The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century. The
tales (mostly in verse, although some are in prose) are told as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel
together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. In a long list of works,
including Troilus and Criseyde, House of Fame, Parliament of Fowls, TheCanterbury Tales was Chaucer's magnum opus. He
uses thetales and thedescriptions of the characters to paint an ironic and critical portrait of English society at thetime, and
particularly of the Church. Structurally, the collection bears the influence of TheDecameron, which Chaucer is said to have come
across during his first diplomatic mission to Italy in 1372. However, Chaucer peoples his tales with 'sondry folk' rather than
Boccaccio's fleeing nobles.
The question of whether The Canterbury Tales is finished has not yet been answered. The combined elements of Chaucer's
quadri-lingual expertise in law, philosophy, and other subjects, the uncertainty of medieval English historical records, issues of
manuscript transmission, and Chaucer's method of telling his stories through a multi-perspectiveprismof subjectivity make the
"Tales" extremely difficult to interpret. Thereare 83 known manuscripts of the work from thelate medieval and early
Renaissance period, more than any other vernacular literary text with the exception of The Prick of Conscience. This is taken as
evidence of thetales' popularity during the century after Chaucer's death.
Fifty-fiveof these manuscripts are thought to have
been complete at one time, while 28 are so fragmentary that it is difficult to ascertain whether they were copied individually or as
part of a set.
TheTales vary in both minor and major ways from manuscript to manuscript; many of the minor variations are
due to copyists' errors, while others suggest that Chaucer added to and revised his work as it was being copied and (possibly)
distributed. No official, unarguably complete version of the Tales exists and no consensus has been reached regarding the order
in which Chaucer intended the stories to be placed.
Textual and manuscript clues have been adduced to support thetwo most popular methods of ordering thetales. The standard
scholarly edition divides the Tales into ten "fragments." The tales that comprise a fragment are closely related and contain
internal indications of their order of presentation, usually with one character speaking to and then steppingaside for another
character. Between fragments, however, the connection is less obvious. Consequently, there are several possible tales orders, the
most popular of which is as follows: