Thursday, March 18, 2010


The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century. The tales feature 29 different characters on a pilgrimage together to Canterbury, England. The frame story sets up the premise; that each pilgrim will be responsible for entertaining the whole of the group by telling stories. Originally, Chaucer had intended for each pilgrim to tell two tales on the way to and the way home, thus doubling the number of stories in the Tales. In total, the Tales would then number over 100 stories. As it is, Chaucer completed only 22 tales and the general prologue. Scholars debate whether the sheer number of stories started to overwhelm Chaucer, or if he simply changed his mind as he progressed with the writing.

The Ellesmere Chaucer (referred to as the El by scholars), created sometime between 1400 and 1410, is widely regarded as the most magnificent collection of the Tales in existence. Their pre-eminence is due not only to the beautiful illumination and size of the manuscript, but also to the twenty three individual portraits of the storytellers. The Ellesmere manuscript is also in exceptional condition, allowing for detailed study of the manuscript, the text and the textual miscellanea acquired since its creation. The El is written in English, one of very few manuscripts to break away from Latin and French and embrace English as a language of poetry and learning.

Geoffrey Chaucer

Most agree that Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the early 1340’s, son of a well positioned wine merchant. He began his career young, serving as a page and valet in the household of the Countess of Ulster. Here he was able to attend school, learn Latin and French, courtly ways and how to bear arms for the King. He fought in the French Wars, and when captured in 1360, his ransom was paid by King Edward III. In 1366 Chaucer married Philippa de Roet, a useful connection since she served as a lady in waiting to the queen. In 1367 the King drafted Chaucer into service for the royal household and Chaucer was gifted an annual salary for life. As a king’s man Chaucer was responsible for many household functions including court functions and royal entertainment. Chaucer’s talent with words, while apparent from a young age, was never fully recognized. As a servant to the king, writing took back seat to his “real job.” Aged around sixty when he died, one can only wonder at what he may have produced had he been a full time writer during his most productive years.

Works include: The Book of the Duchess (approx 1370s), The House of Fame (approx 1380s), The Parliament of Fowls (approx 1380s), Troilus and Criseyde (approx. 1380s), Treatise on the Astrolabe (approx 1390s), Envoy to Scogan (approx 1390s), Envoy to Bukton (approx 1390s) and To His Empty Purse (approx 1390s). His most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, was begun around 1386. Chaucer died on October 25, 1400. It is unknown if he worked on the Tales until his death. He is buried in Westminster Abbey in what is now regarded as the Poet’s Corner. He is in good company with Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, Dickens and more. Chaucer is widely regarded as the first English poet, as his works proved that English was a suitable language to use for poetry.