Week 9: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

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Background Reading

This week you have just one page of background reading!

The Canterbury Tales

After three weeks of underworld journeys (with Orpheus and Odysseus and Aeneas and Dante!), you will probably be glad to know that this week you will be reading a frametale journey that takes place here in the land of the living: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The Canterbury Tales gets its title from the fact that it is about a journey - a pilgrimage, in fact - to Canterbury in England. A pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place or a religious shrine. Canterbury in England was a sacred place because this is where the archbishop Thomas Becket was executed by the king Henry II in the year 1170. Thomas Becket was revered as a Christian martyr and he was canonized as a saint. Pilgrims would travel from all over England in order to visit the sacred spot where his blood had been spilled.

These medieval pilgrimages were a combination of religious devotion, but also a bit of tourism! You will see that one of the characters in the Canterbury Tales, the woman from the city of Bath in England, has made many of these pilgrimages, traveling to cites as far away as Jerusalem and to Santiago de Compostela in Spain (Santiago, "Sant Iago" or "Saint James," is supposedly where the apostle James died and was buried).

The Canterbury Tales is probably the single most famous example of a frametale in English literature, and it is quite possible that you may have read at least part of this book back in high school or in a college English literature class. The Canterbury Tales uses a very simple kind of frametale: the pilgrims tell stories to one another while they are making their way to Canterbury. There is no real plot in the frametale. Instead, the journey simply serves as an excuse for them to tell stories to one another. Yet while Chaucer does not develop the plot of the pilgrimage, he does describe the characters of the pilgrims in detail! The book begins with a "Prologue" in which each of the pilgrims is introduced, so that you can appreciate the individual personality of each of the storytellers.

About Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the most important authors in the English literary tradition. He was born around the year 1340 in London, and he died on October 25 in the year 1400. During his lifetime, he made many journeys to continental Europe, including both France and Italy. His literary writings show the influence of both French and Italian authors. Two of the authors who had the greatest influence on Chaucer were Dante (whom you read last week) and Boccaccio (whom you will be reading next week). Chaucer probably began work on the Canterbury Tales late in his life, and it was left unfinished at the time of his death. Chaucer includes all kinds of stories in the Canterbury Tales, while developing a whole cast of characters who are his storytellers, including some women among them! One of the stories you will read this week is told by the "Wife of Bath," or the woman from the city of Bath in England.

Chaucer wrote in "Middle English" which is rather different from the English we speak today. The Canterbury Tales takes the form of a poem in rhyming couples. The versions of the stories that you will be reading this week are modern English translations of the originals. You can get a sense of what Chaucer's English was like by comparing these two passages. As you can see, Chaucer's English is very close to modern English, but I think you will probably be glad that to have a modern English version to read this week, instead of the original. If you prefer to read the original, by all means do so! You can find the original versions of Chaucer at various websites, if you are curious!

Middle English version:

In th'olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour,
Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
All was this land fulfild of fayerye .
The elf-queene , with hir joly compaignye,
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede
This was the olde opinion, as I rede;
I speke of manye hundred yeres ago.
But now kan no man se none elves mo.

Modern version:

Now in the olden days of King Arthur,
Of whom the Britons speak with great honour,
All this wide land was land of faery.
The elf-queen, with her jolly company,
Danced oftentimes on many a green mead;
This was the old opinion, as I read.
I speak of many hundred years ago;
But now no man can see the elves, you know.

Here at OU, we have a special connection to Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales, because OU is the headquarters for an international project called the "Chaucer Variorum," which is directed by Professor Dan Ransom in the English department. Professor Ransom is responsiblefor editing the newest editions of Chaucer's works, including the Canterbury Tales. He and his assistant, Lynne Levy, have an office in Bizzell Library which is filled to the brim with books and articles about Chaucer - and they even have a model of a medieval astrolabe like the one Chaucer might have used in writing his poem called The Astrolabe.

About the Tales

Here is a brief introduction to each of the stories that you will be reading this week. You will see that Chaucer includes a wide variety of stories in the Canterbury Tales, from many different sources.

Prologue (frametale): This is where you will be introduced to the storytellers and learn the "rules" for the stories that they will tell.

The Knight and the Old Woman (Wife of Bath): The Wife of Bath tells a story about "what women really want." It is a kind of fairy tale, in which a knight has been sent out on a quest for knowledge. He meets an old woman who gives him the information he needs - but in return, she demands that they get married. The knight did not plan on marrying a poor, ugly old woman. But there's some magic involved here: things are not all as they appear to be!

Virginius and Virginia (Physician): The Physician tells a story that comes from Roman history, about the Roman nobleman Virginius and his beautiful and virtuous daughter Virginia. This is an absolutely tragic story, which might remind you of some of the stories you read in Ovid's Metamorphoses a few weeks ago. I will tell you right now: this story does not have a happy ending by any means!

Merchant, His Wife, and The Monk (Sailor): The Sailor tells a "bedroom comedy" about a merchant and his wife. You may not be surprised that the rich merchant has a beautiful young wife who cheats on him, but you may be surprised to find out that she cheats on him with a monk! This story is very much influenced by the French storytelling tradition that Chaucer became familiar with in his visits to France, and you will read many more stories like this when we get to Margaret of Navarre's Heptameron two weeks from now.

Chanticleer the Rooster (Nun's Priest): The story of Chanticleer the Rooster is an animal fable! You have already seen that animal fables are an important part of the storytelling tradition in Europe (remember those Aesop's fables from the very first week of class?) and also in other parts of the world (for example, you have read animal stories from the Buddhist jataka tales and the Indian Hitopadesa). In this story, Chanticleer the Rooster runs into a very dangerous character: Reynard the Fox!

Apollo and the Crow (Manciple): The final story you will read is another animal fable, and it is an "aetiology" story which explains why the animal is the way it is. In this case, the story explains why the crow is black! At the beginning of the story, the crow is a white bird, but this white crow makes the god Apollo angry, and so the god punishes the bird by changing its color.


Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM