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The Canterbury Tales

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CanterburyCathedralPilgrims

13th century stained glass window from Canerbury Cathedral which depicts pilgrims on their way to the city.

The Canterbury Tales (Middle English: The Tales of Caunterbury) is a 14th century English work by Geoffrey Chaucer. It is a collection of twenty-four stories, some of which are incomplete. Some of the tales are in verse; others are in prose. Chaucer is believed to have begun work on the first story which would eventually become part of the collection in 1380 but it was unfinished when the author died in 1400.

The set-up for the tales is a trip by a set of religious pilgrims from all walks of life, Chaucer himself is part of the group of pilgrims. They are on their way to Canterbury Cathedral, hence the collection's name. The pilgrims are traveling together for safety. On the first night they agree to take turns telling tales to entertain each other, each telling four stories, two on the journey to Canterbury and two on the journey back. The leader of the party, an innkeeper, says that he will judge which of the stories is the best and reward its teller with a meal. However, beacause Chaucer died before finishing the work, only one tale is told by most of the pilgrims, an exception being the character of Chaucer himself. Chaucer begins to tell "The Tale of Sir Thopas" but is stopped by the innkeeper because the story is so boring. He then begins to tell "The Tale of Melibbe" instead. As a result of its set-up, the book is made-up of a series of relatively, unrelated stories: some comic, others dramatic. They reflect the variety of different social positions of the storytellers and their different points ofview.

People who know Modern English can usually read Middle English, the form of the language in which The Canterbury Tales is written, without much difficulty but are unlikely to understand every word. Modern English translations are readily available at bookstores and online.

List of tales

Chaucer-canterburytales-company

The pilgrims, as depicted in an edition of The Canterbury Tales published in London in 1492.

William Blake Pardoner cropped

Detail from an early 19th century engraving by William Blake which depicts the Summoner, the Manciple, the Pardoner, the monk and the Friar.

The Canterbury Tales begins with the "General Prologue" in which the book's framing device is established and most of the pilgrims are introduced. It ends with "Chaucer's Retraction" in which the author apologizes for some of the more sinful works which he has written and asks readers to pray for his soul.

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