The Canterbury Tales Introduction The Canterbury Tales was written in Middle English, over a period of years between 1386-1400 written by Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400) written in the London dialect of Middle English copied in approximately 80 manuscripts considered the greatest example of Middle English vernacular literature
Geoffrey Chaucers Storytelling The ordinary man of the 14th century was apt to view his world as being old, sophisticated and corrupt. New developments in the government and organization of society were replacing the crumbling feudal system. Kings and royalty were being supplanted by the new rich who had made vast fortunes out of the commercialism of trade and finance. The common people were beginning to stir and revolt. Corruption in the Church, the state, and in individual lives was the frequent target of satirical writers. Chief among these satirists was Geoffrey Chaucer, often called the father of English literature. Chaucer was a polished courtier, statesman, professional man of letters, and man of the world. He, too, was well aware of the problems of his day; but satire was artistic. Chaucer never directly argues or preaches. He merely presents the corruption, the exaggerated pomp, the foolishness and rascality of the men and
women of his age, and allows his readers to draw their own conclusions. Chaucers satire is softened throughout by his humor, his awareness of beauty, his rich love of life, and his cosmopolitan outlook. In common with the Gawain-poet, Chaucer was a conscious artist. But he did not use the alliterative meter nor the Old English poetic diction of the romances. His meter and verse forms he borrowed from the French schools, and the diction he used was that of the cultivated people of London. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer becomes the storyteller par excellence. With his emphasis on realism, he gives the whole work the character of a novel. Chaucers greatness lies in his ability to portray character. For the most part the stories he tells are not original. There are legends, love
stories, adventures, satires, allegories and fables, all borrowed from the Italian, French, and English story collections, and from oral tradition. Chaucers originality stems from his ability to tell the tales in masterly, brilliant versification; the idea of the pilgrimage as a framework and a source of unity for his tales; and the vitality, vividness, and satiric humor that permeate both the stories and the characters of the story tellers. In Chaucers day, pilgrimages to various shrines were common. One of the journeys most frequently undertaken was to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been murdered during the reign of Henry II. It was the custom of pilgrims to gather at the Tabard Inn across the Thames River in what is now South London. Here they waited until a sufficient number came to make the journey pleasant and safe. Chaucer presents a group of 29 of these pilgrims in his Canterbury Tales and in the Prologue gives a description of each of them as they set out on their 60 mile, four day pilgrimage. Satire In satire, human or individual vices, follies, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, irony, or other similar
methods, ideally with the intent to bring about improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, the purpose of satire is not primarily humor as much as an attack on something of which the author strongly disapproves, by using the weapon of wit. A very common, almost defining feature of satire is its strong vein of irony or sarcasm, but parody, exaggeration, juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, and double entendre are all frequently used in satirical speech and writing. The Frame-Narrative The Canterbury Tales as a whole fits into the genre of a frame narrative, a narrative technique whereby an introductory main story is composed, at least in part, for the purpose of organizing a set of shorter stories, each of which is a story
within a story. The frame story leads readers from the first story into the smaller one within it. In the case of The Canterbury Tales, the frame story is a storytelling contest during a pilgrimage from the Tabard Inn in London to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The Canterbury Tales is the most well-known and renowned frame narrative ever produced in the English language. Other famous frame narratives include: One Thousand and One Nights, in which the character Scheherazade narrates a set of fairy tales to the Sultan Shahriyar; Mary Shelleys Frankenstein; Ovid's Metamorphoses; and Boccaccio's Decameron, about a group of young aristocrats escaping the Black Death to the countryside and spending the time telling stories. The metrical tale
The metrical tale is a narrative poem in which a story is told as simply and realistically as possible. It may deal with any phase of life, and its theme may either be allegorical or literal. In may ways, the metrical tale may be compared to the modern short story, especially in its relative brevity and its unity of impression. Chaucer, in The Canterbury Tales, was a master of the metrical tale. Each of the metrical tales told in The Canterbury Tales falls into one of the eleven genres that were popular modes of storytelling in Chaucers day. Some tales fall into more than one category. The GENREs Estates Satire Estates is the medieval way of referring to class. An estates
satire is a survey of the three traditional classes of late medieval society: those who fight those who pray those who labor Each class in The Canterbury Tales is represented by a group of figures. The knight and squire represent the nobility (those who fight). The monk and prioress represent the religious orders (those who pray). The Parson and Plowman are idealized types, shining examples of the pious, hardworking and dutiful lower orders (those who labor). Chaucer introduces two new classes that were gaining prominence in the 14th century: the urban middle class (represented by the Franklin), and the intellectuals (represented by the Man of Law and the Clerk).
