The Tales of Canterbury - Chaucer (Ackroyd's Brief Lives) - Peter Ackroyd

Chaucer (Ackroyd's Brief Lives) - Peter Ackroyd (2005)

Chapter 11. The Tales of Canterbury


Chaucer now enjoyed a measure of space, and freedom, with which to contemplate the shape of his life and the direction of his poetry. He was poorer than he had been before, however, largely because he had relinquished his post as controller and had given up his exchequer annuities. But he had more time and leisure at his disposal, and he was less concerned with the busy daily life of the city. He was not in retirement, but he was not continually occupied. It is no coincidence, therefore, that he first began to consider the possibilities of a frame narrative containing diverse tales. He was later to describe it as “The Tales of Canterbury,” and at an early stage he must have hit upon the device of a pilgrimage as a convenient context for the telling of stories and the interplay of various dramatic characters.

He had removed himself from the court, and The Canterbury Tales is the first long poem by Chaucer which does not have a courtly setting. The point could be put another way by suggesting that it was his first modern epic. Of course it is not “realistic,” in any contemporary sense, but it is the first long poem in English which takes as its subject the vagaries of daily life. Its only possible rival in this sphere, William Langland’s Piers the Plowman, is a dream vision of religious import. The Canterbury Tales is a story of familiar characters in a recognisable setting.

By the time he had settled in Greenwich he had already written two of the tales, no doubt as independent poems; they became “The Knight’s Tale” concerning Palamon and Arcite and “The Second Nun’s Tale” on the life of St. Cecile. But it is likely that at a very early stage he conceived of a great and open poem that would allow him to introduce a whole new range of material. In the early lines of the “General Prologue” he addresses what by implication is a general readership:

And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take oure wey ther as I yow devyse.

The poem was never formally completed, and exists in a number of stray manuscripts and groups of manuscripts which have been knitted together by later commentators in various patterns. It is most likely that Chaucer never did finish work upon it, but considered it as somehow a permanent part of his creative career. Like life itself, it was accumulative and unpredictable.

The period during which he could bestow all his time and labour upon it, however, was relatively short. In the spring of 1389 Richard II shook off his opponents. He declared himself to be of age and pronounced himself fit and capable of exercising all the powers of the sovereign. It cannot be entirely coincidental that two months later, on 12 July 1389, Chaucer was appointed clerk of the king’s works. This was a grand if arduous appointment (later held by such dignitaries as Sir Christopher Wren) which could have allowed Chaucer little leisure for his literary affairs. It was not a reward or sinecure for an old servant of the crown but, rather, a pressing and important duty imposed upon a skilful and sharp-witted administrator. It has been suggested that he had already become steward of the palaces of Eltham and of Sheen, which would at least be a fitting prelude to work in this new post. He had been appointed at the behest of the king himself, who in his resurgent position wished for a royal servant who could help him to maintain in a literal sense the fabric of his authority.

The clerk of the king’s works was supposed to administer and oversee all building work upon the king’s estates as well as to undertake necessary repairs to buildings, walls, fishponds and the other appurtenances of royal households. He also had to employ and pay the workmen, arrange for the purchase and safe delivery of the building supplies, and keep all the necessary accounts in good order. The details of the appointment include work “at our Palace of Westminster, our Tower of London, our Castle of Berkhampstead, our Manors of Kennington, Eltham, Clarendon, Shene, Byfleet, Chiltern Langley, and Feckenham.” Chaucer had to appoint four deputies as well as purveyors and clerks; his own office was situated within the royal palace at Westminster. It must have been in every sense a full-time job, for which he was paid the not inconsiderable sum of two shillings a day. There are records of his dealings with the master mason, Henry Yevele; during this period Yevele was concerned with the design and construction of the nave in Westminster Abbey. There are other records concerning the master carpenter and the king’s gardener, as well as various craftsmen and labourers, and in the accounts there are references to “carriage of stone from Windsor Great Chapel” and “repair of houses for weighing wool by the Tower.” Chaucer’s principal responsibility in fact seems to have been the Tower of London, upon which was spent more than half of his office’s total expenditure. A year after his initial appointment he was also placed in charge of St. George’s Chapel at Windsor which was “en poynt du ruyne.” He would have travelled continually, enduring the customary complaints of builders and the laziness or surliness of English workmen. He was once more at the heart of royal business.

