The Canterbury Tales: Literary Criticism & Critical Analysis

Instructor: Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

This lesson will review Geoffrey Chaucer's ''The Canterbury Tales'', and give an overview of critical responses to this major work of English literature over the course of its history.

Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer was a civil servant, a soldier, and a poet. In the late 1300s, he produced one of the most famous works of English literature, The Canterbury Tales. This collection of stories, mostly written in verse, tells the stories of 24 pilgrims traveling to Canterbury, England, where a famous saint is buried.

It begins with a prologue written by a speaker who briefly describes each of the 29 pilgrims. Chaucer died before finishing it, which is why there are fewer stories than pilgrims!

It then tells the stories of these pilgrims, some of them commoners, some noble, and some clerical. The printing press had not yet been invented, so the stories circulated in handwritten fragments until it could be published.

The Canterbury Tales was written in Middle English, an earlier form of English that can be difficult for modern English-speakers to read. It has remained in print for over 600 years, so scholars have proposed many helpful, and sometimes very different, literary criticisms that analyze it in a way that will help us understand it. Let's take a look.

An Early Handwritten Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales

Critical Responses

Style and Language

The first critical responses to The Canterbury Tales came from other poets in his own time and focused on Chaucer's skill as a writer. They praised him for his mastery of the language and his stylistic innovations.

For example, he used a new pattern in his poetry, and he was among the first to use vernacular English, the language used by common people in conversation. In Chaucer's time, literary texts were usually written in French, which was considered a more noble and 'scholarly' language. These early critical responses generally focused on The Canterbury Tales as a great work of English literature.

Allegory and Morality

Poetry and stories in Chaucer's time were often used as a form of moral instruction, and other early responses centered on The Canterbury Tales as allegory, a kind of story in which characters and their actions represent larger ideas or concepts.

From the 1500s onward, many of the responses involved interpretations of how particular virtues and vices were illustrated by various pilgrims and their tales. It continued to be imitated and praised by English poets into the 1600s for its language and its moral themes.

There was a shift in critical interest in the 1700s and 1800s, when scholars began trying to assemble the fragments of the pilgrims' stories in the 'proper' order. Also, translations from Middle English to modern English began to emerge. This resulted in multiple versions that continue to be discussed and debated.

Chaucer's Attitude Toward His Time

Critics in more recent times have come to focus on what the work can tell us about the times Chaucer lived in and his attitude towards medieval institutions, particularly the Church. In the 1950s, Chaucer scholars often interpreted him as a champion of the era's social norms and religious doctrine. Some focused on certain stories that they thought represented Chaucer's derogatory opinions about his less noble characters.

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