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The Canterbury Tales

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Canterbury Tales Woodcut 1484
Canterbury Tales Woodcut 1484

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century (two of them in prose, the rest in verse). The tales, some of which are originals and others not, are contained inside a frame tale and told by a group of pilgrims on their way from Southwark to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket's at Canterbury Cathedral. (The shrine was later destroyed by Henry VIII; a visitor attraction called The Canterbury Tales may nowadays be seen in Canterbury). The Canterbury Tales are written in Middle English.

The themes of the tales vary, and include topics such as courtly love, treachery and avarice. The genres also vary, and include romance, Breton lai, sermon, and fabliau. The characters, introduced in the Prologue of the book, tell tales of extreme cultural relevance.

The Tales include:

Some of the tales are serious and others are humorous; however, all are very precise in describing the traits and faults of human nature. Religious malpractice is a major theme. Another important element of the tales is their focus on the division of the three estates. The work is incomplete, as it was originally intended that each character would tell four tales, two on the way to Canterbury and two on the return journey.

It is sometimes argued that the greatest contribution that this work made to English literature was in popularizing the literary use of the vernacular language, English (rather than French or Latin). However, several of Chaucer's contemporaries—John Gower, William Langland, and the Pearl Poet—also wrote major literary works in English, making it unclear how much Chaucer was responsible for starting a trend rather than simply being part of it.

The structure of The Canterbury Tales is also easy to find in other contemporary works, such as Boccaccio's Decameron, which may have been one of Chaucer's main sources of inspiration.

Two early manuscripts of the tale are the Hengwrt manuscript and the Ellesmere manuscript.

In 2004, Professor Linne Mooney was able to identify the scrivener who worked for Chaucer as an Adam Pinkhurst. Professor Mooney, working at the University of Cambridge, was able to match Pinkhurst's signature on an oath he signed to his lettering on a copy of The Canterbury Tales that was transcribed from Chaucer's working copy.

The title of the work has become an everyday phrase in the language and has been variously adapted and adopted. Recently an animated version of some of the tales has been produced for British television. As well as a version with Modern English dialogue, there were versions in the original Middle English and Welsh.

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