What Are The Canterbury Tales?

Next time your class goes on a field trip, why not try this enjoyable exercise? Challenge each person to share a story, whether it’s an ancient tale or a recent funny incident. The story can impart a moral lesson or simply reflect something important to the storyteller. At the end, a prize will be awarded to the person with the best story.

Just imagine the wealth of stories you would gather through this exercise! Interestingly, this exercise bears resemblance to the underlying concept of one of the greatest works of English literature – The Canterbury Tales.

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales between 1387 and 1400. It is a collection of 24 stories within a frame story. The frame story revolves around the pilgrimage of 30 individuals traveling from London to Canterbury Cathedral to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket.

As part of the pilgrimage, each character is supposed to tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two more on the way back to London. The person with the best story wins a free meal upon their return. Some historians believe that Chaucer’s work was unfinished upon his death because the collection only contains 24 stories. However, others argue that Chaucer never intended to include 120 stories in the collection.

The stories in The Canterbury Tales encompass a wide range of themes, from humor and bawdiness to morality and contemplation. They reflect the diverse array of characters chosen by Chaucer, including a knight, a monk, a carpenter, a merchant, a miller, a haberdasher, a clerk, and a prioress, among others.

Chaucer’s vivid portrayal of characters from different social strata in the late 14th century provides valuable insights into the lifestyles of that time, including their occupations and clothing. Writing from multiple perspectives also allowed Chaucer to comment on various subjects, such as religion, gender, and social change. He employed different genres, including religious legends, romances, allegories, fables, sermons, and combinations thereof, to achieve this.

The significance of The Canterbury Tales also lies in Chaucer’s decision to write in English, specifically Middle English. During the late 14th century, the dominant literary language among those in power was French. Thus, The Canterbury Tales stands as one of the earliest major literary works written in English.

At the time of writing The Canterbury Tales, the printing press had not yet been invented. Therefore, the work was transmitted through handwritten manuscripts. Although no manuscripts in Chaucer’s own handwriting have survived, more than 80 copies dating back to the 16th century have been discovered, indicating the immense popularity of The Canterbury Tales in the century following Chaucer’s death.

Try It Out

Ready for some medieval fun? Enlist the help of a friend or family member and engage in the following activities:

  • After you have finished reading all the information about The Canterbury Tales, it is now time to read the actual tales themselves, or at least a few of them. Visit The Canterbury Tales online to access and read one or more of the tales. What are your thoughts? Did the tales you read meet your expectations? Explain why or why not.
  • If you were to follow in the footsteps of Chaucer and create a modern adaptation of The Canterbury Tales, which characters would you include? Let your imagination run wild and come up with a list of at least 10 individuals or types of people that you would use to tell your own tales. Instead of a knight, a cook, and a monk, would you write about a politician, a musician, or a reality television star? Have fun brainstorming your list of characters!
  • Imagine yourself as a pilgrim that a contemporary Chaucer might include as a character in an updated version of The Canterbury Tales. Which segments of society do you represent? What kind of story would you tell that would provide people with insights into your life experiences? Write a short story that reflects your identity and beliefs. Share your story with a friend or family member. What are their thoughts?

Additional Resources

  • https://owlcation.com/humanities/Canterbury-Tales
  • http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126565.html
  • http://www.librarius.com/cantales.htm
  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Canterbury-Tales

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