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The Canterbury Tales | Study Guide

Geoffrey Chaucer

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Author Biography

Learn more about Geoffrey Chaucer's life and the personal experiences that inspired his collection of stories The Canterbury Tales in Course Hero's video study guide.

Geoffrey Chaucer | Biography


Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London in the 1340s, though the exact date is not known. As a teenager he worked as a royal page. Later, as a diplomat, he traveled widely throughout Europe as an emissary for the king. These positions gave him the opportunity to meet people from all social classes and many different countries. He also became fluent in several languages, including French and Italian.

The Canterbury Tales, with its diverse cast of characters and countless literary and historical allusions, reflects Chaucer's colorful background. Most of the tales are based, at least in part, on existing stories. But Chaucer broke new ground in The Canterbury Tales. As one of the first authors to write a complex literary work in English, he set a precedent that generations of other authors would follow. He established the use of pentameter, a verse line consisting of five 2-syllable units. After its publication, The Canterbury Tales' pentameter became the stock-in-trade of English verse for the next 500 years—in epic poetry, narrative poems, and the works of William Shakespeare (1564–1616).

Furthermore, Chaucer was able to create distinct characters, all with their own voice and style, giving readers an overview of society across classes and occupations. Although none of Chaucer's original manuscript (written between 1387 and 1400) has survived, medieval scribes had copied various compilations of the work. These manuscripts, often beautifully illustrated, were popular even before the first printed version was published in 1478. By this time scholars agreed on Chaucer's brilliance in weaving together a rich tapestry of characters and genres. The Canterbury Tales is still considered one of the greatest works of English literature, and its popularity as a work that both entertains and teaches has not faded.

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