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Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales

To Chaucer's final period, in which he achieved his fullest artistic power, belongs his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales (written mostly after 1387). This unfinished poem, about 17,000 lines, is one of the most brilliant works in all literature. The poem introduces a group of pilgrims journeying from London to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. To help pass the time they decide to tell stories. Together, the pilgrims represent a wide cross section of 14th-century English life.

The pilgrims' tales include a variety of medieval genres from the humorous fabliau to the serious homily, and they vividly indicate medieval attitudes and customs in such areas as love, marriage, and religion. Through Chaucer's superb powers of characterization the pilgrims—such as the earthy wife of Bath, the gentle knight, the worldly prioress, the evil summoner—come intensely alive. Chaucer was a master storyteller and craftsman, but because of a change in the language after 1400, his metrical technique was not fully appreciated until the 18th cent. Only in Scotland in the 15th and 16th cent. did his imitators understand his versification.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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