The Father of English Literature is widely reputed to be Geoffrey Chaucer. As author, philosopher and poet, he is distinguished enough to be the first poet buried in Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey. Of his many works, he is most famous for The Canterbury Tales. This work was crucial in legitimizing Middle English vernacular as literary voice. Prior to this, English literature was written in French and Latin.
The frame of The Canterbury Tales is that of a religious pilgrimage. In this tale, Chaucer is in the Tabard Inn, in Southwark. He meets a group of travelers on the way St Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury. This shrine for the martyr Beckett is said to have healing powers.
This meeting takes place in April . The story opens with praises sung for that month as being a time when travel conditions are better. The rains and warm west wind restores life and fertility to the earth and its inhabitants…. and apparently, it’s a time for pilgrimage.
This particular group of pilgrims come in an array of conditions and social status. Chaucer attempts to speak about each of these in superlative admiration for their skills and accomplishments. He even has glowing reports for the Friar’s begging and another’s abilities to cheat the attorneys who employ him.
After introducing a knight, his son the squire, a yeoman, a prioress, another nun, a priest, and so on down the line including a verbal portrait of Chaucer, a proposal is made. That is that all hold a story telling contest. Each is to tell two stories on the way to the abbey and two tales on the way back. Whoever tells the best tales is to be given a free meal. And so the journey begins.
The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales may be read here:
Or, alternatively, this may be listened to in an audiobook format here: