Sunday, February 11, 2018

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

Every modern language seems to have its vital, foundational literary work: Italian has Dante's Divine Comedy, Spanish has Don Quixote, and English has Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. And yet, like other such works, the writings of Chaucer are more often talked about than read; unlike Shakespeare's, his characters have not so often strutted upon the stage. In the UK, the BBC has done them both as a period puppet piece as well as a modernized version, and in 1972 the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini made a memorable film version -- but here in the US there have been no major film or television adaptations, unless you count the somewhat squishy "A Knight's Tale." Still, Chaucer's influence has been deeply felt; his Troylus and Criseyde was one of Shakespeare's sources for his play of the same name; the Wife of Bath's Prologue was translated in 1700 by John Dryden; and in the twentieth century there have been no fewer than seven translations or adaptations into modern English, most recently by Peter Ackroyd (in prose) and Sheila Fisher (in verse).

Yet although it is now more than 600 years old, Chaucer's poetry is strikingly modern, some might even say postmodern. Chaucer plays around with unreliable narrators -- one might say that CT has 29 of these -- and even inserts himself into the narrative (Chaucer's offering, the sing-songy "Tale of Sir Thopas," is rejected by the Knight, who swears that his "drasty rhyming is nat worth a toord" ('your filthy rhyming isn't worth a shit'). Part of the fun in reading Chacuer, of course, is discovering that bathroom humor, pathos, pride, and human stupidity are all at least 600 years old!

It should also be noted that, work of genius though it is, the Canterbury Tales are also incomplete. Chaucer's plan called for two tales from each pilgrim on the road to and back from Canterbury, whereas in the version that he left us, we never actually arrive at Canterbury, and not all of the pilgrims even get one tale, let alone two. Early readers often filled the gaps with tales of their own, including one version -- the "Tale of Beryn" -- in which they actually do reach Canterbury. The exact order of the tales is also unclear, although they are generally organized into seven Fragments, within which the order of tales and characters is at least somewhat consistent from manuscript to manuscript.

We'll start with what's now known widely as the "General Prologue" -- a preface to the Tales as a whole which Chaucer probably composed after some, but far from all, of the tales we know now were completed.  It offers a description of the visage (face), character, and "array" (clothing and equipment) that every pilgrim presented, and as a snapshot of late Medieval England, it's without peer.  Few of the pilgrims get off easy; aside from the Knight (and there's some debate about him), only the Parson and the Plowman -- and perhaps the Clerk -- get off without some harsh words and ironic comments on how they each fall short of the ideal for their class.  You'll notice, too, that by far the largest single block of pilgrims are "clerici" -- that is, religious : the Monk, the Friar, the Prioress (with a second nun and a priest), the Sumnour, the Pardoner, and the Clerk -- such that nearly 1/3 of a group of pilgrims, or any random group on the street, would be in religious orders or jobs!  Today, when the worldwide number of what the Vatican calls "members of the consecrated life" is only about 950,000 -- barely one hundredth of one percent of the present world population of seven billion -- times have certainly changed, and dramatically.  Of all the various clerical occupations, only that of the "Clerk" -- a sort of graduate student -- represents a significant class today; there are 20.2 million college students in the United States today, about 6% of our current population.

24 comments:

  1. I believe Chaucer is one of the most important of the early English authors. Without him, we would not have so much literature as he seems to be the progeny of literary canon in the English language. For instance he is referenced and utilized by so many contemporary authors and his themes and techniques have quite literally stood the test of time. For instance - JRR Tolkien has translated Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight, another chaucer tale. While not directly Canterbury Tale, it still shows his influence. In addition, the themes utilized by Chaucer and the character actions are utilized by contemporary authors such as Sir Terry Pratchett in his disc world novels. Not only is Canterbury Tales comical it is also a representation, although exaggerated to a degree. In addition, I believe personally the most fascinating look into the life of folks in the time of Chaucer is the plethora of footnotes translating olde english into modern english. That a language could have evolved so drastically in 600 years, which may seem like a long time. Another aspect of the language is found in lines 413 to around 420 we see the description of the doctor. Someone who we think of as a prestigious career in today, was seen in the same light in Chaucers day.

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  2. I’m always very interested in the evolution of the English language and to see how, in a relatively short period of time, much it can change is fascinating. With a text like the Canturbury Tales, it gives us modern day readers a first hand perspective on the langue and literature of the time. Back then, Canturbury Tales WAS modern and new and exciting. Arguable, this text is still interesting we see a drastic difference in literary choices.
    -Skyler Davis

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    1. I agree and I think Chaucer planned it that way for the literature to be very different. The themes are different and unique. All the story tellers are equal and I think Chaucer planned that as well. Social class and conflict with the character's also play a role.
      - Emma Guglielmi

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  3. Within the introduction of Canterbury Tales, Chaucer introduces the audience to the time and place in which the memory is coming from. He gives the audience all the information they need to properly visualize the setting. He takes up much of the beginning describing the Spring time before going on about how he will be talking about a pilgrimage he went on. The audience knows that the author is along on the pilgrimage because of how he switches to using first person “I”, and again by using “we” when addressing himself and the group. This is giving the reader the idea that the author is telling them a memory from their own life, instead of a made up story.
    -Samantha Wellington

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    1. I agree that the information he gives the audience in the beginning are needed to properly visualize the setting. His descriptions of characters also help with visualizing what they look like during that time which allows the audience to define each character based on what they wear.

