All too rare is the literary work that completely chronicles an epoch--a work that opens a window on the entirety of a culture: from its art, music, and ideas to its fancies, fables, and foibles. The Canterbury Tales is just such a rarity. But this remarkable work not only described an age, it defined it. Written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late fourteenth century--though not published until this day in 1499, almost a hundred years after his death--the book is a true masterpiece in every sense of the word.
Besides his fascinating insights into the roots and origins of our language, in it, Chaucer gives us a glimpse into the odd nuances of daily life during the halcyon days of the High Middle Ages. He offers us a remarkably enlightened approach to the questions of medieval love, marriage, and family. He affords us a first-hand look at the contemporary sciences, especially astronomy, medicine, psychology, physics, and alchemy. He gives a chronicler’s account of the raging social, political, and theological issues of the time. He parodies the social oddities, exults in the cultural profundities, and scrutinizes the civic moralities of his times. He has a genius for capturing the quirks and nuances of ordinary life, the twists and turns of ordinary conversation, and the motivations and inclinations of ordinary people. He expands barnyard fables into cosmic comedies, he transforms old wives tales into morality plays, and he develops the tidbits of everyday gossip into observations of the universal human condition. He observed what everyone recognized and recognized what everyone observed. And that is precisely what made him so great.
Thus he painted a vivid portrait of an entire nation--an entire civilization--high and low, male and female, old and young, lay and clerical, learned and ignorant, rogue and righteous, land and sea, town and county, cosmopolitan and provincial--in some of the most beautiful descriptions even penned. On any given page you’ll find poetry, mythology, history, science, theology, practical ethics, biography, linguistics, art, geography, music, and philosophy--all rendered in a rollicking good story-line brimming over with mystery, adventure, romance, and good humor. And he did this in a language that was hardly usable until he used it; he did this for a nation that was hardly recognizable until he recognized it.
The Canterbury Tales is not a classic because some stuffy old professors in musty ivory towers decreed it so; it is a classic because it is classically good and vitally important. Almost two centuries before Shakespeare was born, Chaucer crafted an immortal work that should take a priority place in any Christian’s must-read list.
As G.K. Chesterton asserted, “The Poet is the Maker; he is the creator of a cosmos; and Chaucer is the creator of the whole world of his creatures. He made the pilgrimage; he made the pilgrims. He made all the tales told by the pilgrims. Out of him is all the golden pageantry and chivalry of the Knight’s Tale; all the rank and rowdy farce of the Miller’s. And he told all his tales in a sustained melodious verse, seldom so continuously prolonged in literature; in a style that sings from start to finish.”