Chaucer


The Canterbury Tales By far Chaucer's most popular work, although he might have preferred to have been remembered by Troilus and Criseyde, the Canterbury Tales was unfinished at his death. No less than fifty-six surviving manuscripts contain, or once contained, the full text. More than twenty others contain some parts or an individual tale. The work begins with a General Prologue in which the narrator arrives at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, and meets other pilgrims there, whom he describes. In the second part of the General Prologue the inn-keeper proposes that each of the pilgrims tell stories along the road to Canterbury, two each on the way there, two more on the return journey, and that the best story earn the winner a free supper. Since there are some thirty pilgrims, this would have given a collection of well over a hundred tales, but in fact there are only twenty-four tales, and some of these are incomplete. Between tales, and at times even during a tale, the pilgrimage framework is introduced with some kind of exchange, often acrimonious, between pilgrims. In a number of cases, there is a longer Prologue before a tale begins, the Wife of Bath's Prologue and the Pardoner's Prologue being the most remarkable examples of this. At Chaucer's death, the various sections of the Canterbury Tales that he was preparing had not been brought together in a linked whole. His friends seem to have tried as best they could to prepare a coherent edition of what was there, adding some more linkages when they thought it necessary. The resulting manuscripts therefore offer slight differences in the order of tales, and in some of the framework links. The tales are usually found in linked groups known as 'Fragments'. The customary grouping and ordering of the tales is as follows (the commonly accepted abbreviation for each Tale is noted in parentheses): Fragment I (A) Â Â Â General Prologue (GP), Knight (KnT), Miller (MilT), Reeve (RvT), Cook (CkT). Fragment II (B1) Â Â Â Man of Law (MLT) Fragment III (D) Â Â Â Wife of Bath (WBT), Friar (FrT), Summoner (SumT). Fragment IV (E) Â Â Â Clerk (ClT), Merchant (MerT). Fragment V (F) Â Â Â Squire (SqT), Franklin (FranT). Fragment VI (C) Â Â Â Physician (PhyT), Pardoner (PardT). Fragment VII (B2) Â Â Â Shipman (ShipT), Prioress (PrT), Chaucer: Sir Thopas (Thop), Melibee (Mel), Monk (MkT), Nun's Priest (NPT). Fragment VIII (G) Â Â Â Second Nun SNT), Canon's Yeoman (CYT). Fragment IX (H) Â Â Â Manciple (MancT). Fragment X (I) Â Â Â Parson (ParsT). There is great variety in different manuscripts but I and II, VI and VII, IX and X are almost always found in that order while the tales in IV and V are often spread around separately. Modern editions are usually based on one of two manuscripts, both written by the same scribe: the Hengwrt Manuscript and the Ellesmere Manuscript. The former, in the National Library of Wales, is the oldest of all, probably copied directly from Chaucer's own disordered papers, but it lacks the Canon's Yeoman's Tale and the final pages have been lost. The latter, now preserved in California, is more complete, and beautifully produced with illustrations of the different pilgrims beside their Tales, but it shows the work of an editor who has removed some of the roughness from Chaucer's lines. Chaucer offers in the Tales a great variety of literary forms, narratives of different kinds as well as other texts. The pilgrimage framework enriches each tale by setting it in relationship with others, but it would be a mistake to identify the narratorial voice of each tale too strongly with the individual pilgrim who is supposed to be telling it. After the General Prologue, the Tales follow. The following is a brief outline of the different tales in the order found in the Riverside Chaucer, the standard edition. Fragment I The work begins with a General Prologue in which the narrator (Chaucer?) arrives at the Tabard Inn in Southwark to set out on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury, and meets other pilgrims there, whom he describes. In the second part of the General Prologue the inn-keeper proposes that each of the pilgrims tell stories along the road to Canterbury, two each on the way there, two more on the return