The Canterbury Teles
Acornerstone of English literature, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales presents a multilayered portrait of England in the Middle Ages. It features 31 pilgrims-a cross-section of society on a four-day journey from London’s Tabard Inn to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. On the way, the pilgrims spin tales for each other’s edification, amusement, or embarrassment. Their stories, “prologues” (where they introduce themselves to their fellow pilgrims), and many interjections not only reveal their individual characters but also expose a divided society in which corruption and hypocrisy flourish.
Some ofthe oldest four-letter words in English first saw print in Chaucer’s masterpiece. The text bursts with stories of fornication, infidelity, and fiatulence. The five-times married Wife of Bath, the only secular female pilgrim in the group, challenges patriarchal expectations,
“The bishops, belike, taking his works but for jests and toys, in condemning other books, yet permitted [Chaucer’s] books to be read.”
boasting of her “mastery” over men and celebrating her sexuality. She uses St. Paul’s teachings on marriage and the example of King Solomon, to support her arguments, in mockery of the Church.
Despite its social criticism, especially in the unflattering portrayals of churchmen and women, represented by characters such as the Monk, the Pardoner, and the Summoner, The Canterbury Tales was not included on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Church’s list of prohibited books (see page 161). Over the centuries, however, there were attempts to tone down, abridge, or omit some of the tales. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, sanitized versions of The Canterbury Tales were the only ones allowed in the US mail, thanks to the anti-obscenity Comstock laws of 1873, instigated by postal inspector Anthony Comstock-grounds, perhaps, for a “Censor’s Tale.”