The Canterbury Tales

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The Canterbury Tales Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Geoffrey Chaucer

Chaucer was born between 1343-5 to a well-to-do family of wine merchants in London. He served as a lower-level court official in a variety of roles throughout his life. Chaucer was captured by the French during the Hundred Years’ War but quickly released on ransom. Shortly afterwards, he married Philippa de Roet, an attendant to the Queen, and became an esquire at the King’s court. As an esquire, he served as a spy and traveled to Italy and France, where he likely encountered much of the continental European poetry that influenced his writing. Chaucer held several official positions, including the clerk in charge of overseeing new construction for the crown as well as one of the king’s foresters. In addition to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer wrote a number of other important poems and prose texts, including Troilus and Criseyde, a romantic, mythological tragedy; The Book of the Duchess, a courtly elegy; and a scientific treatise on the astrolabe.
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Historical Context of The Canterbury Tales

The late 14th century was a chaotic time in England. The Catholic Church was undergoing huge shifts and changes. After the horrors of the Black Death, many people were questioning the Church’s authority, and groups such as the Lollards rebelled against the power that priests wielded. Medieval society traditionally consisted of three estates: the church, the nobility, and the peasantry. The church represented people who prayed but did not work for a living; this holy sector of society was supported by the other two and was not supposed to be concerned with material goods. The nobility was strictly bound to many rules of chivalry and courtliness. The rest of the population consisted of the peasant working class. However, in the late 14th century, this structure was breaking down. Peasant revolts such as the Jack Straw rebellion of 1381 raged through the countryside. A new middle class consisting of educated workers such as merchants, lawyers, and clerks was beginning to gain power, particularly in urban areas. Chaucer himself was a member of this new middle class. The Canterbury Tales both depict and satirize the conventions of these turbulent times.

Other Books Related to The Canterbury Tales

Although Chaucer never refers to it directly, he likely got much of his source material from Boccaccio’s Decameron, a series of linked stories that have a similar structure to The Canterbury Tales: just as the Tales are told by pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, the stories of the Decameron are told by lords and ladies traveling around Florence as they try to avoid the Black Plague. Nearly every great poet writing in English is influenced by Chaucer.
Key Facts about The Canterbury Tales
  • Full Title: The Canterbury Tales
  • When Written: End of the 14th century
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: England
  • Literary Period: Medieval
  • Genre: Estate satire
  • Setting: The road to Canterbury, England
  • Climax: No climax: each Tale has its own climax, but the Tales as a whole are unfinished, and though they are interconnected in terms of characters and themes, there is not a single plot thread that develops throughout.
  • Point of View: Many different characters tell their tales, but the whole frame narrative is told through the eyes of Chaucer the pilgrim. It’s also important to keep in mind that the Tales are unfinished. Each pilgrim is supposed to get two tales––one for the road to Canterbury, and one for the way back––but several of the pilgrims don’t even get one story, and they never actually make it to Canterbury.

Extra Credit for The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer Tweeteth. Though Chaucer likely did not foresee a digital future for the Tales, he has a very active social networking presence, particular under the Twitter handle “LeVostreGC”(https://twitter.com/LeVostreGC). The blogosphere has adopted Chaucer in sites such as “Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog” (http://houseoffame.blogspot.com), which is written in a fake Middle English and features entries “written” not only by Chaucer but by his son and his contemporaries.

Chaucer Through the Ages. Since its first publication, The Canterbury Tales has never been out of print, and they have inspired countless adaptations and re-workings. In his Autobiography, Ben Franklin claimed, perhaps as a joke, that his last name came from Chaucer’s Franklin. The whole genre of the buddy road-trip movie can be traced to the structure of the Tales. Some recent adaptations have included the 2001 film A Knight’s Tale, featuring Paul Bettany playing Chaucer himself.