The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer was a compulsory reading for a monographic course on the author. I wasn’t very attracted to the idea at first but I quickly changed my mind.
Basically, The Canterbury Tales is the transcription of the tales of a group of pilgrims competing for a prize: a soup. It is very important to highlight that it is a transcription and it has a lot of oral features, like interruptions. However, most of the tales rhyme and it is difficult to actually imagine someone speaking like that (even in the 14th century!).
Our professor selected some tales for us to read, amounting to 20 in total. However, they could all be linked with one another thanks to their themes or the connection between the narrators. The characters held extensive debates on marriage, sex and appearances versus reality which makes the stories very interesting since each narrator has a different view according to their social class.
It is very difficult to actually write a review on the tales: there were some I loved (The Clerk’s Tale) and others I did not really understand because you need to know quite a lot of history/English and French culture to get the references. However, I can assure you they are a great and complete description of the 14th century, its people and how they were affected by the enormous changes of English history (The Peasants’ Revolt, the Black Death). So, I recommend a great book that actually helped me to understand everything better, as a read-along: The Oxford Companion to the Canterbury Tales. It helps if, like me, you choose the Penguin Edition of the tales, translated to Modern English but keeping the rhyming scheme.
In general, I enjoyed reading such a classic and I was really surprised to find out that many modern thoughts already existed in Medieval times. For example, Chaucer defends essentialism instead of nominalism: that is, like science, what matters is the facts and not the authority of who says it. Also, some post-modern writing devices were already used back in the 14th century which suggests a long narrative tradition.
However, Medieval literature is not really my cup of tea and I found myself struggling with history and Classica literature to understand most of the tales. On the other hand, I think this is the best work for a first approach to English Medieval literature!
Click on The Clerk’s Tale above to read a prose translation to Modern English.