Chaucer scholars have generally settled on April 17, 1387, as the date his pilgrims departed for Canterbury—an historic and storied journey that has been, for more than six centuries, the bane of every student’s existence. A brief refresher: in the Canterbury Tales, twenty-nine pilgrims and a narrator vie to out-perorate one another on what must have been a tedious excursion to Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine, in, yes, Canterbury. Their prize? A free meal at a hotel restaurant.
Thus ensued several thousand lines of fart jokes, prurient asides, murderous Jews, and dubious blancmange, all of it now forever inscribed in the annals of literature.
The Ellesmere manuscript—written shortly after Chaucer’s death, in the early fifteenth century—is considered the definitive version of the Tales. It was produced on vellum, and it features involved, colorful illustrations of many of the pilgrims, pictured above. (None of their more scandalous exploits are depicted, alas, though it may not have been terribly edifying to see a drawing of a man being branded on the buttocks, anyway.)
I had an English teacher who made a shaky but memorable case for the Tales’ contemporary relevance. There were, he avowed, new chapters being written every day. All you had to do was book a long trip on a Greyhound bus or board a transcontinental flight, and you’d find strangers from all walks of life foisting their stories upon you, daring you to one-up them, whether you drew them out or not. Indeed, he said, these stories would hinge on the same crimes of passion that Chaucer’s pilgrims found so enthralling. It wasn’t as if any of us had tired of hearing about adultery. And so we should appreciate Chaucer, he said, because almost nothing in storytelling had changed in the years since the Tales.
Having encountered only this morning a garrulous and kind of lewd fellow-commuter, I can say: my teacher was totally right.