Significance of the Canterbury Tales

Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

This lesson explains several reasons why Geoffrey Chaucer's 14th century poem, The Canterbury Tales, is considered so important and significant in the canon of English literature.

Context and Author of The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales over the course of about thirteen years, from 1387 until his death in 1400. It is a very long text, with some parts written in verse, or poetry, and some written in prose, or non-poetic, regular writing. The ''General Prologue'' introduces the basic situation, which is that thirty people are planning to take a pilgrimage, or journey of religious significance, from Southwark to the Canterbury Cathedral to see the shrine of Thomas Becket. The narrator introduces the pilgrims one by one and, as they gather at the Tabard Inn, the innkeeper suggests they have a storytelling contest on their journey to keep themselves entertained. The twenty-four stories that follow can be read in isolation but are part of the collection of stories that the pilgrims are telling each other.

Geoffrey Chaucer was born into a wealthy family and moved in noble circles as an adult, holding various positions within the court and higher social spheres. His social status would have had some bearing on the language in which he wrote his poetry and the subjects of his poems themselves, which makes the reasons for The Canterbury Tales' significance described in the sections below all the more interesting.

Language of The Canterbury Tales

One of the most significant aspects of The Canterbury Tales is the language in which Chaucer chose to write. The text is in Middle English, a version of English spoken in what is present-day England from approximately 1100 to 1500. Modern readers may not even recognize Middle English as English, but it is an early stage from which our current English has evolved.

It may not seem unusual to modern readers that Chaucer wrote in the language that people in his area actually spoke, which is called vernacular, but it actually was a bold decision. Most poets during that time were writing in an earlier version of the language we know as French, or Latin. These were the languages of scholars, religious figures, and upper class people. As an upper-class, well-educated person himself, Chaucer would have been able to write in various languages, but he chose to write The Canterbury Tales in the vernacular of his country that more people would understand and connect to. For this reason, The Canterbury Tales is regarded as one of the first poems written in the English language, and Chaucer himself is one of the ''fathers'' of the written English language.

An excerpt from one of the many tales written in Middle English in The Canterbury Tales
An excerpt from The Millers Tale in The Canterbury Tales

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