Two or three events mark out his time as clerk. On 5 March 1390 a great storm destroyed many of the trees upon the royal estates, and there must have been further damage to buildings and outhouses; he would have been responsible for repairs, and for the sale of the fallen trees. A week after this tempest Chaucer was appointed to a commission to oversee the rebuilding of the walls and ditches beside the Thames, on what might be described as his home stretch between Woolwich and Greenwich.

In the summer of that year Chaucer also began work on building scaffolds and barriers for a great joust which at the king’s command was to be held, at the beginning of October, in Smithfield to celebrate the newly established peace with France. It was a lavish affair preceded by the knights riding in procession, led “by cheynes of gold” held by the ladies of the Garter whom Chaucer had celebrated in The Legend of Good Women. At a banquet to mark the close of the proceedings, the king, in full regalia, wore the crown. There were joustings and displays of horsemanship during the day, with public feastings in the evening. Chaucer’s duties included the proper decoration of the scaffolds themselves, a decoration which may have included the emblem of the white hart which Richard II used for the first time during these proceedings. It was a piece of public theatre for which Chaucer was partly responsible.


Depiction of stonemasons

A month before these events, however, he was involved in more ignominious affairs. While travelling between Westminster and Eltham, with a large sum of money in his possession, he was robbed; the incident took place by the “Fowl Oke” in the parish of Deptford. His horse and purse were taken, together with the sum of £20 6s 8d he was carrying for unspecified building works. He was fortunate to have escaped with his life, but his shock and anger were compounded by a further two robberies, in Westminster and at Hatcham in Surrey. They both took place on the same day, which suggests a well-arranged conspiracy to ambush Chaucer. He was known to carry large sums of money, to builders and to others, and it could not have been difficult to track his movements in Westminster and the adjacent countryside. He was then followed and robbed; ten pounds were taken from him at Westminster, and a little over nine pounds at Hatcham. This second bout of robberies was carried out by organised horse-thieves; that is perhaps why Chaucer escaped with his life.

A commission of enquiry was set up to investigate the affair, and eventually Chaucer was discharged of any responsibility for the money lost. One of the robbers, Richard Berelay, gave evidence against his companions on condition that the charges against him were dropped. But he had not reckoned on another device of the law. One of those whom he accused denied the charge and offered to defend himself by trial of battle. Berelay was duly defeated and, as a result, hanged. It is an example of those older forces at work within the practice of what is termed “early modern law.” One of the others accused, Thomas Talbot alias “Broad” or “Brode,” escaped the gallows on the grounds that he could read: he pleaded the privilege of a clerk, and was handed over as a “convict clerk” to the archdeacon of York. It seems that another of those accused, William Huntingfield, also pleaded benefit of clergy (that he was literate) and was despatched to Marshalsea rather than the scaffold. Literacy was literally a saving grace. The convention emphasises the social significance of reading itself, in an era when Chaucer was turning from the oral delivery of the court to the relatively closed world of the book.

It is perhaps not coincidental that, less than a year after these robberies, Chaucer resigned his office as clerk. He may have expected an arduous appointment, but he could not have anticipated such a dangerous one. No doubt the continual pressure of business did play some part in his decision to resign; it must have seemed to him at the time that he had very little leisure left for his writing, especially in a period when he had embarked upon the long course of The Canterbury Tales.

It is sometimes surmised, however, that he was asked to resign due to some incapacity; there is some evidence to support this claim. An early audit of his office revealed that there had been an over-spending of some twenty pounds. His replacement, John Gedney, was a career civil servant who, on the evidence of the records, approached his duties with more fervour and energy than Chaucer himself.

Chaucer composed a short “envoy” in this period which may bear some relation to his resignation:

And but you list releve him of his peyne,
Preyeth his beste frend of his noblesse
That to som beter estat he may atteyne.

As a good and faithful servant of the crown, however, he was rewarded with a sinecure; in the same year he was given the post of sub-forester for the forest of North Petherton. It is perhaps hard to envisage the poet fulfilling the normal duties of a forester, but no such unlikely scenario needs to present itself. The rights to the land in question were then being debated in the courts and, since Chaucer knew both parties to the dispute, it is likely that he was engaged in the role of arbiter and negotiator during the proceedings. His skills in that area were sufficiently well known.

