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The Canterbury Tales | 10 Things You Didn't Know


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. 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.

4. 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.

5. Shakespeare paid homage to The Canterbury Tales.

Thought to be coauthored by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher in 1634, The Two Noble Kinsmen derives its plot from the Knight's tale in The Canterbury Tales. This connection is stated outright in the play's prologue.

6. Another story, not written by Chaucer, was added to the collection.

The Plowman's Tale is considered a "pseudo-Chaucerian text," as Chaucer himself did not give the character his own story but did mention his presence on the pilgrimage. One version was actually written by the poet Thomas Hoccleve and added into the manuscript in the 15th century. The story only appears in one version of the manuscript of The Canterbury Tales.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. Actor Heath Ledger played a character based on Chaucer's Knight.

The 2001 film A Knight's Tale features Heath Ledger as a young squire. When his master dies suddenly, he meets up with Chaucer (played by Paul Bettany) and convinces the writer to devise him a backstory worthy of a great knight.

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

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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