February 2010
Billie Silvey
Canterbury Tales
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was the first book printed in
English.  It is the story of a diverse group of twenty-nine people
assembled at the Tabard Inn in Southwark for a pilgrimage to the
shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury.  The work itself is a
collection of stories told by the pilgrims and set in the frame of their

The Prologue introduces these pilgrims, with the style and subject
matter of the various stories fitting the status and education of each
teller.  The Pilgrims include a
Knight, Squire, Yeoman, Prioress,
Nun, three Priests,
Monk, Friar, Merchant, Clerk, Lawyer,
Franklin, Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer, Tapestry-
Weaver, Cook, Sailor, Physician,
Wife of Bath, Parson, Plowman,
Manciple, Reeve, Summoner, Pardoner, and Host.

These pilgrims represent all three basic kinds of people in medieval
society—those who pray (clergy), those who fight (nobility) and
those who work (commoners and peasants).

Chaucer’s emphasis on character, human nature, realism and
humor makes
Canterbury Tales the most modern work of literature
before Shakespeare.  Chaucer was a poet of love—from divine
raptures to the very earthly love of the much married Wife of Bath.

Written in Middle English, a point in the development of the language
during which what are now silent e’s and other silent letters
were pronounced, it is still read both in the original and in updated

I can almost hear my major professor at Pepperdine, James Smythe,
reading its opening lines:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages),
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.
Chaucer's World