In the summer of 1170, Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, royally pissed off King Henry II. (Pun intended, obviously.) Tired of listening to Henry whine, a group of his loyal followers rode off to Canterbury Cathedral and murdered poor Thomas, mid-Vespers.
Fast-forward a couple hundred years, and Canterbury Cathedral had become the hot destination for European travelers. A pilgrimage from Southwark in South London to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral provided the frame for Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th-century masterpiece The Canterbury Tales.
This not-quite travel narrative is made up of a collection of short stories, told in turn by each member of a group of thirty travelers. The tales, penned in the English vernacular, showcase Chaucer’s mastery over diverse forms of writing (including both poetic and prose styles) and his fluency in human nature across social strata.
While 120 stories were planned, with each pilgrim sharing a total of four stories, only 24 were completed. But rather than calling Chaucer an underachiever, we’ll use the more polite term: “ambitious.”
Here’s a quick summary:
The Knight’s Tale. The Pardoner’s Tale. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. The Summoner’s Tale.
The exploration of social class is one of the most compelling aspects of The Canterbury Tales. The Knight’s Tale is one of chivalry; the Miller’s Tale is raucous and lewd; the Pardoner’s Tale (hypocritically) preaches morality. The class tensions of Chaucer’s era come out in the form of spats between storytellers.
One of my favorite moments is Chaucer’s turn to tell his own tale. (He has fictionalized himself as a reticent member of the traveling party.) He begins the frivolous, rhyming Tale of Sir Topaz, a knight in search of the Elf Queen he has dreamed about. When Sir Topaz is preparing to go to battle against a giant, the host of the pilgrimage interrupts Chaucer to beg him not to subject the travelers to the rest, and to tell a different story—this time in prose. Fictional Chaucer then goes on to tell the Tale of Melibee, which turns out to be long, tedious, and moralizing to the point of stupor.
Chaucer’s self-portrayal as the worst storyteller of the bunch is hilariously ironic and endearingly humble. Best of all, the Tale of Sir Topaz has remained a source of perplexity for literary scholars over several centuries.
Well played, Chaucer. Well played.
The Madonna/whore characterization of nearly every female. The Tale of Melibee (obviously). The occasional crude/gross-out humor (Adam Sandler himself would blush). The Pardoner, in general.
Overall, the tales bounce along nicely under Chaucer’s genius, like a trotting horse on its way to do some sightseeing in Kent. And truly, for a manuscript written in between the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War, this is an admirably perky read.
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
This is a no-brainer. The Canterbury Tales is brilliant, insightful, innovative, expertly crafted, and thoroughly entertaining.
Well, well, try anything once, come hot, come cold!
If we’re not foolish young, we’re foolish old.
I long have known myself what Love can do,
For, in my time, I was a lover too.
Age has a great advantage over youth
In wisdom and by custom, that’s the truth.
The old may be out-run but not out-reasoned.
Who then may trust the dice, at Fortune’s throw?
Then you compared a woman’s love to Hell,
To barren land where water will not dwell,
And you compared it to a quenchless fire,
The more it burns the more is its desire.
If the law compels you to swear, be ruled in your swearing by the law of God, as says Jeremiah, chapter four: “You shall keep three conditions: swear in truth, in judgment, and in justice.”
I gave my whole heart up, for him to hold.