From bawdy flirts to noble knights, from the lowest joke to the highest parable, the tellers and tales of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales bring a complex community to life. In this classic work of English literature, pilgrims from all levels of medieval society journey to Canterbury. Their genial Host bids each “to help shorten our way along this journey, two tales to tell,” thus drawing us into a tapestry of unforgettable characters, varied narratives, and interwoven layers of meaning.
For Chaucer is a master of subtle storytelling whose experiments in perspective and genre have impressed readers and writers for centuries. Inspired by Dante and others on the Continent, the cosmopolitan Chaucer turned the everyday language of his people into literature. Modern readers still appreciate Chaucer’s genius, especially in a new facing-pages translation that provides the best of both modern and Middle English.
Through close reading, we see how the perspective of the teller shapes each tale, and how tales respond one to another. Traditional ideas of honour, marriage, and morality all brought under question, as the tales help us connect the microcosm of this gathering to the macrocosm of the changing feudal world. Meanwhile the voices of the Host and of Chaucer himself suggest that the pilgrims’ stories offer but also undermine stereotypes and simplistic moral pieties.
Reading the comic yet sophisticated stories of the Canterbury Tales sharpens our capacity to grasp the interdependencies in our own society. By immersing us in this world that may at first appear so quaint, Chaucer gives us new insights into those questions encountered on our own human pilgrimage. Read more in Denise’s blog post Medieval Stories, Modern Pilgrimages.
“Yet do not miss the moral, my good men.
For Saint Paul says that all that’s written well
Is written down some useful truth to tell.
Then take the wheat and let the chaff lie still.”
– The Nun’s Priest’s Tale
Photo credit: Ezra Winter, Canterbury Tales mural, Library of Congress/Photo Carol Highsmith