The Canterbury Tales | Geoffrey Chaucer
An unfinished, yet colorful collection of tales told by pilgrims on pilgrimage from Southwark, a suburb of London, to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Thomas à Becket. Interestingly, Chaucer makes himself one of the pilgrims. These are middle-class folks (no poor or rich).
- Foreign envoy for king (equivalent of modern-day ambassador)
- Went to France and Italy
- Exposed to early tremors of Renaissance
· Dante and Boccaccio
- Like to live “as a hermit” when not working
- Read a lot in apartment above gates of London
- Observed throng that passed through the gates on London
· Ideas for his stories
- Becomes a Justice of the Peace and Knight of the Shire (i.e., Member of the Parliament
- Appointed Clerk of the King’s Works (upkeep of Westminster Palace and the Tower of London)
- Deputy Forester of the royal forest of North Peterton
- Intended 120 stories (two told by each pilgrim each way on journey), but has only twenty-four, some incomplete
- Born shortly after the beginning of the Hundred Years War between England and France
· 1340: King of England declares himself King of France
· Joan of Arc has “word from God” that Charles VII would be made King of France
· Joan of Arc leads French into battle (1429-1431)
o Routs English troops at Orleans and saves France
à turning point in European history
· English accuse her of witchcraft
o Captured in 1430 and burned in 1431
- the Bubonic Plague (1348-1349)
- and the Peasants’ Revolt (1381) – series of revolts
- 14-yr old King Richard II rides toward peasants in London, their bows taut, and he asks, “Sirs, will you shoot your king?”
· they put down their bows
· he talks with them, grants them his pardon, and sends them back to their homes
- also the time of the Great Schism, with two rival and warring popes (Avingnon and Rome), began in 1378
- It was a depressing time, and drunkenness was common
- Thomas a Becket was martyred at Canterbury in 1170
· Didn’t want royal courts to deal with “criminous clerks”
· King Henry II disagrees and Becket flees to France in 1164
· When returns in 1170, he was murdered by 4 knights who thought they were doing the bidding of the king, who was angry that Becket didn’t want to forgive sympathizer priests
à relevance to “clergy abuse” cases in our day?
- England in 14th century is still deeply religious and thoroughly Catholic in doctrine and practices
- St. Francis of Assisi in 13th century lived life of poverty, but didn’t want to force it on others
o Parson’s Tale – is Chaucer a Lollard?
- Pilgrimages very common in Middle Ages
- Chaucer could probably look out his window in London and see the pilgrims en route to Canterbury
- He himself may have gone of this pilgrimage
- Chaucer the first major writer to write in English
- French by Chaucer’s time has become a foreign language
- 1396 manual for English travelers going to inns run by French-speakers
o French phrases
o “Please keep your inn clean”
o “Here is how to serve wholesome food,” etc.
- point of the Prologue?: we’re all sinners; “love the man but hate his sin”
- Interestingly, he ends with the Parson’s Tale and a Retraction – Why?
o Theories from http://faculty.goucher.edu/eng330/chaucerparson.htm:
à Baldwin, Unity of Canterbury Tales (1955): PT is the moral center of CT and its statements about sin can be taken as GC's intended judgments of individual tellers and tales (also Huppe, A Reading of the Canterbury Tales, 1964).
à Ruggiers ('65), Jordan ('67), Norton-Smith ('74) and others read the tale as a more general moral description of society's flaws, a corrective designed to bring CT to closure in as a piece of Christian morality.
à E.T. Donaldson, Speaking of Chaucer (1970) attacked the direct application of ParsT doctrine as an interpretive "key" to unlock the other tales' sentence.
à Finlayson ('71), Allen ('73), and Kaske ('75) read the Parson's portrait and persona as ironic, a turgid moralist whose judgment is in no way superior to that of other tellers. Wenzel and Delasanta ('78) have attacked that reading.
- Device of the pilgrimage allows examination of a cross-section of humanity
- Tension between secular and religious
- Keen insights into human nature
- How looks can be deceiving
- The role of pleasure in reading literature
o “…the Christian…has no objection to comedies that merely amuse and tales that merely refresh…We can play, as we can eat, to the glory of God.” -- C.S. Lewis