Yet he had now entered a period of semi-retirement after the busy activity of the previous two years. He had lost his large income as clerk of the king’s works, and may have found it necessary to moderate his own expenditure. He still received the annuity of £10 first granted to him by John of Gaunt, and in the early months of 1392 he received a gift of £10 from the king “pro regardo et bono servicio.Perhaps the royal household had heard of his straitened circumstances. Large debts owed to him by the exchequer, as a result of his work as clerk, were after some delay also repaid to him. Yet he was still obliged to borrow money on at least one occasion; in the summer of 1392 he borrowed 26s 8d for the period of one week. This puzzling short-term loan, by a professional money-lender named Henry Mawfield, cannot now be explained; but at least it confirms that Chaucer was not by any contemporaneous standard a wealthy man at this point in his life. In subsequent years he was also sued for small debts, but this is no real reflection upon his credit in any sense; he was merely part of the late medieval loan culture where such actions were commonplace.

He was in his late middle age and, unlike the more sprightly characters of The Canterbury Tales, beyond any prospect of love or marriage. In one of the short poems that Chaucer wrote in this period, “Merciles Beaute,” there is a wonderful evocation of his chastened but still ironic self:

Love hath my name ystrike out of his sclat,
And he is strike out of my bokes clene
For evermo; ther is non other mene.
Sin I fro Love escaped am so fat,
I never thenk to ben in his prison lene;
Sin I am free, I counte him not a bene.

In the same period he addressed a verse letter to his friend and companion, the courtier Henry Scogan, in which he laments his situation at Greenwich by the mouth of the Thames:

In th’ende of which strem I am dul as ded,
Forgete in solytarie wildernesse …

There is an element of ritual complaint here, with its echo of Ovidian exile, but it is not hard to detect a current of true feeling running somewhere within it.

In the year of his retirement from the office of the king’s works he occupied his unaccustomed leisure with the useful little treatise composed for the instruction and entertainment of his ten-year-old son Lewis. (See Chapter Seven.) It is entitled A Treatise on the Astrolabe, and has the merit of being the oldest surviving English handbook on the use of a scientific instrument—the astrolabe in question being an elaborately modelled sphere upon which the movements of the moon and planets can be traced. It was used for taking the altitude, or “the heighte of any thing” as Chaucer puts it, and to solve certain practical problems concerned with astronomical observation. In The Canterbury Tales, for example, a poor Oxford scholar possesses “His astrelabie, longynge for his art.”

At this late date it is not an easy book to read or understand. Chaucer himself apologises in his prologue for “curious endityng and hard sentence,” yet clearly it was aimed at the comprehension of a ten-year-old medieval child. This in itself says much about the relative progress in human education.

Chaucer commences his work with a charming address. “Lyte Lowys my sone, I apercyve wel by certeyne evydences thyn abilite to lerne sciences touching nombres and proporciouns; and as wel considre I thy besy praier in special to lerne the tretys of the Astrelabie.” The ensuing narrative has been described as the best example of medieval scientific prose in English, and certainly it bears witness to the fact that the poet was fully aware of all the developments in what he once called “al this newe science that men lere.” He had a working knowledge of astrology as well as of astronomy, and the evidence of his allusions suggests that he was cognisant of modern medicine as well.

It has been suggested that in the year after his composition of A Treatise on the Astrolabe he wrote another treatise entitled The Equatorie of the Planetis, which is concerned with the geometrical calculation of the positions of the seven planets. This is of more uncertain provenance, however, and rests upon the notation of “radix chaucer” beside the date of December 1392. It is also transcribed in a hand not unlike that of Chaucer himself, which adds more matter to the speculation. Whether composed by Chaucer or not, it is at least evidence of scientific writing in what might be called the “circle” of the poet. Contemporaries such as Ralph Strode and John Gower were interested in the latest developments in astronomy or mathematics as a branch of general human education; they were not “specialists” or “professionals” in the sphere of knowledge, but part of an urban movement of learning. In that sense they were the precursors of the “London humanists” of the late fifteenth century.


