The Canterbury Tales
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The structure of the tales are indebted to the works of The Decameron which Chaucer is said to have read when he visited Italy in the 14th century. Similar collections in Europe were Les Cent Nouvelles nouvelles and the Contes et nouvelles en vers in France. The collection was adapted for film by Pasolini.
No other work prior to Chaucer's is known to have set a collection of tales within the framework of pilgrims on a pilgrimage. It is obvious, however, that Chaucer borrowed portions, sometimes very large portions, of his stories from earlier stories, and that his work was influenced by the general state of the literary world in which he lived. Storytelling was the main entertainment in England at the time, and storytelling contests had been around for hundreds of years. In 14th-century England the English Pui was a group with an appointed leader who would judge the songs of the group. The winner received a crown and, as with the winner of the Canterbury Tales, a free dinner. It was common for pilgrims on a pilgrimage to have a chosen "master of ceremonies" to guide them and organize the journey.
The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio contains more parallels to the Canterbury Tales than any other work. Like the Tales, it features a number of narrators who tell stories along a journey they have undertaken (to flee from the Black Plague). It ends with an apology (palinode) by Boccaccio, much like Chaucer's Retraction to the Tales. One-fourth of the tales in Canterbury Tales parallels a tale in the Decameron, although most of them have closer parallels in other stories. Scholars thus find it unlikely that Chaucer had a copy of the work on hand, surmising instead that he must have merely read the Decameron while visiting Italy at some point. Each of the tales has its own set of sources which have been suggested by scholars, but a few sources are used frequently over several tales. These include poetry by Ovid, the Bible in one of the many vulgate versions it was available in at the time (the exact one is difficult to determine), and the works of Petrarch and Dante. Chaucer was the first author to utilize the work of these last two, both Italians. Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy appears in several tales, as do the works of John Gower, a known friend to Chaucer. A full list is impossible to outline in little space, but Chaucer also, lastly, seems to have borrowed from numerous religious encyclopedias and liturgical writings, such as John Bromyard's Summa praedicantium, a preacher's handbook, and St. Jerome's Adversus Jovinianum.
It is sometimes argued that the greatest contribution that this work made to English literature was in popularising the literary use of the vernacular language, English (rather than French or Latin). However, English had been used as a literary language for centuries before Chaucer's life, and 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. It is interesting to note that, although Chaucer had a powerful influence in poetic and artistic terms, which can be seen in the great number of forgeries and mistaken attributions (such as The Flower and the Leaf which was translated by John Dryden, modern English spelling and orthography owes much more to the innovations made by the Court of Chancery in the decades during and after his lifetime.
The Canterbury Tales can also tell modern readers much about "the occult" during Chaucer's time, especially in regards to astrology and the astrological lore prevalent during Chaucer's era. There are hundreds if not thousands of astrological allusions found in this work; some are quite overt while others are more covert in nature.
While some readers look to interpret the characters of "The Canterbury Tales" as historical figures, other readers choose to interpret its significance in less literal terms. After analysis of his diction and historical context, his work appears to develop a critique against society during his lifetime. Within a number of his descriptions, his comments can appear complimentary in nature, but through clever language, the statements are ultimately critical of the pilgrim’s actions. It is unclear whether Chaucer would intend for the reader to link his characters with literal persons. Instead, it appears as though Chaucer creates fictional characters that are general representations of people in such fields of work. With an understanding of medieval society, one can observe subtle literary critiques against members of the community who conduct themselves in ways similar to Chaucer's pilgrims.