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Between the Old English writing of Beowulf in the eleventh century and Chaucer's Middle English creation of The Canterbury Tales in the fourteenth century, English as a written language seemed to die out completely.  This was mostly due to the invasion of the French Normans in 1066.  Latin and French became the official languages of the court, the law and the nobility.  English was the language of illiterate peasants and continued in an oral tradition, transforming from Old English to become, as scholars call it, Middle English.

It is possible that during his diplomatic travels Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400) met both Boccaccio and Petrarch, who wrote poetry using Italian vernacular, which spurred him to develop a vision of an English poetry that would be linguistically accessible to all.  To further this vision Geoffrey Chaucer decided to write in English at a time when it was still not completely fashionable to do so, using the vernacular that was spoken in and around London of his day.  As a result he is recognised as the first great writer in the English language with The Canterbury Tales being seen as his crowning achievement, a work that creates a literature and poetic language for all classes of society. 

Chaucer probably began work on The Canterbury Tales around 1387.  It is a set of tales told by pilgrims who, while of different social classes, have joined together to venture forth from London to Canterbury.  To pass the time each member is asked to tell four stories, two on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back but Chaucer was unable to complete this grand plan of one hundred and twenty tales and the text ends after twenty-four stories while the pilgrims are still on their way to Canterbury.  Chaucer portrayed his characters with an intense realism, which was groundbreaking literature in the fourteenth century, and this unique style was quickly recognised by William Caxton, England's first printer, when he published The Canterbury Tales in the 1470s.

The Canterbury Tales begins with the General Prologue, which introduces the narrator meeting with the twenty-nine pilgrims at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, near London.  Often satirical and very amusing the narrator describes twenty-seven of the pilgrims; the Knight, Squire, Yeoman, Prioress, Monk, Friar, Merchant, Clerk, Man of Law, Franklin, Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer, Tapestry-Weaver, Cook, shipman, Physician, Wife, Parson, Plowman, Miller, Manciple, Reeve, Summoner, Pardoner, and Host as they prepare to travel to the shrine of the martyr Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury.  The two characters left undescribed are the Second Nun and the Nun's Priest, although both characters appear later in the book.  It is the Host, Harry Bailey, who suggests that the group ride together and entertain one another with stories.

The tales Chaucer had his characters tell were popular stories which he adapted to suit his storyteller.  His stores are a mixture of serious and comical, sacred and profane (for which Chaucer wrote a retraction in order to protect himself from God's vengence); they include romantic adventures and fabliaux, religious allegories and even a sermon.  From his tales Chaucer's political sentiments are unclear, for although The Canterbury Tales documents the various social tensions in the manner of the popular genre of estates satire, the narrator refrains from making overt political statements.




Simon and Delyse Ryan ACU National