A philosopher teaching with the aid of an astrolabe

Yet his best remembered work was still to come. He had begun to compose the poems which make up The Canterbury Tales before he had taken up the post of clerk of the king’s works, as we have seen, but in this period of half-retirement he had the leisure to contemplate his design. He was writing in Greenwich rather than in London, and as a result had formed a more general idea of any possible audience. There are also indications within the poem that its text was meant to be read and not heard. In “The Second Nun’s Prologue” he appeals to his putative reader:

Yet preye I yow that reden that I write and in “The Miller’s Prologue” he advises the same reader:

And therfore, whoso list it nat yheere,
Turne over the leef and chese another tale.

His muse is no longer one of performance and story-telling but of more measured effects and a more impersonal tone.

He may have worked upon more than one tale at a time. He left some unfinished, and revised others as he went along. Epilogues are cancelled, and prologues are rewritten. He took lines from one tale, and added them to another. He placed three or four tales within a coherent and dramatic arrangement, but left others stray and unattached. Certain of the stories are appropriately matched with their speakers; “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” and “The Pardoner’s Tale,” for example, could only be narrated by those particular individuals. But other tales bear no relation at all to their ostensible source. “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” and “The Merchant’s Tale” could have been narrated by any one of the pilgrims. There is internal evidence within “The Shipman’s Tale” that it was originally meant to be spoken by a woman. Other characters literally ride into the poem at a late stage, and are introduced casually within the narrative.

Some of the Canterbury pilgrims grew in stature and significance in the act of composition. Chaucer realised that he had created a wonderfully emblematic character in “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” so he increased her role within the larger poem; he added new lines about her at a later date, and introduced references to her in “The Clerk’s Tale” and “The Merchant’s Tale” as a way of affirming her identity. It is not unusual for a writer to realise the force of a character after it has been created, and to treat that character as a phenomenon in the world. Hence in one verse epistle he advises a friend:

The Wyf of Bathe I pray yow that ye rede
Of this matere that we have on honde.

The Canterbury Tales is so inclusive a poem that fictional characters become real and real people become fictional. The Host, Herry Bailey, was a contemporary Southwark landlord well known to Londoners; the Cook is more than likely based upon Roger of Ware, otherwise known as “Hogge of Ware,” a famous cook of the period. And there is a punning reference in the “General Prologue” to a sergeant-at-law:

Therto he koude endite and make a thyng,
Ther koude no wight pynche at his writyng.

Here “pynche” seems to allude to Thomas Pynchbeck, a sergeant-at-law with whom Chaucer had less than friendly relations. Chaucer seems deliberately to efface or to ignore the boundaries between life and art. The poem is inconsistent and inconclusive precisely because it represents the condition of life itself.

That is why Chaucer himself enters the poem in a direct way. This was not a new device; both Langland and Gower make use of autobiographical references. But no poet before Chaucer created as substantial, or as dramatic, a persona. He becomes one of the pilgrims. The Man of Law, in the course of the journey to Canterbury, has cause to mention Chaucer’s poetry:

I kan right now no thrifty tale seyn
That Chaucer, thogh he kan but lewedly
On metres and on rymyng craftily,
Hath seyd hem in swich Englissh as he kan …

The poet himself is addressed by Herry Bailey in less than flattering terms:


Full page from The Canterbury Tales. “The Pardoner’s Tale”

Thou lookest as thou woldest fynde an hare,
For evere upon the ground I se thee stare.

Chaucer presents himself as portly, distracted and a little obtuse. It is his usual technique, one meant to disarm criticism and to inspire comedy. His own contributions to The Canterbury Tales, however, are somewhat puzzling. The first, “Sir Thopas,” is a parody of minor English romances. The second, “The Tale of Melibee,” is a lengthy prose translation of a French allegory on the theme of patience or “mesure”; it may even have been completed, for other purposes, at an earlier date. By placing himself within the narrative, however, Chaucer renders the poem more “real” and more credible.

