The Canterbury Tales


Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories in a frame story, between 1387 and 1400. It is the story of a group of thirty people who travel as pilgrims to Canterbury (England). The pilgrims, who come from all layers of society, tell stories to each other to kill time while they travel to Canterbury.

If we trust the General Prologue, Chaucer intended that each pilgrim should tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two tales on the way back. He never finished his enormous project and even the completed tales were not finally revised. Ranging in status from a Knight to a humble Plowman, the tales are a microcosm of 14th-century English society.

Scholars are uncertain about the order of the tales. As the printing press had yet to be invented when Chaucer wrote his works, The Canterbury Tales has been passed down in several handwritten manuscripts.

In this short research paper we present just some of the social characteristics of all the members of the pilgrimage. It is not our intention to analyze the social characteristics of Chaucer’s time, nor the social factors that pushed Chaucer to write the tales, neither the social implications of the tales once written. All of this belong to a much more ambitious literary and socio cultural analysis.

In the second part of this paper we present a summary of what was the Great Vowel Shift of the English language.

I. The General Prologue and the Socio Cultural Types.

The most popular part of the Canterbury Tales is the General Prologue, which has long been admired for the lively, individualized portraits it offers. More recent criticism has reacted against this approach, claiming that the portraits are indicative of social types, part of a tradition of social satire, "estates satire", and insisting that they should not be read as individualized character portraits like those in a novel. Yet it is sure that Chaucer\'s capacity of human sympathy enabled him to go beyond the conventions of his time and create images of individualized human subjects that have been found not merely credible but endearing in every period from his own until now.

It is the General Prologue that serves to establish firmly the social framework for the entire story-collection: the pilgrimage that risks being turned into a tale-telling competition. The title "General Prologue" is a modern invention, although a few manuscripts call it prologus. There are very few major textual differences between the various manuscripts. The structure of the General Prologue is a simple one. After an elaborate introduction in lines 1 - 34, the narrator begins the series of portraits (lines 35 - 719). These are followed by a report of the Host\'s suggestion of a tale-telling contest and its acceptance (lines 720 - 821). On the following morning the pilgrims assemble and it is decided that the Knight shall tell the first tale (lines 822 - 858).

Nothing indicates when Chaucer began to compose the General Prologue and there are no variations between manuscripts that might suggest that he revised it after making an initial version. The portraits do not follow any particular order after the first few pilgrims have been introduced; the Knight who comes first is socially the highest person present (the Host calls him \'my mayster and my lord\' in line 837).

The Knight is the picture of a professional soldier, come straight from foreign wars with clothes all stained from his armor. His travels are remarkably vast; he has fought in Prussia, Lithuania, Russia, Spain, North Africa, and Turkey against pagans, Moors, and Saracens, killing many. The variety of lords for whom he has fought suggests that he is some kind of mercenary, but it seems that Chaucer may have known people at the English court with similar records.

His son, the Squire, is by contrast an elegant young man about court, with fashionable clothes and romantic skills of singing and dancing.

Their Yeoman is a skilled servant in charge of the knight\'s land, his dress is described in detail, but not his character.

The Prioress is one of the most fully described pilgrims, and it is with her that we first notice the narrator\'s refusal to judge the value of what he sees. Her portrait is more concerned with how