Background to The Canterbury Tales

February 11, 2009 at 9:20 pm Leave a comment

The Canterbury Tales and the Medieval Tradition of Encyclopedic Works.

The huge masterpiece by Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, comes from a tradition of long, encyclopedic style works in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Philosophers and theologians in the Middle Ages, particularly in the 12 and 1300s, wrote “sums” of all their knowledge concerning philosophy or theology. The most famous was Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, a work thousands of pages long, in many volumes, in which he professes an encyclopedia of Christian theology. Others, like Duns Scotus, did the same thing.

Chaucer, however, decided to write a fictional, poetic narrative to serve as an encyclopedia of human character. By having thirty pilgrims from many different walks of life tell a story on their way to the shrine, and a story back, Chaucer intended to cover the entire spectrum of character and humanity.

Chaucer’s Original and Gigantic Plan for the Work.

Chaucer’s original plan for The Canterbury Tales was to have 120 stories, two for each pilgrim to tell on the way to Canterbury, and two to tell on the way back. He never realized the complete project, having written twenty two stories instead. In fact, they never reach Canterbury in The Canterbury Tales, so the gigantic work in of itself is incomplete. Many scholars like to call each section of the work a “fragment.” If Chaucer had completed his original plan, the work would have been massive, probably about the size and scope of Aquinas’s Summa.

Needless to say, what we have is large as it is, and has come down to us as one of the most central works in English literature. Each of the tales is unique, and represents both the character who tells it, and an aspect of the moral, social and economic world in which they live.

Chaucer’s Revolutionary Use of “Character” in Literature.

One of the major contributions Chaucer made to English literature is the development and depiction of human character. Before and during Chaucer’s time, character was never very developed in literature. Characters in any piece of fiction or religious presentation tended to be “types,” meaning abstract representations of concepts, like Vice, Virtue, Patience, Charity, etc. Authors were never particularly interested in character in the sense of psychology like we are today. In fact, our modern notion of character is pretty distant even from Chaucer. It was not until Shakespeare that character truly becomes central to the literary experience, and he owed a lot to Chaucer’s depiction of character. Chaucer’s characters of the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner greatly influenced Shakespeare, and you can see echoes of them in many of his plays.

Don’t Confuse The Canterbury Tales with Literary Realism.

The fact that Chaucer forefronts characters and places them in a leveled and social world should not make us confuse his The Canterbury Tales with realism, a confusion that is easy to make. Although it is a significant development in literature that Chaucer depicts all walks of life in a common social setting and told from a familiar point of view (something I will discuss separately), the situation of the pilgrimage as he presents it is far from realism. None of these characters would ever have mingled together and engaged in such a prolonged activity as they do in The Canterbury Tales in the 1300s.

The Convention of the Framed-Narrative, or the Framing-tale.

Pilgrimages were very common, and Chaucer uses one as a convention by which to gather many different personages together, and to create a situation by which they can deliver different stories. The convention of a group of people telling each other stories in order to kill time has a long tradition, and has appeared in many works of literature up until today. A work of fiction in which the plot involves a story or stories told by a character(s) within the narrative is known as a framing tale, or today a framed narrative. In his travels through Italy, it is highly likely that Chaucer had been influenced by Boccaccio’s Decameron. The narrative is about a group of people stuck together in a dwelling in quarantine because of the plague, and they decide to pass the time by telling each other stories.

The Legacy of Framed Narratives

One of the most famous modern framed narratives is Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. The enigmatic seaman, Marlow, tells the crew of a ship docked in the Thames waiting for the tide to rise, his story of leading a crew on a ship traveling into the heart of the Congo to retrieve the mad engineer of an ivory outpost, Kurtz.

Of course, television sitcoms love to use the framing-tale technique when the characters are holed up somewhere, or need to pass the time, and each one tells a story from the past. Movies, too, like to use framed narratives. One that comes to mind at this moment is The Princess Bride.

Entry filed under: British Literature.

The Fall of Man: The Major Masterplot in Literature of the Middle Ages. Questions for Reading, Thinking and Responding to the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales.

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