Though details about Geoffrey Chaucer’s life are elusive, the legacy of his magnum opus, The Canterbury Tales (c. 1390s), is clear. It played a central role in establishing English as a literary language, a real alternative to the French and Latin that were standard—even in England—at the time. By upending the notion that English was inherently inferior to classical languages, Chaucer paved the way for Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and other subsequent giants of English literature.
The Canterbury Tales is a set of twenty-four stories told by various pilgrims who are journeying in a group from the London area to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket. The prologue suggests that Chaucer originally intended to include 120 tales, but it is uncertain whether the work is incomplete or whether Chaucer simply changed his mind and chose to stop at twenty-four.
Chaucer’s pilgrims are a hodgepodge of people from various walks of life: the Knight, the Miller, the Pardoner, the Prioress, the Wife of Bath, and so on. Their tales cover a range of literary genres, from sermon to allegory, from hagiography to chivalric romance. The subject matter of the tales also varies widely, from courtly love to religious hypocrisy to episodes of bawdy humor.
The language of The Canterbury Tales is Middle English, the bridge between the Old English of Beowulf and the modern English in use today. Though spelling, pronunciation, and word order have changed significantly since Chaucer’s time, much of his language is accessible to present-day readers. For instance, the Wife of Bath’s tale opens with this description of the supernatural beings who allegedly populated Arthurian England:
In th’olde dayes of the king Arthour,
Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.
All but two of the tales are in verse. Chaucer chose to depart from prevailing French verse forms and use iambic pentameter—a ten- syllable per-line form that has since become a staple of English poetry. This momentous decision on Chaucer’s part set the stage for Shakespeare and others to apply iambic pentameter brilliantly in plays and sonnets during the centuries that followed.
- After the Black Death ravaged England in the late 1340s, Chaucer’s family inherited a fortune from relatives who died in the epidemic. This financial windfall enabled Chaucer to obtain an education rather than become a tradesman or merchant