I decided to head back into literary history to one of the earliest works we have on record - Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It's a wonderful collection of stories that can be daunting/baffling in its Middle English text but well worth the effort. To summarize quickly, the book follows a group of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of the martyr St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury. To pass the time on this long journey, each character takes a turn and tells the rest of the group some kind of tale.
First of all, I want to say that there is no shame in reading a modern translation of Canterbury Tales. Yes, if you have a Middle English dictionary at hand and hours to pour over the text, you will discover the genius in the original language. But very few of us can afford to do this, and I do not think Chaucer's tales should be neglected because they are difficult to understand. So please don't hesitate to pick up an easier version of it if that is what is stopping you from reading this great collection.
One of my favorite aspects about Canterbury Tales is that it gives us a fascinating peek at society in the late 14th century. Particularly as an American, I feel that my sense of history earlier than the 18th century is weak at best. I can hardly wrap my mind around the kind of life that functioned before our detailed historical documentation and instruction. Yet covering everything from friars to cooks, physicians to sailors, Chaucer portrays myriad social classes and backgrounds, which creates for readers a sense of medieval reality. We get a taste of so many different kinds of people and manners of life in this one collection of tales. Each narrator is unique, with a distinct story to match his or her personality. It certainly doesn't get repetitive.
Another of my favorite things about this collection is the audacious and dynamic Wife of Bath. She is one of my fictional heroes. For a 14th century figure, she is absolutely remarkable. She openly expresses her enjoyment of sex, she unabashedly proclaims her thoughts, and she offers equality as a solution for marital strife. I feel that Chaucer made a bold and feminist move with this character that was light-years ahead of its time.
And, of course, I cannot talk about Canterbury Tales without talking about its humor. Some of these tales are absolutely hilarious! I read "The Miller's Tale" in a very quiet library and had to slap my hand over my mouth to keep from breaking the silence with a loud laugh. The tales are full of sexual innuendos and crude jokes, which get me chuckling despite my resistance. It's really quite shocking for the 14th century. I think we tend to assume that it has only been within the last fifty years that this kind of humor has seeped into our literature, but Chaucer mastered it long ago. Even the research on Canterbury Tales can't hide from the jokes. One of the funniest things I've ever discovered was a scholarly analysis of Chaucer's use of "literary farts." It's hysterical to read someone trying to approach the issue so seriously and academically. Chaucer knew a cheap joke when he wrote one; let's just enjoy it.
When I first read Canterbury Tales, I was in high school and severely lacked appreciation for it. But I read the tales again within the last year or so and fell in love with them. So if you are in a similar situation, I urge you to try again. If you don't want to read them all, just start with "The Miller's Tale" and "The Wife of Bath's Tale" and see how you feel. Are there any other Chaucer lovers out there? I look forward to hearing from you!