Geoffrey Chaucer narrated The Canterbury Tales for the first time at the court of Richard II on 17 April 1397 which is also the start of the book’s pilgrimage to Canterbury. The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 stories by Geoffrey Chaucer who wrote them Between 1386 and 1400 when he became Controller of Customs and Justice of Peace and, then Clerk of the King’s work in 1389. The tales are presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The prize for this contest is a free meal at the Tabard Inn at Southwark on their return.
Chaucer uses the Canterbury tales and descriptions of its characters to paint an ironic and critical portrait of English society and the Church. Although the characters are fictional, they still offer a variety of insights into customs and practices of the time. It was written during a turbulent time in English history. The Catholic Church was in the midst of the Western Schism and, though it was still the only Christian authority in Europe, was the subject of heavy controversy. Lollardy an
early English religious movement led by John Wycliffe, is mentioned in the Tales, which mentions a specific incident involving pardoners (sellers of indulgences, which were believed to relieve the temporal punishment due for sins that were already forgiven in the Sacrament of Confession) who nefariously claimed to be collecting for St. Mary Rouncesval hospital in England. The Canterbury Tales is among the first English literary works to mention paper, a relatively new invention that allowed dissemination of the written word never before seen in England. Political clashes, such as the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt and clashes ending in the deposing of King Richard II. Many of Chaucer’s close friends were executed and he himself moved to Kent to get away from events in London.
Some readers have interpreted the characters of The Canterbury Tales as real historical figures while others maintain it is a mildly satirical critique of society during his lifetime. The Tales reflect diverse views of the Church in Chaucer’s England. After the Black Death, many Europeans began to question the authority of the established Church. Some started new monastic orders or smaller movements exposing church corruption in the behaviour of the clergy, false church relics or abuse of indulgences. Two characters, the Pardoner and the Summoner, are both portrayed as deeply corrupt, greedy, and abusive. Other Churchmen of various kinds are represented by the Monk, the Prioress, the Nun’s Priest, and the Second Nun.
The upper class or nobility, is also represented chiefly by the Knight and his Squire in the Canterbury Tales. In Chaucer’s time they were steeped in a culture of chivalry and courtliness as illustrated in the Knights Tale. This shows how the brotherly love of two fellow knights can turn into a deadly feud at the sight of a woman whom both idealise. Many other characters are included such as the Reeve, the Miller, The Cook, the Wife of Bath, the Franklin, the Shipman, the Manciple, the Merchant, Clerk at Oxford, the Sergeant at Law, Physician, the Parson
At the time Canterbury Tales was written Pilgrimage was a very prominent feature of medieval society. The ultimate pilgrimage destination was Jerusalem, but within England Canterbury was a popular destination. Pilgrims would journey to cathedrals that preserved relics of saints, believing that such relics held miraculous powers. Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, had been murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by knights of Henry II during a disagreement between Church and Crown. The concept of liminality also figures prominently within The Canterbury Tales. A liminal space, which can be both geographical as well as metaphorical or spiritual, is the transitional or transformational space between a “real” (secure, known, limited) world and an unknown or imaginary space of both risk and possibility. The Canterbury Tales remains popular and is regularly read in schools.