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. The general prologue, and the entire frame narrative, belongs to the genre of the estates satire. Romance Romances are substantial narratives about high-born people, set far away or long ago, or both. Their plots are concerned with love or chivalry, or both. The vast majority have happy endings, though the exceptions are some of the most famous arguably Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Romances are not allegorical, but the more courtly ones are concerned to express some kind of inner meaning, often related to the highest human ideals. These ideals are likely to be compatible with Christianity, but most romances are primarily secular in focus.
Fabliau Taken from the French tradition, a fabliau is a brief comic tale in verse, usually scurrilous and often obscene. The style is simple, vigorous, and straightforward; the time is the present, and the settings real, familiar places. The characters are ordinary sorts -tradesmen, peasants, priests, students, restless wives. The plots are realistically motivated tricks and ruses. The fabliau thus presents a lively image of everyday life among the middle and lower classes. Whereas romance looks to ideals and idealized love, the fabliau is concerned more with cunning and folly than virtue and evil. Above all, it is funny. Exemplum An exemplum is a moral anecdote, brief or extended, real or fictitious, used to illustrate a point. Exempla helped medieval preachers to adorn their sermons, to emphasize moral conclusions or illustrate a point of
doctrine. The subject matter could be taken from fables, folktales, legends or real history. The exemplum is similar to the cautionary tale, a traditional story told in folklore to warn its hearer of a danger. There are three essential parts to a cautionary tale, though they can be introduced in a large variety of ways. First, a taboo or prohibition is stated: some act, location, or thing is said to be dangerous. Then, the narrative itself is told: someone disregarded the warning and performed the forbidden act. Finally, the violator comes to an unpleasant fate, which is frequently related in large and grisly detail.
Folktale: The motifs of promise and of testing are inseparable from the plot. Typically the hero or heroine faces many obstacles en route to accomplishing some task and is usually reduced to helplessness before the climax. Folktales typically conclude "short and sweet": Everything is resolved the heroes and heroines are happy and the villains are punished. Breton Lai: The Breton lai is a form of medieval romance literature often involving supernatural and fairy-world Celtic motifs. It is more likely to recount a single episode or group of related episodes in a single setting. It also tends to focus much more on emotion that on event. Its primary interest is in the internal life of its characters. Magic is commonplace and characters often act by an ethic oblique to the norms of Christianity. It is called a Breton lai because it was the type of tale popular with the Breton minstrels. Miracle Story: Miracles of the Virgin stories had been widespread across Europe as an expression of popular piety throughout the Middle Ages, and from early twelfth century they were gathered into collections. The stories were written as aids to piety rather than as historical record. Tragedy: The monk describes tragedies in the medieval sense -- as
that which bewail the story of a fall from prosperity in order that we might beware the strokes of Fortune. Beast Fable: A beast fable is a traditional form of allegorical narrative with a moral in which talking animals stand in some kind of exemplary relationship to humans. They are traditionally concerned with practical homely wisdom: how things are, rather than how things ought to be Treatise: A systematic exposition or argument in writing including a methodical discussion of the facts and principles involved and conclusions reached about a single subject,
such as the Parsons discourse on penitence. Hagiography: Hagiography is simple the story of the life of a saint, recounting the extraordinary virtue exhibited by the main character. The General Prologue Do the pilgrims seem like real people, or more like symbols/caricatures of real people? Explain using specific examples. Homework Finish reading introductory notes and study The General Prologue.
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