Chaucer—At the Tabard Inn
C HAUCER begins his description of the people who were gathered at the Tabard Inn with the knight, who was the highest in rank among them.
Yet he was no knight of romance or fairy tale, but a good honest
English gentleman who had fought for his King. His coat was of
fustian and was stained with rust from his armor, for he had just
come back from fighting, and was still clad in his
With the knight was his son, a young squire of twenty years. He was gay and handsome, with curling hair and comely face. His clothes were in the latest fashion, gayly embroidered. He sat his horse well and guided it with ease. He was merry and careless and clever too, for he could joust and dance, sing and play, read and write, and indeed do everything as a young squire should. Yet with it all "courteous he was, lowly and serviceable."
With these two came their servant, a yeoman, clad in hood of green, and carrying besides many other weapons a "mighty bow."
As was natural in a gathering such as this, monks
and friars and
their like figured largely. There was a monk, a worldly man,
fond of dress, fond of hunting, fond of a good dinner; and a
friar even more worldly and pleasure-loving. There was a
pardoner, a man who sold pardons to those who had done wrong, and
a sumpnour or summoner, who was so ugly and vile that children
were afraid of him. A summoner was a person who went to summon
or call people to appear before the Church courts when they had
done wrong. He was a
All these, except the poor parson, Chaucer holds up to scorn because he had met many such in real life who, under the pretense of religion, lived bad lives. But that it was not the Church that he scorned or any who were truly good he shows by his picture of the poor parson. He was poor in worldly goods:—
There was no better parson anywhere. He taught his people to walk in Christ's way. But first he followed it himself.
Chaucer gives this good man a brother who is a plowman.
He could dig, and he could thresh, and everything to which he put his hand he did with a will.
Besides all the other religious folk there were a prioress and a nun. In those days the convents were the only schools for fine ladies, and the prioress perhaps spent her days teaching them. Chaucer makes her very prim and precise.
And she was so tender hearted! She would cry if she saw a mouse caught in a trap, and she fed her little dog on the best of everything. In her dress she was very dainty and particular. And yet with all her fine ways we feel that she was no true lady, and that ever so gently Chaucer is making fun of her.
Besides the prioress and the nun there was only one other woman in the company. This was the vulgar, bouncing Wife of Bath. She dressed in rich and gaudy clothes, she liked to go about to see and be seen and have a good time. She had been married five times, and though she was getting old and rather deaf, she was quite ready to marry again, if the husband she had should die before her.
Chaucer describes nearly every one in the company, and last of all he pictures for us the host of the Tabard Inn.
The host's name was Harry Baily, a big man and jolly fellow who dearly loved a joke. After supper was over he spoke to all the company gathered there. He told them how glad he was to see them, and that he had not had so merry a company that year. Then he told them that he had thought of something to amuse them on the long way to Canterbury. It was this:—
To this every one willingly agreed, and next morning they waked very early and set off. And having ridden a little way they cast lots as to who should tell the first tale. The lot fell upon the knight, who accordingly began.
All that I have told you so far forms the first part of the book and is called the prologue, which means really "before word" or explanation. It is perhaps the most interesting part of the book, for it is entirely Chaucer's own and it is truly English.
It is said that Chaucer borrowed the form of his famous tales from a book called The Decameron, written by an Italian poet named Boccaccio. Decameron comes from two Greek words deka, ten, and hemera, a day, the book being so called because the stories in it were supposed to be told in ten days. During a time of plague in Florence seven ladies and three gentlemen fled and took refuge in a house surrounded by a garden far from the town. There they remained for ten days, and to amuse themselves each told a tale every day, so that there are a hundred tales in all in The Decameron.
It is very likely that in one of his journeys to Italy Chaucer saw this book. Perhaps he even met Boccaccio, and it is more than likely that he met Petrarch, another great Italian poet who also retold one of the tales of The Decameron. Several of the tales which Chaucer makes his people tell are founded on these tales. Indeed, nearly all his poems are founded on old French, Italian, or Latin tales. But although Chaucer takes his material from others, he tells the stories in his own way, and so makes them his own; and he never wrote anything more truly English in spirit than the prologue to the Canterbury Tales.
Some of these stories you will like to read, but others are too
coarse and rude to give you any pleasure. Even the roughness of
these tales, however, helps us to picture the England of those
But even in Chaucer's day there were those who found such stories coarse. "Precious fold," Chaucer calls them. He himself perhaps did not care for them, indeed he explains in the tales why he tells them. Here is a company of common, everyday people, he said, and if I am to make you see these people, if they are to be living and real to you, I must make them act and speak as such common people would act and speak. They are churls, and they must speak like churls and not like fine folk, and if you don't like the tale, turn over the leaf and choose another.
If Chaucer had written all the tales that he meant to write,
there would have been one hundred and
Chaucer is the first of our poets who had a perfect sense of sound. He delights us not only with his stories, but with the beauty of the words he uses. We lose a great deal of that beauty when his poetry is put into modern English, as are all the quotations which I have given you. It is only when we can read the poems in the quaint English of Chaucer's time that we can see truly how fine it is. So, although you may begin to love Chaucer now, you must look forward to a time when you will be able to read his stories as he wrote them. Then you will love them much more.
Chaucer wrote many other books beside the Canterbury Tales,
although not so many as was at one time thought. But the
Canterbury Tales are the most famous, and I will not trouble you
with the names even of the others. But when the
And now, just to end this long chapter, I will give you a little poem by Chaucer, written as he wrote it, with modern English words underneath so that you may see the difference.
This poem was written when Chaucer was very poor. It was sent to King Henry IV, who had just taken the throne from Richard II. Henry's answer was a pension of twenty marks, so that once more Chaucer lived in comfort. He died, however, a year later.
The Complaynt of Chaucer to Hys Purse
L'Envoy de Chaucer
In reading this you must sound the final "e" in each word except when the next word begins with an "h" or with another vowel. You will then find it read easily and smoothly.
Books To Read
Stories from Chaucer (prose), by J. H. Kelman.
Tales from Chaucer (prose), by C. L. Thomson.
Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and Minor Poems (poetry), done into Modern English by W. W. Skeat.
Canterbury Tales (poetry), edited by
NOTE.— As there are so many books now published containing stories from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, I feel it unnecessary to give any here in outline.