Yet reality changes. However tempting it may be to claim The Canterbury Tales as a work of naturalism, a piece of native realism consonant with the infancy of the language (as fresh as Chaucer’s favourite flower, the daisy), it must be resisted. The poem takes its place among the other artefacts of the period, and can only properly be understood in relation to them. Thus the art of the Ricardian court, for example, conveys a new interest in crowded scenes and realistic detail; late fourteenth-century tapestries are more concerned with continuous narrative as well as free-standing and naturalistic figures; the manuscript illuminations of the period display a new emphasis upon delicately rendered natural scenery and realistic architectural backgrounds; painting and sculpture are concerned with individual expression and more finely rendered attempts at facial modelling. There was also a more general concern with the vivid depiction of emotion, particularly of pathos and grief. In the altar panels of the period, such as those preserved in Norwich Cathedral, the elaborate patterning of the surface does not preclude the inventive use of facial expression or particular detail. None of these developments needs to have affected The Canterbury Tales in a direct fashion, but they suggest that the poem is part of a family of contemporaneous concerns.

There is also the matter of form. In recent years the peculiar fragmentary quality of the narrative, as well as its sudden juxtapositions of meaning, have been explained as examples of the Gothic mode. The use of an open-ended and continuous narrative, recounting the stages in a progress or on a journey, is an essential element in Gothic narrative whether sculpted out of stone or words; the combination or translation of secular and spiritual material, often accomplished by an exaggerated mixture of styles, is another manifestation of the Gothic sensibility. It is exemplified by Chaucer’s mingling of bawdy fabliaux and religious allegories. A less theoretical model can also be adduced here. Some of the most influential works of the period were conceived as framed collections of stories—Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Boccaccio’s Decameron are examples ancient and modern. In Chaucer’s lifetime there was also a fashion for collections of material in one volume, which acted as a kind of family album; sermons and tales and jokes and moral exempla were placed side by side within the leaves of one manuscript to be perused and read at leisure. The Canterbury Tales can be seen as an aspect of that tradition.

But nothing can prepare the reader for the sheer force and variety of Chaucer’s poem. It opens with a celebration of the coming of the spring, which invokes the sacred and secular elements of that season; it is an opposition and a contrast which will be repeated throughout the long journey of the pilgrims towards Canterbury. The “General Prologue” itself may not have been written by Chaucer at the beginning of the enterprise, but it is the best possible introduction to the poet’s methods. It begins in a familiar and recognisable place:

In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay but opens out into a general view of late medieval society. Chaucer introduces himself—or his narrator—while at the same time outlining the circumstances of the poem. Some pilgrims have gathered at Southwark and, in order to pass the time on their way to Canterbury, agree to narrate various stories; the one judged to be the best story-teller, the purveyor of “best sentence and moost solaas,” will be given a meal at the expense of the rest.

The idea of a pilgrimage as narrative device seems to be original to Chaucer. It is in fact a wonderful invention, for which he must have seen the possibilities at once. It affords a frame for many distinct characters and tales, but it also provides a spiritual context of unequalled authority; life itself was often seen as a pilgrimage, as it is eloquently revealed in “The Knight’s Tale”:

This world nys but a thurghfare ful of wo
And we been pilgrymes, passynge to and fro.

So the journey to Canterbury, the “hooly blisful martir for to seke,” can be used to sublimate or at least excuse the most unholy material. If Chaucer ever looked up from his books into the world, there were examples very close to home: Greenwich itself was on the route of the Canterbury pilgrims, as has been observed, and he would have encountered groups of them at all times of the day.

