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Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400)

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Geoffrey Chaucer

(c. 1343-l400)

Chaucer was born into a middle class family. His father was a wine merchant in London. He was an important diplomat and he worked for the king. He had a lot of diplomatic trips to France, to Flanders and to Italy. At the end of his life, he rented a house in the garden of Westminster Abbey, and was buried in the Abbey (a monument was erected to him into Poet's Corner). He is the typical of English medieval writers, who did jobs unconnected with writing: Chaucer wrote in his free time. Chaucer's production is traditionally divided into three phases:

q   The French phase: The Roman de la rose a translation into English of Guillame de Lorris' and Jean de Meun; The book of the Duchess a dream poem; The house of fame an allegorical dream poem.

q   The Italian phase: The Parliament of Fowles a dream poem indebted to Boccaccio; Troilus and Crysede a free rendering of Boccaccio's "Filostrato"; The legend of good women composed of nine stories.

q   The English phase: The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer is often called the "father of English poetry". Chaucer established the East Midlands and London dialect as the dominant form of literary language.

The Canterbury Tales

The story is about a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The pilgrimage is a religious event but it is also a recreational event: a break in the everyday life. The pilgrimage is undertaken by people of all ages and all social levels. On the way to Canterbury, at the Tabard Inn, Chaucer met 29 pilgrims; so 30 people compose the group. To Canterbury there is the shrine of Thomas Becket. The thirty pilgrims, on the way to Canterbury, tell two stories each  and when they return, they tell two stories each. The of Canterbury Tales had to be 120 stories, but it is unfinished. Before the 120 stories there was a general prologue, then there are the stories with their introduction. Nowadays we have 23 stories + 1 by Chaucer. The characters are undertaken by people of all ages and all social levels like:

Ø  Knight: the first character described by Chaucer   

Ø  Squire

Ø  Prioress: a nun accompanied by three priest

Ø  Monk

Ø  Friar

Ø  Parson

Ø  Layer

Ø  Physician

Ø  Merchant

Ø  Wife of Bath 

Ø  Student from Oxford

Ø  Carpenter

Ø  Cook

The Canterbury Tales are a portrait of middle class English: all the social class are represented excepted the highest and the lower. The Canterbury Tales are an anthology of medieval literary genres: fable, life of saints, fabliau, moral tale, romance, allegorical tale, dream vision. Chaucer is the inventor of the narrative, but in his creation it is other people who tell the tales, giving rise to narrative tension between the voice of narrator (Chaucer) and the voices of the narrators within the general narrative (the pilgrims). This enables Chaucer to report, comment or criticise without being directly responsible for what he is saying. Nobody is really sure who is actually speaking: it is Chaucer himself, or Chaucer the pilgrim, or one of the pilgrims, or Chaucer commenting on what pilgrims say, or the pilgrims commenting on Chaucer himself → Chaucer is both inside and outside the story. The pilgrimage to Canterbury is a frame: Chinese box narrative → story within the story. All the people speak in first person. The company decided to take with them Chaucer who became the speaking I → narrator and the eyewitness. Chaucer speaks about the social conditions (profession and degree) and clothes of each of the pilgrims as it appeared to Chaucer. The characters are individuals and stock type. Chaucer uses a sense of humour and irony. Chaucer uses an iambic pentameter: a line of 10 syllables with alternated weak and strong stresses → The Canterbury Tales are written in couplets of iambic pentameter.


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