The sources of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
Only a few of them were completely original to Chaucer
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer undoubtedly comprise the earliest work of literature in English of lasting merit. However, their author was a well-read man who sourced his tales from many places, some being of foreign origin.
The origin of The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400) was well-travelled and highly educated. He was as familiar with Latin and French as he was with English, and he had little trouble in learning enough Italian to absorb the literary tradition of Italy during his visits to that country. It is therefore hardly surprising to find that stories from the literature of France and Italy, and from the Classical tradition, appear in the Canterbury Tales, adapted to a greater or lesser degree.
Scholars have searched in vain for a definite source for the notion of framing a series of stories within a pilgrimage. One suggestion is the “Novelle” of Chaucer’s Italian contemporary Giovanni Sercambi, which were probably written in about 1374 and with which Chaucer may have been familiar. However, Sercambi’s use of this device was very different that of Chaucer, and the latter’s debt to Sercambi, if one was owed, can only have been for the mere suggestion of a pilgrimage as a framework.
Possible sources for the individual tales
The first of the Tales, namely that of the Knight, has a very clear source, namely that of Boccaccio’s “Teseida”, which was his telling of the Greek epic of Theseus. Part of the Knight’s Tale is a direct translation from the Italian, but Chaucer only tells about a quarter of the story told by Boccaccio (1315-74) and adds some material of his own, thus improving it considerably.
The next three tales, those of the Miller and the Reeve plus the fragment that is all we have of the Cook’s Tale, are derived from the French “fabliau” tradition of popular story-telling, and may indeed have been heard by Chaucer during his travels in France.
For the Man of Law’s Tale, Chaucer’s source was the “Anglo-Norman Chronicle” of Nicholas Trivet (c. 1257 – c. 1334), although the story of the “calumniated wife” who remains faithful despite all the injustices she suffers was a familiar one in medieval folklore romances, known as “märchen”. Again, Chaucer takes the material and adapts it, rather than simply retelling an old story.
In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, Chaucer uses an old fairytale device of the enchanted bride who is “fair by day and foul by night”, which is found in many forms in medieval literature and even down to the present day as in the “Shrek” films. However, Chaucer adds his own twist to the concept to produce an original story that fits his theme of discussing “sovereignty” in marriage.
The Friar’s and Summoner’s Tales return to the fabliau tradition, but the actual stories are probably original to Chaucer.
For the Clerk’s Tale of “patient Griselda”, Chaucer uses a story told in Latin by Petrach (1304-74), and this is actually cited in the short prologue to the Tale. However, Petrach is known to have used Boccaccio’s Decameron as his own source, this being a work with which it is believed Chaucer was not familiar. For the Clerk’s Tale, Chaucer sticks quite closely to the story as told by Petrach.
The Merchant’s Tale of January and May is another folk tale from the “märchen” tradition that is found in many different forms in medieval literature. However, Chaucer takes a simple story and adds extra layers of description, comment and characterisation.
The unfinished Squire’s Tale, a pure romance, has no direct literary source that has been detected, and may quite possibly have been gleaned as an overheard traveller’s or sailor’s tale, it being well known that Chaucer had many contacts with such people around the port of London.
The Franklin’s Tale purports to come from the folk tradition of the Celts, being what is known as a “Breton lay”. This, at least, is what the Franklin states in his prologue. However, it is more likely that Chaucer’s actual source was, once again, Boccaccio, who tells the story in his “Filocolo”.
The Physician’s Tale, the old Roman story of Appius and Virginia, begins by stating the source as the Latin poet Livy, but Chaucer probably knew it from the 13th century “Roman de la Rose”, a long poem in French that is a fundamental source of medieval “courtly love” literature. The digression on the character and education of young girls may have been prompted by an incident in the household of John of Gaunt, who was Chaucer’s patron and friend.
The “sermon story” told by the Pardoner, of three revellers whose greed leads to their destruction, is a tale known in many versions from antiquity, including moral fables from the Asian Buddhist tradition, but it is not known how Chaucer first came across it. It may even have been from the same “traveller’s tale” source from which the Physician’s Tale derived. Whatever the source, the story has never been told better than by Chaucer.
The Shipman’s Tale, of a merchant cheated by a monk, is another fabliau that occurs in various forms throughout the folk traditions of many countries. It also appears in Boccaccio’s Decameron, although this is unlikely to have been Chaucer’s direct source.
The Prioress’s Tale which, being so anti-Semitic, reads very uncomfortably today, was current in several forms in Chaucer’s time, and he uses it as an appropriate tale for the teller. It is a typical “tale of the Virgin”, in which miracles take place due to the intercession of the Virgin Mary, and reflects the anti-Jewish feelings in England at a time when Jews were banished and could therefore be regarded as the agents of Satan without fear of contradiction or reaction.
The “Tale of Sir Thopas” is a satirical send-up of badly told romantic ballads, of which Chaucer and his original hearers would have been very familiar. This is followed by his (to modern readers) turgid “Tale of Melibee”, which is a close translation of the French “Livre de Melibé et de Dame Prudence”, ascribed to Renaud de Louens, which was itself a free rendering of the Latin “Liber Consolationis et Consilii” by Albertanus of Brescia.
The Monk’s Tale consists of a series of fifteen short accounts of the fall from grace of great men. For these, Chaucer would have used a variety of sources, including the Roman de la Rose, several works by Boccaccio, the Bible, Boethius and Dante.
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is a beast fable in the tradition of the old French “Roman de Renart”, although the cycle of medieval stories about a wily fox is found in the folk traditions of several European countries. Chaucer’s exact source is unclear.
For the Second Nun’s Tale, which is the story of the martyrdom of St Cecilia, Chaucer relied on the “Legenda Aurea” (or “Golden Legend”) by Jacobus Januensis (otherwise known as Jacobus de Voragine) who lived from 1230 to 1298). The Legenda Aurea was a collection of “lives of the saints” that was extremely popular, especially in its French translation. However, Chaucer appears to have stuck quite closely to the Latin original.
The Canon’s Yeoman is a character who arrives late to the pilgrimage and tells his tale after his master has ridden away. The tale concerns a cheating alchemist, and would appear to be completely original. It has been surmised that Chaucer included this attack on alchemists from personal motives, although he does not dismiss alchemy as such, which is what a modern reader would naturally do.
The Manciple’s Tale of the “tell-tale bird” was familiar in many medieval traditions, but Chaucer’s source would seem to be Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, although with many elaborations.
The final tale, which is an enormously long sermon on the Seven Deadly Sins, delivered by the Parson, derives largely from the 13th century “De Poenitentia” (3rd book) by Raymond de Pennaforte, into which has been inserted a section derived from the “Summa de Vitiis” by Guilielmus Peraldus. It is entirely possible that this joining together was not made by Chaucer himself but by the composer of an unknown source which Chaucer used.
It is therefore evident that Chaucer relied on a number of sources for the Canterbury Tales, only some of which can be known with certainty. What is very clear, however, is that his sources varied from scholarly works to popular folk tales, some of which might easily have been heard in wayside taverns during his travels. It is also the case that Chaucer did a lot more than simply recycle tales for a new audience. His genius was, in most cases, to fit his stories to his pilgrim characters, and it is this adaptation that gives the Canterbury Tales their liveliness and their appeal down to the present day.