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25. Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales

Corinne Saunders

Subject Literature

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405159630.2010.00026.x


… whoso list it nat yheere, Turne over the leef and chese another tale; For he shal fynde ynowe, grete and smale, Of storial thyng that toucheth gentillesse, And eek moralitee and hoolynesse. Blameth nat me if that ye chese amys. The Millere is a cherl; ye knowe wel this. So was the Reve eek and othere mo, And harlotrie they tolden bothe two. Avyseth yow, and put me out of blame; And eek men shal nat maken ernest of game.             (I. 3176–86) The Canterbury Tales was Chaucer's most ambitious writing project and the epitome of his literary experimentation. Probably begun in the late 1380s and unfinished at Chaucer's death in 1400, the work is characterised by game and play of different kinds: the tale-telling competition and dramatic rivalry of the tellers, the comedy and ‘harlotrie’ of certain tales, the game played with the reader invited to ‘turne over the leef’, and the presentation of Chaucer the pilgrim as a poor storyteller. The greatest play of all, perhaps, is that of genre. The Canterbury Tales is the first work to deploy a generic vocabulary in English, and the first so self-consciously to exploit such a vocabulary. Again and again, tales rely on yet subvert the conventions of different literary genres – conventions of language, style, tone, theme and character. Across different genres, the perspectives of experience and authority interweave, playfully, ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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