by Geoffrey Chaucer
The Black Death rocked the theological landscape of the fourteenth century in the same way that the Holocaust devastated twentieth century theology. In the wake of the plague, a culture of deep cynicism emerged, one that was obsessed by the fleeting absurdity of life. Boccaccio’s Decameron, the Italian model for Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, includes a chilling account of the plague. In Boccaccio’s version, a group of young people retreat to a villa far from the disease-ridden towns and entertain themselves by telling stories. Chaucer adopts the device, but his storytellers are not refugees; they are pilgrims on a visit to the shrine of Thomas Beckett at Canterbury.
The pilgrims represent every walk of life, and their stories showcase both the chivalrous and the bawdy, the corrupt and the pure. One thing becomes clear: in the fourteenth century, pilgrimages were not reserved for the high-minded and spiritual!
Like Le Morte D’Arthur, The Canterbury Tales was one of the first books to be published by Caxton’s press, the first edition appearing in the 1470s. It is one of the great literary achievements of the period, noted for its range of tone and style. Daring readers should attempt to parse the original Middle English—generations of school children have committed the opening lines to memory (most of them phonetically): Whan that Aprill with his shouressoote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote . . .
by J. Mark Bertrand