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    2. -Jaimee Barrett

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    3. Because this is told from the point of view of someone who was there, it makes me think of what I learned about first person narrative writing. I wonder how reliable the narrator is, since he has no view into what these people actually think. It also makes me think about him and how judgmental he is based on how he describes each person with such harshness. I wonder what he would be described like if this story was told through the view of another character.
      I also think that him telling this story in first person is very smart, knowing that it is a satire. Because he tells it from a first person perspective, it accentuates the point of this tale, which is to make a joke of the classes.

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    4. With how hard it is to read and understand the vocabulary and pronunciation, the way Chaucer introduces us the readers to the characters and plot taking place gave a better understanding as what was to come. So I do agree with what you are saying and how the narrator, Chaucer helped give us a visualization in the beginning. Canterbury Tales is the way that was used conversation during this time, allowing us to see the interaction between characters differ to readings from today.

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  4. The only time I was ever introduced to Chaucer's language was during my first year in college, reading and analyzing his tale "The Wife of Bath's". I myself find it extremely surprising that it took me this long to be familiar to his work, considering he is one of the most known English writers to this day. When reading the introduction of Canterbury Tales, his take on "modern language" was definitely something that I could not recognize from the tale previously mentioned. It was way more complex, but it made it all the more interesting. If it had not been for the background on his language prior to reading Canterbury Tales, the introduction would have been a lot more excruciating to get through. But, once figuring out the plot and learning more about the characters, a reader could definitely get sucked in to the world of Chaucer and his English language.

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  5. At first I was a little confused, but after I got deeper into the text, I realized that it's actually not that difficult to understand Chaucer's writing. The beginning is what captivated me, as I was reading lines 1-15, in my head I envisioned the beauty of springtime. Flowers blooming, warm weather, April showers, Chaucer's language allowed me to feel in touch with nature and the seasons.

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  6. Chaucer was influenced by the wealth, personal ability, profession, etc and how it effects the world. The world has many values such as economics,politics, and social values. Through- out time; the past and the present both changes the way people view the world today. The general prologue allows readers to gather information on characters, setting, plot, and prepares readers for many changes to come. He allows readers to understand a journey will take place.The background on his language is very important to read because it lines up what is needed to know for starting the tales. I definitely would of struggled reading this if I didn't have the knowledge on his background and the background of the story-line. I also enjoyed the beginning too, except I envisioned a new beginning or a fresh clean start, which then leads to Chaucer explaining his journey.
    Jaimee Barrett

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  7. After reading the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales, I was intrigued by the depth of the descriptions that the narrator chose to give each character. After reading, I was able to vividly see each character in my mind and gain information about qualities that they possessed. I found it very interesting, however, that the narrator himself did not really introduce himself or give us information on who he was or what he did. In addition, because all of the character descriptions he gave were spoken from the narrator, it leads me to believe that his analysis of each member of their pilgrimage is a little biased. However, towards the end of the prologue, he gives the reader a warning that he is going to tell the truth exactly as he saw it. “Also I praye you to foryive it me Al
    have I nat set folk in hir degree Here in this tale as that htey sholde stonde: My wit is short, ye may wel understonde” (lines 745-748). He claims that he needs to speak the truth about the stories, no matter how it might change our perception of certain characters. This warning that he gives the reader helps to make him seem like an honest character. I am interested to see how certain descriptions of characters may change as we continue reading through the Tale.
    -Sarah Basler

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  8. while reading the general prologue i noticed he talks a lot about the setting. he emphasized a lot about how it was spring time, he describes the flowers and the grass and goes into great detail about the setting. this helps me understand more and visualize exactly what is going on which is usually very hard for me with middle english. he also goes on to explain the characters. while most of the characters are very good and smart and noble, Chauser also mixes in some bad characters so I'm looking forward to see how they play out in the rest of the story

    -Nicole Langella

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  9. This is the first time I have encountered anything created by Chaucer which I find strange since he is an important writer of English. Most of my education has been looking at Shakespeare. After reading the General Prologue I wish that I had been introduced to his works earlier. Although difficult at first once you get the hang of Chaucer’s language you can see the depth and descriptiveness of it. He describes something as seemingly simple in a more complex and interesting way. Instead of saying something like flowers grow by rain in April he says “And bathed every veine in swich licour”(3). The way Chaucer writes the same things is a lot more elaborate.

