Looking back, it’s difficult to remember just when the idea came to create The Canterbury Tales, but it must have been around 1387. The work was never finished, but what was written amounted to about 17,000 lines, written for the most part in heroic couplets.
In The Canterbury Tales, a party of twenty-nine pilgrims gathers at the Tabard Inn in Southwark in preparation for their pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. The host of the inn proposes to go along on the pilgrimage as guide, and as a way to pass the time he suggests that the pilgrims each tell two stories on the way out and on the way back. That would mean a total of 116 tales all together. The pilgrim with the best stories would have a free dinner once all are returned to Southwark. In fact, I only managed to complete twenty-three stories all told.
The work of The Canterbury Tales begins with a General Prologue, which is what in medieval terms is called an “estates satire.” “Estate” is a term for “class.” So it is a survey of the various “classes” of late medieval society. Each class is represented by a group of figures. The knight and squire represent the nobility. The monk and prioress represent the religious orders. At the other end of the social spectrum are the Parson and Plowman. They are idealized types, shining examples of the pious, hardworking and dutiful lower orders. The “satire” aspect comes from the fact that all these characters are often figures of fun. They are there to be ridiculed, or censured, or, occasionally, admired. People have often wondered why I put the Tales together. Well, let’s just say I’m playing with the “estates satire” to give a picture of a society in the process of change in the England of the 1380s and 1390s.
Now, who would be the audience for such a work? The King’s Court is the immediate answer. That means as the creator of the work, I have to be careful. After all, if I offended the wrong person I could be in very big trouble. So, you’ll see me wandering through the work in a number of disguises. In literary terms, I create a persona. As this persona I present myself as someone who has a tendency to ramble about almost anything, someone who seems a bit stupid or naive, but who is really, rather clever, and knows more than he pretends. I also present myself as someone who need not be approached cautiously as I have a basically warm and open nature. You see that’s the kind of game you have to play in a Court context.
At this point, I’d like to introduce you to the work itself. We’ll start with the opening lines of the General Prologue-(View the General Prologue)