Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Chaucer Performs

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote 
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote 

DailyMedieval doesn't usually talk about topics that everyone knows about (King Arthur, Geoffrey Chaucer, jousting and castles, etc.), because it tries to pull back the curtain on all the other interesting people and places and tidbits of knowledge that do not get any exposure in textbooks or modern popular culture. (Not that I don't have a strong feelings about Chaucer, as the book link in the upper-right corner of this website tells you.)

From the Ellesmere manuscript
Today, however, we mention Geoffrey Chaucer, because today is thought to be the day of the year when his pilgrims set out on their journey in The Canterbury Tales. Also, 17 April 1397 is considered to be the day that he first gave a public reading of his most famous work at the court of Richard II.

Spring was the time when folk "longed to go on pilgrimages" because they had been cooped up indoors all winter and the roads were finally becoming navigable.

Canterbury was a common goal for pilgrimages because it held the shrine of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162-1170, who was killed during the reign of Henry II by four knights who were acting either on behalf of  the King or were removing the king's rival on their own in order to curry favor. He was universally loved by the population of England, and was declared a martyr by Pope Alexander III in 1173.

While we're on the subject, let's make something clear about The Canterbury Tales: it is not a complete work. In the collection, the proposal for the pilgrims is that they would each tell two tales heading to Canterbury and two tales coming back, after which their Host would judge the best tale. Chaucer's intent was possibly to top Boccaccio's Decameron with its ten tales each day for ten days. We have barely over 30 tales (and some of them fragmentary), a far cry from the 120 we could expect if he completed the work.

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