The “General Prologue” introduces a variety of pilgrims, including Chaucer and the Host of the gathering, who are really to be numbered according to the diversity of their professions and social status. The description of the salacious Wife of Bath precedes that of the holy Parson, that of the Shipman comes before the Doctor of Physick. In medieval fashion they are at once highly individualised and typically representative. That is why the poem itself has been seen both as a drama of various characters and as a refined form of “estates satire” in which characters speak according to their “degree” or role in life. As Thomas Speght, one of Chaucer’s first editors and biographers, put it, the tales exemplify “the state of the Church, the Court and the Country, with such arte and cunning, that although none could deny himself to be touched, yet none durst complaine that he was wronged.” This suggests too much prior construction on Chaucer’s part, and of course disregards many of his specifically urban preoccupations, but it touches upon an important truth. Chaucer is as concerned with the type as with the person; he creates figures whose fidelity to the truths of observed experience is matched by an awareness of their general place in the scheme of things. The Monk is “ful fat and in good poynt” but he also represents the cupidity and corruption of the Church. The Wife of Bath is a formidable matron, but she is also “larger than life” in the sense that she represents the corruption of womankind after the negligence of Eve. This correspondence does not apply to all of the pilgrims—it is hard to see what the Shipman and the Reeve represent in general terms—but there is throughout the poem an implied debate between formal or typical roles and real conduct. The poem is conceived as a set of dramatic debates and interventions, but it also takes as its larger theme the nature of a threatened and disrupted social order. Although Chaucer himself rarely alludes to the state of the world around him, it could be adduced from The Canterbury Talesthat he was living in a most confused and disordered society. The papacy was in disarray, the relations between Church and State continually questioned, the governance of the country perilously poised between the king and recalcitrant nobles. Historians often point to the Hundred Years’ War and the Peasants’ Revolt as the evidence for malaise and disruption. We may also find it in the revelations of the Friar and the Pardoner, the Wife of Bath and the Summoner.

The first of the sequence, “The Knight’s Tale,” was in fact written before Chaucer ever contemplated The Canterbury Tales and was placed within the frame as a story almost perfect of its kind and eminently well suited to the “verray, parfit gentil knyght” described in the “General Prologue.” It is a retelling of a chivalric romance set in the landscape of that classical and almost mythic past which “olde stories” inhabit, and is concerned with the woeful adventures of Palamon and Arcite for the hand of Emelye. The traditional mixture of arms and love is here modified by Chaucer’s reading of Boethius, so that the larger theme becomes one of fate and human destiny. Yet even here Chaucer’s scepticism inevitably plays a part; the tale itself has been interpreted both as a relatively straightforward celebration of valour and chivalry, befitting the social and moral status of the Knight, and as a satire on the sanguinary and mercenary truth of knighthood in the late middle ages. It is a tribute, at least, to the essential ambiguity of Chaucer’s somewhat detached tone.

That detachment is nowhere more obvious than in his decision to follow this tale of high romance with an obscene farce. “The Miller’s Tale” is connected with “The Knight’s Tale” by a prologue in which Chaucer displays his skills as a writer of comic dialogue, the Miller declares:

“For I wol speke or elles go my wey.”
Oure Hoost answerde, “Tel on, a devel wey!
Thou art a fool; thy wit is overcome.”
“Now herkneth,” quod the Millere, “alle and some!”

The Miller “for dronken was al pale” but, more importantly, he “is a cherl.” His story is narrated in the terms of a cherl; it is composed in the same decasyllabic couplets as those of “The Knight’s Tale” but its vocabulary and cadence are quite differently conceived. It is a “low” story of illicit sex replete with intimate matters:


Here begynneth the knightes tale,” woodcut illustrating a book by William Caxton, c.1484

Derk was the nyght as pich, or as the cole,
And at the wyndow out she putte hir hole.

It represents the broad sexual humour which the English have always enjoyed, but in this instance the salacious farce is part of a story which parodies the formulae of the mystery plays; it is in effect a comic rendition of Noah’s Flood. There is perhaps no better example of the way in which buffoonery and obscenity can coexist with sacred subjects. There is another comic point here, since “The Miller’s Tale” effectively satirises the courtly love of “The Knight’s Tale”; Chaucer is setting up an ironical dialogue within his own poem.

“The Miller’s Tale” is in turn parodied by “The Reeve’s Tale.” This succeeding story recounts the cuckolding of a miller not unlike the one on Chaucer’s pilgrimage, and also places the sexual adventures in a much more crude and mechanical setting. It is a fine example of the fabliau, a form derived from the French but deepened by Chaucer’s concern for characterisation and by his unequalled gifts of mimicry; in the poem he adopts a Northern accent for two young scholars who were born

Fer in the north; I kan nat telle where.

It is plain enough that the poet introduced the characters precisely in order to imitate or indeed create a northern dialect:

Oure manciple, I hope he wil be deed,
Swa werkes ay the wanges in his heed.

The last line can be translated, roughly, thus: “So ache the teeth in his head.” It suggests Chaucer’s continual search for novelty and freshness of expression, and his constant inventiveness in pursuit of diverse speech. His “ear” was as good and as alert as ever.

