The Canterbury Tales: Writing Style & Language

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  • 0:04 Geoffrey Chaucer
  • 0:50 The Language
  • 3:08 Characters & Language
  • 4:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
'The Canterbury Tales' by Geoffrey Chaucer is one of the most influential works in English literature. To understand why, we'll cover Chaucer's writing style and language while exploring their impact on the literary landscape.

Geoffrey Chaucer

Although Geoffrey Chaucer never quit his day job as a civil servant, he's remembered as one of England's greatest and most influential poets. He wrote serious histories, allegories, and romances, but his best-known work, The Canterbury Tales, contains an eclectic mixture of literary styles.

The Canterbury Tales is a story about a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, England. After meeting at an inn in London, they decide to make the rest of the journey together. The General Prologue to the poem describes this meeting and its setting. The pilgrims' journey then functions as a frame narrative for the poem. A frame narrative is a literary technique for setting up a story within a story. For example, The Canterbury Tales' prologues and epilogues cover the interactions of the pilgrims with each other, while the tales are self-contained narratives.

The Language

Chaucer's works make up a significant part of secular literature in Middle English, the type of English used from about the mid twelfth century to the late fifteenth century. His decision to write in the vernacular language that ordinary folk could understand was significant. In the late fourteenth century, when The Canterbury Tales was written, Middle English was still coming into its own as a literary medium.

Chaucer wrote it at a time when English, French, and Latin all mingled in everyday contexts, and the language of his poem reflects the diverse modes of speech present in England's society. The choices Chaucer made about language influenced later authors, and have helped scholars and laypeople learn about how people in Chaucer's England spoke, read, and even thought.

To get started reading Middle English, let's take a look at some lines from the General Prologue:

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

You'll notice that many - indeed most - of these words look familiar. But before we get into what this means in detail, look for clues that will help you in reading it. For starters, although the poetic form might seem intimidating at first glance, the verse will actually help you. The fact that it rhymes helps you, as the reader, anticipate what comes next.

Moreover, like much of Shakespeare's work, Chaucer's frame narrative is written in iambic pentameter, an unpretentious, conversational meter with alternate stresses. So now you even know a little bit about how to pronounce Middle English! Reading The Canterbury Tales aloud may help you recognize the modern equivalents of words that look unfamiliar.

Rendered in modern English, this same passage reads:

Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands;
And specially from every shire's end
Of England they to Canterbury went,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak.

Comparing this to the Middle English original, you'll notice that many of the words are very close in sound and spelling. ''Ferne halwes'' (far hallows) for ''distant shrines'' is almost the only tricky bit.

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