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Pilgrims on their way to worship at the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket in Canterbury stop at the Tabard Inn. Representing a cross-section of medieval English society, the group includes a knight and his squire, a prioress, a friar, a miller, and a wife. To amuse themselves on their journey, they agree that each will tell a tale. These stories—by turns bawdy, hilarious, scurrilous, romantic, heroic, and moving—reveal a great deal about the tellers and the world they live in, which, despite the distance of six hundred years, seems remarkably like our own. Indeed, the structure of The Canterbury Tales and the sophisticated, intricate interplay between the stories, their narrators, and the general narrator (himself a complex comic character) give the book its strikingly modern flavor.
Often called the first book of poetry written in English, Chaucer’s masterpiece is also the first anthology of English short fiction, one that will resonate with readers for as long as folly and courage, deceit and generosity, love and jealousy remain part of the human personality.
Robert W. Hanning is Professor of English at Columbia University, where he has taught since 1961. He has published The Vision of History in Early Britain, The Individual in Twelfth-Century Romance, The Lais of Marie de France (co-translated with Joan Ferrante), and Castiglione: the Ideal and the Real in Renaissance Culture (co-edited with David Rosand), as well as many articles on Chaucer’s poetry and other medieval and Renaissance subjects.
Peter Tuttles most recent poetry is Looking for a Sign in the West, published by Back Short in 2003.
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From Robert W. Hanning’sIntroduction to The Canterbury Tales
The twenty-first-century reader of The Canterbury Tales experiences Chaucer’s tale collection in a manner very different from any the poet could have imagined. What we read today in carefully prepared printed editions may not correspond to what Chaucer wanted his poem to look like; indeed, it seems doubtful that he even had a final plan for its contents and order. He probably began to compose a collection of tales quite different from the monothematic, classically oriented stories comprising The Legend of Good Women—but like it, a collection headed by a considerable prologue—sometime in the late 1380s, before or after he left London for Kent. How long he worked on The Canterbury Tales is unknown—perhaps until illness or death interrupted his labors, but he may have abandoned the project much earlier. Other unanswerable questions: Did he ever really contemplate writing 120 tales, as is implied by the Host’s suggestion to the Canterbury-bound pilgrims that each of the thirty travelers tell two tales on the road to the shrine and two more on the way back to the celebratory dinner at his inn, the Tabard? (Elsewhere in the framing fiction there are suggestions that one tale will suffice from each pilgrim.) And how many of the tales had been written and either circulated in writing or performed orally before the poet had the idea of incorporating them within a frame? (A list of his works included by Chaucer in the prologue to the "Legend" suggests that “The Knight’s Tale” and “The Second Nun’s Tale of Saint Cecilia”* preexisted the Canterbury collection, and various scholars have conjectured an earlier composition for a number of others.)
What modern presentations of The Canterbury Tales hide behind their neatness and precision is the state in which Chaucer’s Canterbury project actually comes down to us. More than eighty extant manuscripts contain all or part of the text; each has variants and errors because, as with all textual reproduction before the invention of printing, manuscripts were copied one at a time by scribes in differing states of attentiveness or fatigue. Scholars have been unable to work out a system that organizes the manuscripts in such a way as to discover, behind all the variant readings, exactly what Chaucer wrote.
Only one manuscript of The Canterbury Tales (the so-called Hengwrt manuscript, now in the National Library of Wales) may date from Chaucer’s lifetime; it contains a highly accurate text but lacks a tale (that of the Canon’s Yeoman) and several passages linking tales that appear in other manuscripts written within a decade of Chaucer’s death. The most famous manuscript, and until recently the one accorded highest authority because of its completeness and illustrations of all the pilgrims, is the Ellesmere manuscript, now in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. What emerges from these and other manuscripts is that Chaucer gathered many of the tales into groups, or fragments, by means of interstitial dialogue between the pilgrims. There is no agreed order for these fragments, and some manuscripts omit genuine linking dialogues, while others contain obviously spurious links. So except for the first fragment—containing the so-called “General Prologue,” the Knight’s, Miller’s, and Reeve’s tales, and the Cook’s unfinished tale—which comes first in all manuscripts that contain it, we cannot be absolutely sure about how Chaucer intended to order his stories—if indeed he ever settled on an order or, for that matter, on a text. All the evidence suggests that when he died, or abandoned work on The Canterbury Tales, he left behind piles of papers containing versions of the tales, but that he had also, during his years of composing them, circulated individual stories among his readership that he may later have revised, leaving different versions in circulation to be copied after his death into the manuscripts we now possess. It follows that a cloud of uncertainty, varying in extent and density, must hang over all critical judgments about the meaning and effect of this radically incomplete, but still quite brilliant, collection of tales within their framing fiction.