April 17, 1397, marks the date that Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1345–1400) first read his epic work, “The Canterbury Tales,” aloud at the court of King Richard II. An important turning point in the history of English literature, Chaucer broke with tradition and recited his tales in English, the language of the peasant, instead of the stately Norman French typically spoken at court.
Widely considered to be his magnum opus, “The Canterbury Tales” is a 17,000 line poem that follows the journey of a group of 31 pilgrims, including Chaucer, to the tomb of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. “Tales” was written between 1387 and 1400, and taken as a whole, it provides a critical portrait of English society in the 14th century, with stories about characters from a range of social classes. While Chaucer’s original plan for the manuscript was to include more than 100 stories, with each pilgrim telling two stories on the journey to Canterbury and two on the way back, he died before it could be finished, leaving only 24 completed.
Before the advent of the printing press made mass distribution possible, the remarkable stories were passed down over the years through handwritten accounts. Currently, only about a dozen first-edition copies of the manuscript survive in the world.
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