Closer Readings Commentary

The Autumn of the Middle Ages: Chaucer and Dante

Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, British poet and comptroller of customs, circa 1340 -1400.
Photo caption

Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer, British poet and comptroller of customs, circa 1340 -1400.

By the time Geoffrey Chaucer was writing The Canterbury Tales, his narrative poem about a group of nine and twenty "sondry folk" making their leisurely way to Canterbury, pilgrimages of that sort had acquired a dubious reputation. Moralists such as the Lollard preacher William Thorpe complained that pilgrims were merely out for a good time, their minds on partying, not penance and prayer:

"… every town that they [groups of pilgrims] come through, what with the noise of their singing, and with the sound of their piping, and with the jangling of their Canterbury bells, and with the barking out of dogs after them, they make more noise than if the King came there away, with all his clarions and many other minstrels. And if these men and women be a month out in their pilgrimage, many of them shall be, a half year after, great janglers, tale-tellers, and liars."

—From "The Examination of Master William Thorpe," on the Geoffrey Chaucer Page

Scholars tell us that Chaucer probably first conceived The Canterbury Tales in 1386, when he was living in Greenwich, about five miles southeast of London. From his house, he would have been able to watch the sometimes boisterous and noisy bands of travelers—“with the sound of their piping, and with the jangling of their Canterbury bells”—making their way down the old pilgrim road from London to the shrine of Thomas á Becket, the martyred archbishop of Canterbury.  The Treasures of Heaven:Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe exhibition provides a diagram of the floor plan of Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 and displays a variety of objects associated with Canterbury. EDSITEment-reviewed Metropolitan Museum of Art's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History offers additional context in their essay and slideshow on Pilgrimage in Medieval Europe.

Who could blame Chaucer's pilgrims for wanting a holiday? Hit by wave after wave of war, plague, starvation, and rebellion, threatened by the expansion of the Ottoman Turks, Europe in the fourteenth century seemed on the brink of collapse. London in Chaucer's day had a crime rate higher than that of any modern American city and a homicide rate many times that of London today. You can get an overview of Europe's calamitous fourteenth century on the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Medieval Sourcebook; an excellent introduction to the period is available on another EDSITEment-reviewed site, The End of Europe's Middle Ages. But while the disasters of late medieval Europe and the particular troubles of England cast their shadows in Chaucer's poem, a holiday mood predominates.

The story begins, after all, in a tavern: “Bifel that in that seson on a day, / In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay / Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage….” For an interlinear translation of these lines, annotated with informative discussions of Middle English, see The Canterbury Tales on the Geoffrey Chaucer website. Chaucer's language may at first seem daunting, but with a little practice you will see what a beautiful language Middle English really is.  An excellent way to appreciate its beauty is by listening to Canterbury Tales audio recordings. An introduction to Chaucer's phonetics, grammar and vocabulary is available from Harvard's Chaucer site.

People in the Middle Ages had an intense love of ritualized games and competitions. The framework of The Canterbury Tales is such game. Harry Bailey, genial host of the Tabard Inn, proposes that each of the pilgrims tell two tales, one on the road to Canterbury, one on the way back. None of them plays the game with more gusto than the character who is the subject of an EDSITEment lesson plan, Chaucer's Wife of Bath. Think of the Wife as a sort of professional pilgrim and entrepreneur, having already “passed many a straunge strem,” travelling to such exotic destinations as “Rome, Bolonne, Galice, and Cologne,” and having gone through five husbands. She is worldly, shrewd, and confident—an absolutely fabulous creation, perhaps the most compelling female literary character in English literature before Shakespeare.

A more familiar figure for most students, when they think of the Middle Ages, will be Chaucer's Knight, who has also (although for different motives than the Wife's) traveled widely in Europe and the Holy Lands. He is a noble, romantic, and dignified figure, yet also vaguely sad, with an air of nostalgia about him, reminding us that, by Chaucer's time, the age of chivalry is over (if ever it existed), a romantic dream. The story he tells, appropriately, is one of courtly love and chivalric romance. NPR's the New Canterbury Tales, retraces the steps of Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims and offers a portrait of Britain in the early 21st century.  The series illustrates a changing nation some 600 years after the pilgrims made their colorful journey from London to Canterbury.

Students interested in these themes will also enjoy the EDSITEment lesson plan, Exploring Arthurian Legend, which uses the resources of the Labyrinth website to introduce students to the vast historical period embraced by the King Arthur legend. The story of Camelot is perhaps the most beguiling romantic dream of them all, persisting from the 5th century, when the historical Arthur may have lived, to present day stories, films, and even presidential administrations. EDSITEment-partner ArtsEdge offers a lesson, Castles & Cornerstones, exploring the historic importance and function of castles in King Arthur's time. Their multimedia resource, Art in Camelot, illustrates the place of the arts in the Kennedy era.

Chaucer was deeply influenced by another fourteenth-century poem about a very different sort of pilgrimage, Dante's La Commedia (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso). There is evidence Chaucer greatly admired Dante. An intelligent and manageable approach to this vast poem is provided by an EDSITEment lesson plan, A Storybook Romance: Dante's Paolo and Francesca, which focuses on theme of courtly love. Available in two English translations as well as the original Italian on the EDSITEment-reviewed Digital Dante site, Dante's The Comedy (or "Divine Comedy") begins with lines that suggest it will be a pilgrimage of a rather different sort than the festive trip to Canterbury: “When I had journeyed half of our life's way, / I found myself within a shadowed forest, / for I had lost the path that does not stray” (Inferno, Mandelbaum translation, lines 1-3). As with Chaucer's verse, you can best appreciate the beauty of Dante's poetry by listening to it read aloud.  Available via a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets are clips of the poet Robert Pinsky reading from the poem in Italian as well as from his own highly praised translation.

Dante portrays himself as a pilgrim who will be led by various guides on a vivid journey through Hell and Purgatory towards a final beatific vision of God. Although the plan is grand, the inviting intimacy of the first three lines of The Comedy suggests another reason why Dante, like Chaucer, has survived. For all their differences, both of these poets have the mysterious knack for combining passages of intense lyrical genius with distinctive narrative voices that remain accessible and fresh, speaking to us, it sometimes seems, as if they were our contemporaries still.

Featured Lessons

Featured Websites