The Canterbury Tales will be the first major literary work to be available as an app, Phys.org reported recently. The digital version of Chaucer’s classic novel will feature an audio reading of a portion of the work, plus several interactive learning points. The epic work will be much more than just an ebook.
The Phys.org article stated, “A University of Saskatchewan-led international team has produced the first web and mobile phone app of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.” Peter Robinson, professor of English at the University of Saskatchewan, is spearheading the project. The article also mentioned that the late Monty Python star, Terry Jones, “was also instrumental in developing the content of the app. His translation of the General Prologue and his books feature in the introduction and notes.” The Canterbury Tales was written in Middle English, which is distinct from modern English.
“The app features a 45-minute audio performance of the General Prologue of the Tales—the masterpiece work by the most important English writer before Shakespeare—along with the digitized original manuscript,” the article said. “While listening to the reading, users have access to supporting content such as a translation in modern English, commentary, notes, and vocabulary explaining Middle English words used by Chaucer.”
Here’s how the classic novel written by Chaucer earned him the recognition as being “the father of English Poetry.”
Chaucer and the Three Estates
One of the remarkable feats achieved in The Canterbury Tales is how well it represents England’s class system—which was changing in the 14th century during the time period of the novel, and Chaucer captured the moment masterfully.
“For some centuries, medieval society had been rigidly structured in what is called the three estates model,” said Dr. Dorsey Armstrong, Associate Professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University. “This is the idea that society is divided into three groups—those who fight, those who pray, and those who work. The idea was that people born into each estate performed a specific function in order to support the members of the other estates.”
Dr. Armstrong explained that the noble classes were the ones who fought, such as knights, thus protecting the others. Those who prayed were the clergy, who neither took up arms nor performed much manual labor, but strove to bring England closer to spiritual salvation. The workers, who were peasants and constituted most of society, provided food, clothing, and other goods.
“While Chaucer was certainly not the first writer to work with estates satire, he is arguably the one who did it best, elevating his characters beyond mere stereotypes and including figures not typically found in estates satire,” Dr. Armstrong said.
An Epic Plot with Searing Satire
“The premise of The Canterbury Tales is that a disparate group of people have come together at an inn known as the Tabard,” Dr. Armstrong said. “From all walks of life, what these people have in common is that they are all engaged in a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral and the shrine of Thomas Becket, and this is some 70 miles away from the inn where they all meet. The innkeeper decides to keep everyone entertained by suggesting that every pilgrim tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two stories on the way back.
Dr. Armstrong added, “The pilgrim judged to have told the best story will win a free dinner.”
Chaucer’s story unfolds as each character is painstakingly introduced before telling their tale. A traditional knight of the noble class travels with his son, who is both a squire and a member of the rising middle class of the time. The son is less concerned with protecting their village than with the ladies in it. A monk, who would ordinarily be poor and humble in representing the clergy, is an owner of many horses; his obesity shows his love of gluttony.
“Chaucer continues his skewering with his depiction of the miller, long a favorite figure for satire in the Middle Ages and a classic exemplar for the third estate,” Dr. Armstrong said. “It has been said that there is not a single, honest miller in all of medieval literature, and Chaucer’s miller fits the tradition perfectly, as he’s a coarse, drunken oaf who regularly cheats his customers.”
Why The Canterbury Tales Endures
However, it’s not all bad news for the three estates model; each has a quiet hero of sorts. “The knight is the ideal representing the nobility, the character of the parson is held up as a good and virtuous representative of his class, and the peasantry have as their role model the plowman,” Dr. Armstrong said. “Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, these three characters, and the stories they tell, are incredibly boring. Much more interesting are the characters and tales of the scandalous pardoner, the crotchety reeve, and the very unpleasant summoner.”
In this way, Chaucer shows his audience the humble mundanity of virtue, sparing them his criticism of the wicked, who are rife with spicy and lewd exploits. While his immoral characters are fun to read, we certainly wouldn’t want to live their lives. Their lives of greed, lust, and violence are not ideals for which to strive.
Finally, The Canterbury Tales—which remained unfinished at the time of Chaucer’s death—remains a masterpiece of classic literature for its broad appeal, rich world, and unique style.
“The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s best-known text, and for good reason; it gives a lively and detailed picture of a society that was in flux, and there’s something here for everyone,” Dr. Armstrong said. “There are tales of pious saints, stories of chivalrous knights, ribald accounts of the doings of lusty students, serious sermons, animal fables, and more. [Chaucer’s] impact on the language and its literary tradition was profound.”
Dr. Dorsey Armstrong is Associate Professor of English and Medieval Literature at Purdue University, where she has taught since 2002. She earned an A.B. in English and Creative Writing from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in Medieval Literature from Duke University.