The Canterbury Tales

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The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century. The tales (mostly in verse, although some are in prose) are told as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. In a long list of works, including Troilus and Criseyde, House of Fame, and Parliament of Fowls, The Canterbury Tales was Chaucer's magnum opus. He uses the tales and the descriptions of the characters to paint an ironic and critical portrait of English society at the time, and particularly of the Church. Structurally, the collection bears the influence of The Decameron, which Chaucer is said to have come across during his first diplomatic mission to Italy in 1372. However, Chaucer peoples his tales with 'sondry folk' rather than Boccaccio's fleeing nobles.

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The question of whether The Canterbury Tales is finished has not yet been answered. The combined elements of Chaucer's quadri-lingual expertise in law, philosophy, and other subjects, the uncertainty of medieval English historical records, issues of manuscript transmission, and Chaucer's method of telling his stories through a multi-perspective prism of subjectivity make the "Tales" extremely difficult to interpret. There are 83 known manuscripts of the work from the late medieval and early Renaissance period, more than any other vernacular literary text with the exception of The Prick of Conscience. This is taken as evidence of the tales' popularity during the century after Chaucer's death.[1] Fifty-five of these manuscripts are thought to have been complete at one time, while 28 are so fragmentary that it is difficult to ascertain whether they were copied individually or as part of a set.[2] The Tales vary in both minor and major ways from manuscript to manuscript; many of the minor variations are due to copyists' errors, while others suggest that Chaucer added to and revised his work as it was being copied and (possibly) distributed. No official, unarguably complete version of the Tales exists and no consensus has been reached regarding the order in which Chaucer intended the stories to be placed.[3][4]

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