1. Chaucer’s Changing Design of the Canterbury Tales
The Original Plan of the Canterbury Tales
When Chaucer began work on the Canterbury Tales, the book that he seems to have had in mind was a vast volume of stories. The General Prologue, “generally put in or about 1387”,1 mentions in line 24 the figure of 29 pilgrims, to whom we must add Chaucer himself and the Host. Each of these is invited by the latter to join in a story- telling scheme. This scheme is drawn quite explicitly. Each pilgrim is to tell two tales on the outward journey and two more on the way home. The one who comes up with the tale “of best sentence and moost solaas”, in the Host’s judgement, will get a free meal upon the pilgrims’ return to Southwark:
… ech of yow, to shorte with oure weye, In this viage shal telle tales tweye To Caunterbury-ward, I mene it so, And homward he shal tellen othere two,
1 F.N. Robinson, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1933; London: OUP, 1957 2nd ed.), p 650. Larry D. Benson, The Riverside Chaucer (1987; Oxford etc: OUP, 1991 3rd ed), also includes 1388 as a possibility (p 798). N.F. Blake, on the other hand, not only avers that “the usual chronology suggests a date about 1385” (which rather mis- represents the true state of affairs) and even goes on to suggest, at p 51, that the “Can- terbury Tales could have been embarked upon long before the accepted date of 1385”. The Textual Tradition of the Canterbury Tales (London/Victoria/Baltimore: Arnold, 1985). A different note has been sounded by Dolores Warwick Frese, An Ars Legendi for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Gainesville: U of Florida P, 1991), pp 90-193. On the basis of the correspondence of some of the tales, particularly the Pardoner’s and the Summoner’s, with their portraits in the General Prologue, she argues, within a wider argument in favour of 24 tales as the complete work and a body count of 29 pilgrims, that the General Prologue is Chaucer’s final piece of writing on the Canter- bury Tales. As far as I can make out, this view stems from Charles A. Owen Jr, ‘The Alternative Reading of The Canterbury Tales’, PMLA 97 (1982): 237-50. Its unlikeli- hood is discussed later in this chapter. Nor is she accurate on the total number of pil- grims, which is claimed to range from 28 to 31, all well-suited to an astronomical reading whereby the pilgrims equal the number of days of the month. The actual number is 33, with the evidence indicating that this was one point on which Chaucer had not yet reached any definite decision. 4 | Chaucer’s Changing Design of the Canterbury Tales
Of aventures that whilom han bifalle. And which of yow that bereth hym best of alle - That is to seyn, that telleth in this caas Tales of best sentence and moost solaas - Shal have a soper at oure aller cost Heere in this place, sittynge by this post, Whan that we come agayn fro Caunterbury. [GenProl, 791/801]
This is the main idea, though the Host has his own particular contribution to make. He is made “oure governour” and “of oure tales juge and reportour”, while the pilgrims
… wol reuled been at his devys In heigh and lough; and thus by oon assent We been acorded to his juggement. [GenProl, 816/18]
If it should be felt that the four-tale plan is merely the Host’s pet project and that the pilgrims themselves have something far sim- pler in mind, such as just a single tale each, the passages just cited make it abundantly clear that this is not the case. One wonders whether the Host was also meant to be man- oeuvred into producing a tale at some moment, by the pilgrims’ gener- al acclaim or some such device – surely a good Chaucerian twist – or, in his role of the company’s self-appointed judge, remain as exempt from any narrative obligations as he plainly considers himself to be. What this leaves us with is a basic plan for the originally con- ceived Canterbury Tales of about 30 pilgrims telling twice two tales each, seemingly promising us something in the order of 120 tales – a very ambitious plan indeed. To judge by most of the portraits that we find in the General Prologue, they were conceived in terms of estate satire in a scheme whereby each pilgrim is given a role in highlighting some particular foible associated with his or her station in society.2 Naturally, we ought to be glad at Chaucer’s outline of this design. It is not every author who provides such insights in the way he intends to go about his business. The snag is that, beyond the evident fact of a substantial set of pilgrim-narrators, the Canterbury Tales as they have come down to us hardly reflect this scheme.
2 This subject is covered extensively by Jill Mann’s Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire: The Literature of Social Classes and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1973).