“The Reeve’s Tale” is in a sense completed by “The Cook’s Tale,” a short and rather inglorious tale of an apprentice who “dwelled in oure citee.” Like a character out of Hogarth, but already an urban type by the fourteenth century, the “prentys” wastes his master’s time in game and riot until he is discharged; he then consorts with thieves:

And hadde a wyf that heeld for contenance
A shoppe, and swyved for hir sustenance.

His wife, in other words, was a prostitute. The tale ends there; it is apparently incomplete but in fact it may represent a subtle gradation of love’s joys from the chivalric courtliness of the Knight to the low pleasures of the urban poor. These poems were indeed written in sequence, and it is possible to see Chaucer changing his language subtly from one to the other so that he can present a panoply of stylistic effects. It is both an experiment, and an innovation, in English letters.

“The Man of Law’s Tale,” which in most editions of the poem follows the “love sequence,” is composed in the more formal and elaborate “rime royal” stanza; it is a Christian romance based upon the piety and patience of Constance who follows “The wyl of Crist” through the most extreme misfortunes. Chaucer is in one sense limning a portrait of late medieval piety, which in large part extolled the virtues of female suffering and female martyrdom. The great religious writers of Chaucer’s own period, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, were female; the strain of affective female piety is particularly strong in fourteenth-century devotional texts. The image of Constance is the image of the age.

She is, however, well matched by the Wife of Bath who in most collections now follows. Her prologue is one of the most famous passages in all English literature where, in a language borrowed from scholastics and wise clerks, she justifies her belief that:

Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynogh for me
To speke of wo that is in mariage.

Chaucer also uses much of the anti-feminist literature of the period but, by placing it in the Wife’s capacious mouth, he lends it a new and ironical lease of life. He is a great magpie of other men’s words, but has learned the trick of dramatising them through the medium of a vivid persona. Many scholars have concerned themselves with the sources and origins of this prologue and tale—from St. Paul to the Roman de la rose—but the great attribute of Chaucer’s language is its freshness.

“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is followed by a pair of connected and contrasting stories, narrated in turn by the Friar and the Summoner. “The Summoner’s Tale” is in fact interrupted in dramatic fashion:

“Nay, ther thou lixt, thou Somonour!” quod the Frere.

“Pees,” quod oure Hoost, “for Cristes mooder deere!”

Part of the apparent realism of Chaucer’s method lies in his willingness to subvert narrative conventions in this manner; it is part of the novelty of his enterprise. A summoner was one who called guilty or suspected parties to the local ecclesiastical court; it was a generally hated profession, since those who espoused it were known for their mendacity and corruption. Friars in turn were popularly regarded as greedy and sexually voracious. In pitting them against each other, then, Chaucer is making a more general statement about the worldliness and frailty of the Church. This does not make him a Wycliffite or proto-Protestant, as some commentators have suggested, but, more importantly, a contemporary ironist and satirist.

The two stories which follow have been designated by scholars as “Fragment IV” or “Group E” as a way of bringing order to Chaucer’s apparent disorderliness. “The Clerk’s Tale” is a story of wifely patience and fidelity in the face of her husband’s brutal testing of her obedience; it will not appeal to modern taste, perhaps, but Chaucer seems preoccupied with the sorrows of the female. It is related to what can only be called his benignity, as summarised by the proverb he uses more than once. “Pitee,” he writes, “renneth soone in gentil herte.” “The Merchant’s Tale” offers another perspective on the matter, with the story of a young wife trapped in a repugnant marriage with an elderly knight. After they have been to bed for the first time:

The slakke skyn aboute his nekke shaketh

Whil that he sang, so chaunteth he and craketh.

It is not a pretty picture. The wife has her revenge, however, in the most bawdy and explicit manner. Chaucer feels obliged to apologise for his obscenity—“I kan nat glose, I am a rude man”—but of course he revels in it. It is in any case an important part of the medieval imagination. In a similar context the romance of “The Squire’s Tale” is contrasted with the supernaturalism of “The Franklin’s Tale”; they are a reflection of the medieval taste for the marvellous in all of its guises.

