Geoffrey Chaucer: “The Canterbury Tales”

See image credit below.

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour. . . .

Oh, how I loved learning how to recite these opening lines to “The Prologue” of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. While I was by no means a scholar of medieval literature (modern literature being far more to my taste, as you know if you are a devoted StoryWeb reader), I reveled in learning about the language, the religious pilgrimage Chaucer’s narrators were on, loved delving into their various voices.

What a magical storytelling device! Imagine thirty travelers walking from London to Canterbury to worship at the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. How would they while away their time? By holding a storytelling competition, of course, and regaling each other with one tale after another. Storytelling was an immensely popular form of entertainment in England at that time, and storytellers had enjoyed besting one another in contests for centuries. The prize for the winner? A free meal at the Tabard Inn at Southwark on their return from Canterbury.

What emerges from this narrative device is one of the great masterworks of world literature. Pilgrims from all walks of life tell tales. As Oxford scholar Nevill Coghill notes, The Canterbury Tales offers readers a “concise portrait of an entire nation, high and low, old and young, male and female, lay and clerical, learned and ignorant, rogue and righteous, land and sea, town and country.”

We listen as the merchant spins his fable and as the miller – who admits he is quite drunk – tells the uproarious and bawdy story of a cuckolded carpenter. And of course, no one can forget the wife of Bath’s Arthurian legend, her pre-feminist insights about women’s authority honed from her five marriages. Other tales are told by a knight, a reeve, a cook, a man of law, a friar, a summoner, a clerk, a squire, a franklin, a physician, a pardoner, a shipman, a prioress, a monk, and a nun’s priest.

Chaucer began writing The Canterbury Tales in 1387, and it appears that the collection was unfinished when he died in 1400. Nevertheless, The Canterbury Tales – twenty-four tales with over 17,000 lines of poetry – is considered by virtually everyone to be his masterpiece.

See image credit below.

Think you wouldn’t be interested in this 600-year-old collection of tales? You might be surprised! An easy way to dip a toe into The Canterbury Tales is to read a modern English translation. Once you’ve laughed until you’ve cried from reading “The Miller’s Tale,” maybe you’ll even feel brave enough to try the late Middle English in which Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. It takes some getting used to – and it can help to have an edition with the original Middle English and the modern English translation side by side. Fordham University’s Internet Medieval Sourcebook provides a good online Middle English/Modern English version of “The Prologue.” Librarius provides parallel original text and translated text for many of the other tales.

It can also be fun to listen to an audio version of the tales in Middle English. LibriVox provides a useful collection of audio recordings of the various tales. When you listen, you’ll quickly discover that I am practically butchering Chaucer’s rich and rhythmic Middle English (told you I’m not a medieval scholar!), but that doesn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying reading Chaucer’s original lines of poetry aloud. They’re just so darned fun to say!

For a unique perspective on The Canterbury Tales, read or listen to a five-part NPR series that retraces the steps of Chaucer’s pilgrims to explore the Britain of today. The series includes an interactive map tracing the route from London to Canterbury.

Finally, you can go even further in your exploration of all things Chaucer by visiting Harvard University’s Geoffrey Chaucer Page. Georgetown University’s Labyrinth website provides extensive resources for Medieval studies.

Listen:Listen as Professor Jess B. Bessinger, Jr., reads “The Prologue” to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Dr. Bessinger is one of the foremost experts on early English poetry, so you know he’s got the pronunciation down!

Image Credits: 1) Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1340-1400) painted in the seventeenth century. Public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Geoffrey_Chaucer_(17th_century).jpg. 2) Page from a fifteenth-century copy of The Canterbury Tales, housed in the British Library, public domain.

SaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Comments

  1. It might be fun to read a modern translation. When I think of Canterbury I remember a couple of years when we got lost after touring Canterbury Cathedral and trying to find our tour group. I loved seeing the cathedral. After asking directions and still being lost, we stopped in a chocolate shop and the clerk gave us clear directions that helped us join our group again, and with time to spare.

Speak Your Mind

Your email address will not be published on the site.

*