The Canterbury Tales: Background & History

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

To provide context for 'The Canterbury Tales,' this lesson delves into important aspects of medieval English society. We will discover how the stories reflect a culture in transition and learn a bit about the language in which they were written.

A Cross-Section of Medieval English Society

Twenty-nine men and women set off on horseback on a 60-mile trek from the Tabard Inn in Southward just outside London. Their destination: the shrine of St. Thomas Becket, the beloved martyr who gave his live to prove his devotion and faith. Among these pilgrims are a knight, a squire, a monk, a friar, a merchant, a lawyer, a carpenter, a plowman, a yeoman, and a noblewoman. Each of them tells a tale.

Far beyond mere entertainment, Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales provide a window onto medieval English society. This ensemble brings together representatives from all walks of life. Knowing a little about the history of the times sheds light on the meaning and significance of these stories. In this lesson we will explore the social climate of medieval England. We will also look at the way language is connected to political life in the 14th century.

Canterbury Pilgrims, painting by Paul Hardy, 1903
canterbury pilgrims

Turmoil in 14th Century England

In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer documented the social and political climate of 14th-century England. Using stock characters, these tales show just how turbulent this period in history was. In the 1340s, the Black Death, or bubonic plague, decimated England's population. The largest portion of England's population were the peasants, mostly rural farmers who lived off the land. The tales of the Plowman and the Yeoman document the harsh working conditions and the lives of manual workers who struggled to earn a better wage.

Dissatisfaction with living conditions and a high mortality rate as a consequence of the plague led to rising tensions between the government and the peasants. In the 1380s, more tax increases were the final straw. The 1381 Peasants' Revolt spread like wildfire across England, as underserved farmers fought for their rights. It was then, in the 1380s, that Chaucer set his tales down on paper.

This illustration by Jean Froissart depicts the Peasants Revolt
Peasant Revolt

Using the annual pilgrimage to Canterbury as his frame story, Chaucer finds a way to mingle representatives from all walks of life. Other social classes, like the merchants and the clergy, are also present in Chaucer's Tales. Additionally, the Tales tell us much about the status of women in the Middle Ages through the stories told by the Wife of Bath, the Prioress, and the Nun.

What Sort of Language is This?

Experts say that it's easier to read Chaucer when you speak out the syllables aloud. Try it out with these opening lines:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Now read the passage translated into modern English.

When April with its sweet-smelling showers
Has pierced the drought of March to the root,
And bathed every vein (of the plants) in such liquid
By which power the flower is created;

Chaucer's language isn't difficult in the way Shakespeare's is. Though Shakespeare wrote in poetic verse that can be difficult to read, our modern English hasn't changed too much since the 16th century. Chaucer, however, wrote in Middle English, an earlier stepping stone between Old and Modern English that served as the vernacular, or 'common language,' in medieval England. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, Middle English was spoken as the vernacular between 1150-1500. This means that, aside from the Latin spoken by the clergy and the French spoken by those in political power, lay people spoke this early form of English in their homes and on the streets, in business transactions and in disputes.

Middle English evolved from a melting pot of cultures following the Norman Invasion of 1066. The French army (from the province of Normandy on the Northern coast), led by Duke William II of Normandy (also known as William the Conquerer), took control of the British government and installed their own language in the court, but regular English folk continued to speak their native tongue, known as Old English. The influence of French, Latin, Celtic, and Scandinavian languages transformed the vernacular into Middle English.

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