The Canterbury Tales | Study Guide

Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Canterbury Tales | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Geoffrey Chaucer is considered the father of English literature, and his crowning achievement, The Canterbury Tales, is a classic of Middle English literature. Written between 1387 and 1400, The Canterbury Tales is important both as a literary masterpiece and a fictionalized account of 14th-century life and customs. Chaucer reveals the lives of numerous characters completing a pilgrimage together from London to Canterbury, including the Knight, the Merchant, the Miller, and the notoriously crass Wife of Bath. By presenting such a wide array of characters, Chaucer gives audiences centuries later a glimpse into both social disparities and similarities among classes in the Late Middle Ages.

While none of the characters are known to be based on historical figures, scholars note that they're written to be very telling of the social niches they represent. Therefore, The Canterbury Tales is much more than a collection of stories—it is a wider view of medieval societal differences as a whole, forced to come together to complete a holy ritual.

1. The Canterbury Tales is one of the first English works to mention paper.

Paper was a revolutionary tool that helped spread information across Europe and was much more effective than previous platforms for writing, such as papyrus, tablets, or animal hides. Chaucer's work is one of the first manuscripts from England to describe its use.

2. Chaucer began his career as a diplomat but ended it as a gardener.

Chaucer's middle-class parents wanted a better life for him, so they sent him to serve as a page in the court of a countess. Thanks to the royal connections he acquired, he was able to join the Royal Service and traveled on important diplomatic missions in Europe.

He married a well-connected wife, and with the support of King Richard II, he eventually became a member of Parliament. Unfortunately for Chaucer, Parliament was deeply divided between Richard's supporters and those who wanted to oust him. Chaucer got out of London, barely able to make ends meet. In 1391 he was reduced to working as the subforester, or gardener, in one of the king's parks—a position he held until his death in 1400.

3. Chaucer was once taken prisoner and held for ransom.

During the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453) between England and France, the teenaged Chaucer was taken prisoner while serving on a diplomatic mission in France. King Edward III paid a ransom of £16 to have him released.

4. An original printing of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales was sold at auction twice—once for $8, and another time for more than $7 million.

In 1998 British auction house Christie's sold one of the 12 remaining 1477 editions of The Canterbury Tales. The book was expected to fetch around $900,000, but Magg's Bros.—a London book dealer—heated up the bidding with an offer of $7.5 million (a record high at the time).

The book had previously been sold at another Christie's auction in 1776, when William, 4th Earl Fitzwilliam, bought the book for £6, or around $8.

5. There is a science-fiction version of The Canterbury Tales.

Hyperion (1989), the Hugo Award-winning science fiction novel by Dan Simmons, borrows the idea of a pilgrimage narrated from numerous viewpoints from Chaucer, while changing the setting from a journey across England to an intergalactic trek. The book shares the stories of seven space pilgrims as they search for fulfillment in the face of annihilation.

6. Geoffrey Chaucer was the first writer to be buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey.

When Chaucer died in 1400, he was laid to rest in London's Westminster Abbey—but not because of his literary fame. Chaucer worked in the Palace of Westminster at the time of his death and had been living in a home on the Abbey's grounds. Because he was in royal favor and died on the grounds, he was laid to rest in the south transept by the chapel of St. Benedict.

It wasn't until 1556—more than a century and a half after his death—that his body was moved to what would become known as the Poets' Corner. A fellow poet, Nicholas Brigham, erected a monument for him, which reads:

Of old the bard who struck the noblest strainsGreat Geoffrey Chaucer, now this tomb retains.If for the period of his life you call,the signs are under that will note you all.In the year of our Lord 1400, on the 25th day of October.Death is the repose of cares.N.Brigham charged himself with these in the name of the Muses
1556

The Poets' Corner is also the final resting place for other literary giants, including Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and Lord Byron.

7. Chaucer was paid in wine for a poem he wrote.

In 1374 Chaucer hit the jackpot with a lucrative gig that resulted in a daily pitcher of wine and a house to live in rent-free for the rest of his life.

It's believed these good fortunes came as the result of a poem Chaucer presented to the King of England (Edward III) during the feast of St. George's Day on April 23. (St. George was a soldier who legendarily slayed a dragon to save a princess.)

When Edward III died in 1377, Richard II took the throne and continued giving Chaucer his wine. Finally, in 1378, Chaucer must have had his fill, and the king granted his request to trade in his wine for an annual income.

8. Sting dedicated an album to The Canterbury Tales.

Nominated for six Grammy awards, British musician Sting's 1993 album Ten Summoner's Tales was composed in homage to Chaucer's masterpiece. The album's title is a play on Chaucer's character, the Summoner, and the musician's last name, Sumner, a surname that derives from that word.

9. The Library of Congress has a mural of The Canterbury Tales.

In the John Adams Building of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, a mural by Ezra Winter depicts the Miller leading a group of Chaucer's characters on their pilgrimage. The mural is located in the North Reading Room of the building.

10. A famous scientist used the structure of The Canterbury Tales for his book on biological evolution.

Richard Dawkins's 2004 book The Ancestor's Tale uses Chaucer's method of narrative framing to trace biological evolution, replacing the pilgrimage to Canterbury with the evolutionary journey of humankind's ancestors. Chapter names—such as "The Marsupial Mole's Tale" and "The Elephant Bird's Tale"—are reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales. For those familiar with Chaucer's work, this structure helps readers better connect and relate to the concepts of evolution.

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