly by the knight and his squire, was in Chaucer’s time steeped in a culture of chivalry and courtliness. Nobles were expected to be powerful warriors who could be ruthless on the battlefield, yet mannerly in the King’s court and Christian in their actions. Knights were expected to form a strong social bond with the men who fought alongside them, but an even stronger bond with a woman whom they idealized in order to strengthen their fighting ability.
Though the aim of chivalry was to noble action, often its conflicting values degenerated into violence. Church leaders often tried to place restrictions on jousts and tournaments, which at times ended in the death of the loser. “The Knight’s Tale” shows how the brotherly love of two fellow knights turns into a deadly feud at the sight of a woman whom both idealize, with both knights willing to fight the other to death in order to win her. Chivalry was in Chaucer’s day on the decline, and it is possible that “The Knight’s Tale” was intended to show its flaws, although this is disputed. Chaucer himself had fought in the Hundred Year’s War under Edward III, who heavily emphasized chivalry during his reign.
Relativism versus Realism
Chaucer’s characters each express different views of reality, creating an atmosphere of relativism. As Helen Cooper says:
Different genres give different readings of the world:
The fabliau scarcely notices the operations of God, the saint’s
life focuses on those at the expense of physical reality, tracts and
sermons insist on prudential or orthodox morality, romances
privilege human emotion.
The sheer number of varying persons and stories renders the Tales as a set unable to arrive at any definite truth or reality.
Geoffrey Chaucer has been recognized as the father of English literature. His works influenced the rest of other literary works which were written after him. He popularized the local English language and his works became accessible to many English people. This unit examines Chaucer and his poetry.
The article examines briefly the biography of Geoffrey Chaucer and the nature of his poetry. Attempt is made to discuss the Canterbury Tales, and Chaucer’s Style as well. The unit also looks into the themes of Canterbury Tales.