The Canterbury Tales are more than 600 years old, but they sound modern when they speak about equality and social justice.
Written by the 14th century poet and courtier Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales are told by a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of St Thomas Becket. Like Homer’s Iliad, the tales were intended to be read aloud. The setting is a story-telling contest and the prize is a free meal on the pilgrims’ return to the Tabard Inn (which burned down in 1676).
Chaucer painted word portraits of people who would be easily recognised in his society, including a knight (suspected by at least one commentator of being a mercenary), a prioress, a carpenter, a cook, a much married woman, and a brawny miller – an occupation regarded in Chaucer’s day as shifty and dishonest. Their tales range from pious to comic, from classical erudition to bawdy vulgarity.
Born to a prosperous family of wine merchants, Chaucer served three English kings as diplomat, customs controller, and supervisor of royal residences. He travelled widely, visiting Italy where he probably acquired a copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Boccaccio’s Decameron – both to some extent models for The Canterbury Tales.
The Decameron has more similarities with The Canterbury Tales than any other work. It features several narrators who tell stories on a journey they have undertaken to escape the Black Death. Chaucer’s original plan in The Canterbury Tales was for each character to tell four stories, two on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. Instead the text ends while the party is en route. Chaucer either planned to revise the structure or else left it incomplete when he died on 25 October 1400.
Among the earliest books published by William Caxton on his new printing press in London were two magnificent editions of The Canterbury Tales, the first in 1476 and the second, illustrated with woodblock prints, in 1483. According to the medievalist Derek Pearsall, the earliest surviving manuscripts are not Chaucer’s originals but were compiled by a scribe shortly after Chaucer’s death. The most beautiful is the Ellesmere Manuscript, owned by the Huntington Library, California.
Today, pilgrims visit the shrine of Geoffrey Chaucer in London’s Westminster Abbey. In December 1399 Chaucer was granted the lease of a tenement in the garden of the Abbey’s Lady Chapel. The following year, when the poet died, Henry IV approved his burial at the entrance to the chapel of St Benedict. In 1556, the present grey Purbeck marble monument was erected to his memory and, in his guide to Westminster Abbey published in 1600, the historian William Camden noted that the bones of the poet were transferred to this tomb. Chaucer became the founding member of the Abbey’s Poets’ Corner.
In the early 1800s, the English writer and artist William Blake began work on a scene from The Canterbury Tales. Blake saw each of the pilgrims as representing a human archetype and tried to capture them in one work. In a note to accompany it, he wrote:
“Some of the names or titles are altered by time, but the characters themselves for ever remain unaltered, and consequently they are the physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life, beyond which Nature never steps… Every age is a Canterbury pilgrimage; we all pass on, each sustaining one or other of these characters.”