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An Analysis of Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales"

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer's
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

The Canterbury Tales (written around 1387) is a long work, written in poetic form by a Londoner named Geoffrey Chaucer. It describes a pilgrimage of a motley group of people traveling to the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket at Canterbury. On the way, they decide to tell stories to entertain each other, and these form the individual "Tales."

Although this is supposed to be a spiritual quest during the season of Lent, these pilgrims are not, on the whole, a charitable and wholesome lot, and there is nothing devout or pious about many of the stories they tell. Overall, the experience of these storytellers falls far short of the ideal of the pilgrimage as a Lenten observance to immerse the mind and spirit in the contemplation of the Christian life and follow in the footsteps of a saint.
 
It is a little known fact that at least three of the characters in the Canterbury Tales were real people whom Chaucer actually knew. The Host, for example, is named in the Tales as Harry Bailly. For example, there was a real Harry Bailly in Chaucer's time, and Chaucer could not have escaped knowing him; Bailly was the innkeeper at the disreputable Tabard Inn, which happened to have been located in London's red-light district of Southwark -- exactly where Chaucer located it in the book.

Similarly, the Pilgrimage's Host calls the Cook by his name, Hodge of Ware. Hodge was a nickname at that time for Roger, and there was in fact a London cook by the name of Roger Ware who owned his own shop in Chaucer's time. And the Prioress is identified in the Tales as a nun by the name of Eglentyne. The bishop's visitation reports of that time, cited by Eileen Power in her book Medieval People, note that sure enough, there was in fact a Prioress in Chaucer's day named Eglentyne. Moreover, the records that survive leave no doubt that it was the same person Chaucer describes. The local bishops took her to task for indulging in "all manner of minstrelsy, interludes, dancing [and] revelling within [her] holy place," and admonished her for her extremely unmonastic modes of dress. Chaucer comments on Eglentyne's elegant attire as well, in addition to her inability to renounce the things of this world.
 
Sometimes Chaucer portrays his characters sympathetically, and sometimes not; but he always depicts them with a realism that leaps off the page more than six hundred years later. He is one of the first truly realistic fiction writers in English, and although his work in its original form is difficult for us to read today, the effort is rewarded many times over.

Would you like to read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales for yourself? Click here! Canterbury Tales (Everyman's Library...

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