Friday, August 23, 2013

Introduction to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), is a collection of stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century. The tales (mostly written in verse, meaning poems, although some are in prose) are presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. Sitting around a campfire, each character tells a story, and the others either like it or don’t. The prize for this contest is a free meal at the Tabard Inn at Southwark on their return. The pilgrims represent a cross-section of society. Everyone is present from the richest nobles (šľachta) to the poorest workers. Geoffrey Chaucer is also present at the campfire and tells two tales of his own.

Canterbury Tales by William Blake

The Characters: Knight, Miller, Reeve (a local politician), Cook, Man of Law, Wife of Bath, Friar, Summoner, Clerk, Merchant, Squire (a knight’s assistant), Franklin (a landowner who isn’t noble), Physician, Pardoner, Shipman, Prioress (a mother superior, director of nuns), Sir Thopas, Melibee, Monk, Nun, 2nd Nun, Yeoman (either a royal official, or a farmer and landowner), Manciple (a kind of accountant, in charge of buying and storing food and supplies for a monastery)

After the Black Death, many Europeans began to question the Catholic Church. The plague (mor) killed so many people, that good workers were hard to find. Anyone who could work could argue for more rights and better pay. Some also protested against church corruption, especially corrupt clergy (cirkev), false church relics, and indulgences (odpustky). The Canterbury Tales, while seemingly innocent, is a form of satire that exposed (odhali) church corruption.

Two characters, the Pardoner and the Summoner, were both deeply corrupt, greedy, and abusive. A pardoner was a person who sold Church “indulgences” for forgiveness of sins. You could commit any sin, and then pay a pardoner, and still go to heaven. Chaucer’s Pardoner openly admits the corruption of his practice while trying to sell indulgences to the other characters.

The Summoner is a Church officer who brought sinners to the church court for possible excommunication and sometimes torture. Corrupt summoners would falsely accuse people into bribing them. Chaucer's Summoner is a hypocrite, guilty of the very same sins he is threatening to bring others to court for, and is hinted as working together with the Pardoner. The Friar of the group hates these two characters, and, in his tale, one of the characters is a summoner who is working for the devil, not God.

The nuns of the group weren’t perfect either. One Nun was a good example. Her tale was about a good woman who brings people into the church. The Monk and the Prioress, on the other hand, while not as corrupt as the Summoner or Pardoner, fall far short of the ideal. Both are expensively dressed, show signs of luxurious lives and flirtatiousness.

The Knight's Tale shows how the friendship of two knights can turn into a deadly feud at the sight of a woman whom both want, with both knights willing to fight the other to the death in order to win her. Chivalry (rytierstvo) was ending at this time, and The Knight's Tale was written to show its flaws.

Two tales, The Tale of Sir Topas and The Tale of Melibee are told by Chaucer. Both tales focus on the ill-effects of chivalry, the first making fun of chivalric rules, and the second warning against violence (prudkosť).

The Original Prologue’s Opening Paragraph:

GP 1 Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
GP 2 The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
GP 3 And bathed every veyne in swich licour
GP 4 Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
GP 5 Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
GP 6 Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
GP 7 The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
GP 8 Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
GP 9 And smale foweles maken melodye,
GP 10 That slepen al the nyght with open ye
GP 11 (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages),
GP 12 Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
GP 13 And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
GP 14 To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
GP 15 And specially from every shires ende
GP 16 Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
GP 17 The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
GP 18 That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

A Modern Translation:

When the sweet showers of April have pierced to the root the dryness of March and bathed every vein in moisture by which strength are the flowers brought forth; when Zephyr also with his sweet breath has given spirit to the tender new shoots in the grove and field, and the young sun has run half his course through Aries the Ram, and little birds make melody and sleep all night with an open eye, so nature pricks them in their hearts; then people long to go on pilgrimages to renowned shrines in various distant lands, and palmers [pilgrims going to the Holy Land] to seek foreign shores. And especially from every shire's end in England they make their way to Canterbury, to seek the holy blessed martyr who helped them when they were sick.

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