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  10. This was quite the hard reading to do. I read it more then once and still found it hard to follow. Even if i cant enjoy this story like most other, i appreciate and understand how important this text is. This text is important for showing a diffrent type of english language that many people in today might not even know existed. Its also important for showing the life style of that time period, so that other cultures could see what 14 century england was like. Lastly, this text is important for being one of the earliest forms of lit to to describe the setting and characters. Without works like this literature's evloution might be far diffrent.
    Richard young

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  11. Since reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in high school, I had knowledge of what to expect reading it again. I was aware Chaucer’s style of writing would get a bit confusing but reading it now with a few more literature classes under my belt I found it easier to understand. Throughout the General Prologue, Chaucer focuses on the setting before jumping into the descriptions of the characters. The Spring setting is what we all yearn for after suffering through the brutal chills of winter, he describes the sweet smells of spring such as rain and flowers blooming. Once describing the setting, the narrator jumped into the description of each character. The characters were a wide variety of people which was what pulled me in. From a Monk, to a Merchant, and even a lawyer, I could image perfectly how they were dressed and even how they acted while on the pilgrimage.
    Jenna Cipriano

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  12. I have never read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, but i have heard of them. I found it someone what difficult to follow but after a few tries, i think i have caught on to the main ideas portrayed. Some of the language used was confusing and I found myself trying to translate some of the lines into simpler terms for me to understand. This reminds me of reading the Shakespeare poems in high school and struggling to depict what the lines I was reading actually meant. I would have to dig deeper and use my problem solving skills to put some of the ideas together. Other than that, I loved the descriptive language used throughout. The Prologue was very useful in gathering information about characters, the setting, and plot. I think this would make for an interesting but somewhat confusing movie, but something I would be interested in. I like how it brings together all the stories from the different Pilgrims traveling to Canterbury and brings into account their different cultures and ethics. Reminds me of the movie Vantage Point or something similar, where you get different point of views from a number of different characters. I also like the large amount of characters introduced, although it can get confusing it serves for a more complex story line that you need to analyze and break down.

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  13. Canterbury tales was written in a very proper language. I liked when it started talking about nature. I don't believe this piece flows or transitions very well. This would not be my ideal reading. I liked the light-hearted tone then becomes very serious talking about battles and religion. These are definite topics of discussion for this time period and still is today.
    Crystal Ruger

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  14. Chaucer is such and important writer in the feminist realm. He produced work that presented women in a drastically different light from the stigma during his time. His writing and commentary on his society took great courage. The poetic nature in which he wrote is just more to commend and be impressed by. I read the General Prologue and the Wife of Bath's Prologue in high school and I am happy I get to revisit and appreciate his work again now.
    - Alana Perez

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  15. This is my first time reading a Chaucer text. I have to admit it was hard reading. But, what I received from it is that he is symbolizing the springtime. The summer time is a time of new beginnings. Springtime also refers to love, as evidenced by the moment when Palamon first sees Emelye gathering fresh flowers.
    -Erica Jackley

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  16. The introduction to the text, or the General Prologue I found to be very interesting. It gives of a sort of nostalgic tone to the reading as he describes the return of spring. It is very descriptive, and forms very clear imagery when being read. Since spring often reminds us of a time a of love, and compassion, it is surprising when the narrator brings up pilgrimage, a religious journey. This itself made me question why the narrator decides to bring up pilgrimage in this particular manor.

    - Crystal Agyemang

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  17. What I like about The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is that it is an estates satire which consists of the three medieval estates: the nobility, peasantry, and clergy. There is no sense of social mobility during this time. One’s character was also associated with one’s class, so if you are a highborn you have a high moral character and if you are lowborn, you have low moral character. Chaucer parodies this idea in the tale and I love that! To criticize the nobility was a huge risk but he clearly got away with it with humor. Look at the Prioress Madame Eglantine for example, who comes across as a noble women. She is supposed to have a high moral character but lives a life of luxury instead of a life of virtue and modesty. She feeds her dog white bread and meat which is sign of her excessive wealth which could be used for other means. –Arrissa Tavares

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  18. Chaucer was a very important figure to English literary. His writing was a bit confusing to read but it is because I am not use to his writing. His tales remain one of the worlds greatest writings of all time. In the "General Prologue," he emphasizes on how the younger generation doesn't follow the traditional ways. For instance, the knight is training to follow his fathers footsteps in order to take his place. His father focuses on integrity and heroism while the knight focuses on singing and poetry. His writings seemed to be a bit modernized instead of having the traditional aspect. Also, his writings focused on how the societies roles were changing and growing. Although, he revealed his own opinions on his beliefs and ideas. He provided a better understanding on the significance of the values during the 14th century.
    -Leony Lopes

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  19. Canterbury tales is written in middle english which is hard to understand but if you have a passion for it, then it may seem simpler. I suppose in that time period canterbury tales would have been very easy to understand. Chaucer wanted to write poetry for nobility and wrote mostly about society and church. Topics that were important at the time. Crystal Ruger

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