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Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century (two of them in prose, the rest in verse). The tales, some of which are originals and others not, are contained inside a frame tale and told by a group of pilgrims on their way from Southwark to Canterbury, England (where a tourist attraction entitled The Canterbury Tales may nowadays be viewed) to visit Saint Thomas à Becket's shrine at the cathedral there (later destroyed by Henry VIII ).

canterbury tales
Canterbury Tales Woodcut 1484

The themes of the tales vary, and include topics such as courtly love, treachery and avarice. The genres also vary, and include romance, Breton lai, sermon, and fabliau. The characters, introduced in the Prologue of the book, tell tales of extreme cultural relevance.

The Tales include:

  • The Knight's Tale
  • The Miller's Prologue and Tale
  • The Reeve's Prologue and Tale
  • The Cook's Prologue and Tale
  • The Man of Law's Prologue and Tale
  • The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale
  • The Friar's Prologue and Tale
  • The Summoner's Prologue and Tale
  • The Clerk's Prologue and Tale
  • The Merchant's Prologue and Tale
  • The Squire's Prologue and Tale
  • The Franklin's Prologue and Tale
  • The Physician's Tale
  • The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale
  • The Shipman's Tale
  • The Prioress' Prologue and Tale
  • Chaucer's Tale of Sir Topas
  • The Tale of Melibee
  • The Monk's Tale
  • The Nun's Priest's Tale
  • The Second Nun's Prologue and Tale
  • The Canon's Yeoman's Prologue and Tale
  • The Manciple's Prologue and Tale
  • The Parson's Prologue and Tale
  • Chaucer's Retraction

Some of the tales are serious and others are humorous; however, all are very precise in describing the traits and faults of human nature. Religious malpractice is a major theme. Another important element of the tales is their focus on the division of the three estates. The work is incomplete, as it was originally intended that each character would tell four tales, two on the way to Canterbury and two on the return journey.

Perhaps the greatest contribution that this work has made to English literature is in its use of vulgar (i.e. 'of the people') English, instead of using French or Latin, which were usually used for literary works. The structure of Canterbury Tales is also easy to find in other contemporary works, such as Boccaccio's Decameron, which may have been one of Chaucer's main sources of inspiration.

The title of the work has become an everyday phrase in the language and has been variously adapted and adopted, eg. in the title of the British film, A Canterbury Tale. Recently an animated version of some of the tales has been produced for British television. As well as a version with Modern English dialogue, there were versions in Middle English and Welsh.



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