It would be otiose to describe in detail each of the tales, but there are specific points of interest. One of the tales delivered by Chaucer himself, in his guise as narrator, is the first literary parody in the English language; “Chaucers Tale of Thopas” is a pastiche of early English romances which were composed in what are known as “tail-rhyme” stanzas. Chaucer perfectly catches the elliptical and formulaic gabble of these old stories:

Yborn he was in fer contree,
In Flaundres, al biyonde the see,
At Poperyng, in the place.
His fader was a man ful free,
And lord he was of that contree,
As it was Goddes grace.

It has been said that you can only parody successfully writing which you love or admire and, on that basis, it is not difficult to see why he chose this particular form for his attention. These romances, collected in endless manuscript versions, would have been the staple of Chaucer’s early reading; they would certainly have provided an introduction to native English poetry, and in his parodic return to these beginnings there is an implied reflection on the measure of his own poetic achievement in that language. That is nowhere better expressed than in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” a beast fable taken from French sources but handled with such diversity and humour that it becomes a model of well-constructed artifice. The story of Chauntecleer and Pertelote is delivered in a mock-heroic style which is perfectly balanced between bathos and the sublime; farce and learning, confusion and fluency, are mingled together in one of Chaucer’s most accomplished stories.

The Canterbury Tales ends with a short prose treatise, “The Parson’s Tale,” which is in essence a disquisition on the nature and effect of penitence. It is concluded with a retraction by Chaucer himself of “my translacions and enditynges of worldly vanitees” including Troilus and Criseyde and even “the tales of Caunterbury, thilke that sownen into synne.” It has been hard for some critics to interpret this. If The Canterbury Tales were solely a work of literary art, in the modern sense, then the treatise and the retraction appear to be redundant. But that is merely a contemporary preoccupation. There was really no such thing as “literature” but, rather, various models of the world and mirrors of human conduct. In that context “The Parson’s Tale” is perhaps the inevitable conclusion of a poem which has emphasised the frailty of humankind. It is in fact a translation, from two Latin originals that have been stitched together, which in turn suggests that we cannot see The Canterbury Tales as a work of personal or private expression. The “retraction” of his works was a familiar and pious convention, for example, which would guarantee the seriousness of his intent; it is no more an expression of his private wishes than the narrator of the poem is an accurate representation of the poet himself. That is why The Canterbury Tales is in many respects almost an impersonal work. Despite its irony and its frequent obscenity, its moments of low drama and its passages of spirited comedy, it has the distance and the detachment of great art. William Blake understood this quality very well when he wrote, in a descriptive catalogue, that the characters of Chaucer’s Pilgrims are the characters which compose all ages and nations: as one age falls, another rises, different to mortal sight, but to immortals only the same; for we see the same characters repeated again and again, in animals, vegetables, minerals, and in men; nothing new occurs in identical existence; Accident ever varies, Substance can never suffer change nor decay.

Chaucer himself is “the great poetical observer of men, who in every age is born to record and eternize its acts.”

“Accident,” however, lies in the world of time through which humankind passes in its pilgrimage. That is why on one level The Canterbury Tales is an experiment in diversity, a poem devoted to the celebration of variety and change. In a world which is mutable and flawed the most important characteristics are likely to be those of variation and surprise. From various tales comes the experience of heterogeneity. As Chaucer puts it on a number of occasions, “Diverse folk diversely they said,” “Diverse men diverse thynges seyden” and “Al be it told somtyme in sondry wyse / Of sondry folk.” It is the philosophical principle within the poem, if the anachronism can be permitted, given expression in many different ways. He created diversity, too, from the mixing of French or Latin loan-words with Anglo-Saxon diction. It has already been noticed how he contrasts saint’s tale with indecent fabliau, just as on the pilgrimage itself he brings together prioress and cook, “churls” and “gentils.” Some tales also include apparently incompatible elements within one narrative. Chaucer also created a format in which the old tales—the legends and the myths and the stories—could be given a fresh access of life by being narrated in novel circumstances and by a multitude of different people. The apparent “realism” of the narrative, celebrated by writers and critics, is generated by this diversity; by creating a number of lives and of stories it mimics the relative variety of life itself. That is its charm, and its achievement.