Chaucer was born in 1343. He was the son of a rich wine merchant in London. He was a young courtier and he followed the son of Edward III to war in France. He was taken prisoner and ransomed by the same king. He belonged at the urban middle class, but the king sent him on various missions: his journeys brought him in France and in Italy, were he became interested in Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio; and he enlarged his readings in latin to include Virgil. He became a prosperous bourgeois since his marriage to a wealthy lady. He supported the religious views of John Wycliffe and Lollardi. Suddenly, he was dismissed from the work: he began to work on the Canterbury tales. Chaucer died in his house at Westminster.
The father of English Literature
His language, the dialect of his native London, gradually became standard english, so the basis of Modern English. Chaucer’s works are very various. His poems are usually divided into three periods: the French, the Italian and the English.
The French period includes poems modelled on french romance styles, as “The Romaunt of the Rose” or “The boke of the Duchesse”.
The Italian period includes “The house of Fame” and “The legende of Good Women”.
The English period includes Chaucer’s masterpiece: “Canterbury Tales”.
The plot of the Canterbury Tales is quite simple. In spring, thirty people (including men, women, monks and members of the clergy, artisans and merchants, moreover Chaucer himself) are going on a pilgrimage. They are traveling to Canterbury to the shrine of Thomas Becket.
[Thomas Becket is the archbishop of Canterbury. He was an opponent of the king and a defender of his Church. Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights. He became a martyr and a saint, and pilgrims from over Europe visited his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral.]
They gather at the Tabard Inn in London where the host of the inn suggests that every pilgrim should tell two stories while going to Canterbury and two coming back. There will be a prize for the best story or a penalty for anyone who gives up.
The collection includes a dynamic frame of the pilgrimage.
The work consists of a General Prologue, where the pilgrims are introduced, and twenty-four tales.
The tales are usually preceded by a prologue, which introduces the theme of the tale, and is sometimes followed by an epilogue.
The departure is human and linked to worldly pleasures, and the destination is holy. Canterbury is the symbol of the celestial city: the and of life. The journey of the pilgrims becomes the allegory of the course of the human life.
The work is unfinished and Canterbury is not reached by the pilgrims. Chaucer planned to continue the tales which followed the return to London, the terrestrial city, after the visit to Canterbury.
Chaucer gave a portrait of English society, including representatives of feudal society, members of the clergy and the middle classes. He didn’t not portray the aristocracy or peasants, because no nobleman would have travelled with commoners but instead with their own entourage; then, lower-class people could not afford the expense of such a trip.
In the General Prologue Chaucer did not follow the social hierarchy and mixed female and male characters to underline the new importance of the woman in the middle classes. For example in the Wife of Bath.
There is individualization (attenzione all’individuo): the description of characteristics identifying (identificando) the person try it out of context: Chaucer listed and described tools, clothes and personal qualities.
Realism and allegory
Chaucer uses all the main genres of medieval narrative: parable, beast-fable, fabliau, romance. As a matter of fact, the center of the Canterbury Tales is its stylistic variety: every tale is a unique work about the narrative technique, imagery and vocabulary. Realism is the most important feature of the work: Chaucer writes realistically in a medieval sense, but also using exaggeration, caricature and grotesque. The pilgrimage is a key metaphor for life from the religious sphere. Therefore a report of a pilgrimage is also a true report of an experience.
The tales are narrated by the different pilgrims but the reporting pilgrim is Chaucer. He tells us directly or sometimes ironically what he sees and what he thinks about it. This creates a sort of interplay between real and unreal so that the reader decide if what he is reading is true or not.
The Canterbury Tales is a long narrative poem written in verse. Chaucer used rhyming couplets made up of iambic pentameters.
The Wife of Bath
The name of the Wife was Dama Alice. Wife is her status in society. “She is a widow”, tells us the author. Bath is the town she comes from. The point of view is female and she represents worldly and earthly qualities. Dama Alice, the Wife of Bath, has travelled though the world on pilgrimage. She has carried five husbands in church and she had other lovers in youth. She is well-off, an enterprising woman and she was very good at making clothes. She is a sensual woman: she had gap teeth, large hips, bold and red in hue.