Image from the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Introduction to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

To read Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Tales of Canterbury’ is to come face to face with many features commonly associated with the High Middle Ages: estates and social mobility, devotion and religion, plagues and war, drunkenness and sex, truth and lies, representation and reality, revolution and entrenched beliefs. Yet, many of these features are still part of what we call the "modern world," which begs the question, do the categories of "medieval" and "modern" apply any more? 

This image is a close up a representation of Chaucer from the Ellesmere manuscript, which alludes to the many levels by which one can read (or listen) to this collection of tales. Chaucer is the writer, but he is also a character within the group of pilgrims.

Biography (1342-1400)

Chaucer’s own life story blends the prestige of a courtier with the hard work of a civil servant. This liminal place in society allowed the author access to all walks of life, characters who would become vivid representations in his last literary masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer was born in around 1342 to a merchant whose wealth allowed the young boy to move within aristocratic circles. He began as a page at seventeen years old until twenty-seven, when he was made esquire, or a level below a knight. 

His mastery over words made him as great a civil servant as a poet: he was appointed Customs Officer in 1374, which required that he keep accurate tax records of wool exports.  His literary education as well as mastery of Latin made him qualified to be ambassador, through which he travelled twice to Italy, where he would come in contact with the already initiated humanist movements that would be later called “the renaissance.”

Chaucer’s earliest work, The Book of the Duchess (1369), was written at nights after working during the day. He used the book to earn patronage from one of England’s most powerful men, John of Gaunt. Throughout his career, most of his writings offered some practical purpose: money, escape from potential conflict, or courtly entertainment. 

Historical context

Chaucer’s rhetorical range allowed him to navigate a tumultuous time in England’s history. War, plague, revolt, social upheaval. He was born five years after the beginning of the Hundred Years war (1337-1453), which saw a stalemate between the English and French Nobility. He witnessed a succession kings, specifically Edward III (d. 1377) and Richard II (executed in 1400). 

 As English nobles were attempting to assert their dominance abroad, medical, religious and social upheaval could be felt at home. The Plague of 1341, or Black Death, is estimated to have killed 30–60 percent of Europe's population. Increase in trade (merchants and their vermin-infested ships carrying disease), overpopulation, and unsanitary conditions struck England hard. The decrease in population led to an increase in taxes, against which many peasants revolted (1381). After the plague "free laborers" increased and demanded rights, which in turn brought violence from the Nobility to maintain a social order. 

 One also begins to see open questioning of the social institution of the Catholic Church. John Wycliffe, who began a popular rebellion against the power of the church, foreshadows later reformations. He and his followers were executed in 1384. His group of followers, called Lollards, also translated sections of the Bible to English in for the first time.

Audience, Genre, and Influences

Canterbury Tales Genre.pdf

The Canterbury Tales offers a wide variety of genres bookended by a Frame Tale of a journey to Canterbury. Characters tell romances, religious exempla, parables, beast fables, folk tales, Breton lays, dream visions, and fabliaux, all the while on a pilgrimage to visit the tomb of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170.  See the file to the left for more on genres represented in The Canterbury Tales that were popular in the Middle Ages. 

 As with the Everyman drama, we begin to see literary representations of the life of the commoners. Though the audience of The Canterbury Tales would have been noble,  the diverse forms within the collection were borrowed from all walks of life.

The form and content of The Canterbury Tales were influenced by literary traditions from the European continent. Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose  (13th century) offered characters such as "False Seeming" and  "The Old Woman" who became The Pardoner and The Wife of Bath. Boccacio’s Decameron, which presents a frame tale in which one finds 100 stories, was the presumed model for The Canterbury Tales.  Traces of Dante’s Divine Comedy, anonymous Breton Lay’s, folk tales, fabliaux, and morality plays can also be found.


Sometime in the early 1380s, Chaucer began writing individual tales that would eventually become the The Canterbury Tales. The frame tale is probably borrowed from Boccacio’s Decameron, yet very quickly it devolves into fighting and chaos as the Miller and Reeve steal the show. As such, the pilgrimage on which the characters’ journey become secondary to the stories themselves, which are secondary to the characters.

The entire text is roughly 24 stories, linked together by "Links" as the characters argue over who will tell the next tale and judge the "quality" of each others narratives.  This number fluctuates because there are 83 surviving manuscripts of the Canterbury tales, none of which contain all of the tales. Some of the manuscripts contain fragments or stories that Chaucer had previously written which were reworked into the narrative. The most widely used manuscript is the Ellesmere manuscript because it was copied by Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst, at the time of Chaucer’s death around 1400, making it closest to Chaucer himself (though Pankhurst copied two manuscripts which are themselves different, one an earlier manuscript that Chaucer edited, the later adding several tales).

Pages from the Ellesmere manuscript

Language & Form

 Like most of his Middle English contemporaries and predecessors, Chaucer was broadly influenced by Latin traditions, both those of the Christian Church and of classical antiquity. He also had a command of French, attested to by the amount of loan words scattered through the tales as well as his use of syllabic writing rather than alliterative verse. Chaucer's English is from the East Midlands, though he imitates other English dialects through some of the characters.  Here is a brief look at some of the characters and their Middle English dialects.

A brief flip through the pages of the text will show a varied of the writing styles: the prologue begins in verse (decasyllaballic & rhyming couplets) in an elevated style. The rhyming couplets continue for the first three characters but the tone drops completely with the fighting between the Miller and the Reeve. The form shifts to rhyme royal for the Man of Law’s Tale. The verse will alternate between these heroic couplets and rhyme royal until the Story of Sir Topaz, which is written in a mock verse of popular romances of the day (Breton Lays, French Lays and other easily memorizable or repeatable stories).  There after the reader can find a section of prose on The Tale of Melibee.  Chaucer returns to prose at the end of the book with The Parson’s tale and his own words to conclude the entire text, in which he begs the reader and God for forgiveness for any stories that cause them to sin as well as advertises his other literary creations.