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Orality in the Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is a story by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1400, which involves a framing narrative. The framing device is the pilgrimage to the Thomas Becket shrine in Canterbury. The 29 pilgrims underwent this journey and gathered at Tabard Inn in Southwark (Chaucer, 1400, p. 2). They agreed to engage in a storytelling contest. These pilgrims have been introduced in the general prologue through brief sketches. The poem involves short dramatic scenes that have been interspersed between the 24 tales, and they present very lively exchanges that affect the host and one or more pilgrims. Chaucer never completed the entire plan that he initially had for the book since it does not show the pilgrims’ journey from Canterbury. Also, some of the pilgrims are not involved in the storytelling session. The poem can be categorized as a literary imitation of the oral performances since people from all walks of life, that is a knight, monk, merchant, lawyer, prioress among others, are brought together, and they are involved in a storytelling contest (Reiss, 198, p. 392). Thus, the Canterbury Tales could be categorized as a literary imitation of oral performance based on its General prologue.

The general prologue begins by describing the return of the spring season. Chaucer clearly describes the rains in April using the chirping of birds and the burgeoning leaves and flowers. He claimed that most people went on a pilgrimage during the period to visit the shrines in the distant places of worship, and most preferred going to Canterbury to see the relics of Thomas Becket. The latter was a saint to thank him for how much he helped them when they were in need (Chaucer, 1400, p.1). Chaucer explains people’s preparation for the pilgrimage, such as staying at the Southwark tavern known as Tabard Inn and traveling in diverse groups. The spring’s invocation in the prologue is very formal and long and it can be compared to the language used in the other part (Chaucer, 1400, p. 1). The first lines show the place and time where the story is set, but the speaker explains this using cyclical and cosmic terms that celebrate the sprint’s richness and vitality, which suggests orality (Chaucer, 1400 p. 1). It shows that the story was written to be read since it gives the readers images of the environment. The registered version gives the readers a timeless, dreaming focus on the story since they are startled that the narrator shows how he will be joining the pilgrims for the pilgrimage instead of telling a love story. A pilgrimage is considered a religious journey that people take to show grace and penance, and Canterbury was a challenging destination for a person from England to reach. Yet, the 29 pilgrims in the story we’re going there despite knowing this (Chaucer, 1400, p. 2). Thus, the language used shows that the readers were watching the story as a play. It would be easy to understand that the Canterbury Tales was on a solemn occasion entirely since it only gave the pilgrims a chance to abandon their work and go for the religious journey, which was also a form of vacation since they chose a unique destination for their pilgrimage.

The general prologue of the story uses the first-person viewpoint and a frame narrative. Chaucer, the narrator, speaks from his perspectives on the story’s events and the pilgrims telling tales. Chaucer does not seem like an unreliable narrator, but he is critical. He emphasizes the details of each pilgrim, and this displays the personalities of each of them, especially their flaws. The written text mainly satirizes the English society by exposing the pilgrims. A perfect example is a stress on the Monk’s wealth in the general prologue (Chaucer, 1400, p. 8). The monk is expected to devote his life to religious activities and prayer, displaying hypocrisy. The tales by the pilgrims use a third-person viewpoint that shows omniscience meaning that they are stories from the past. The fairy tale openings show that the people in the stories are not real characters but only examples. However, the prologue makes it easy to understand that a particular character tells each story, and he makes choices about what should be included in it, just like how Chaucer chooses the frame story. The written text shows that the pilgrims are telling stories, while the orality part shows the links between these stories and what the storytellers hope to achieve by telling these stories.

The stories that the pilgrims tell each other reflect the oral culture used during the time the tale was written. They are not reading stories from books but reciting them to each other partly using faux-oral presentation. The reader can pretend that he is listening to them along with other pilgrims, giving them an illusion of orality even if he is reading. Asides from that, the method of writing used shows the difference between a literate and oral culture (Crosby, 1938, p. 420). Reciting and listening is considered a group activity since it is a spoken utterance addressed by a real person in an authentic setting. The context of the words and the people involved are necessary, just like the words being said. Writing and reading are both solitary endeavors, and it is required for the writer to try and imagine his audience and the audience to imagine the writer. The audience is always fictional on the writer’s mind, and this is no exception when it comes to Chaucer. The other pilgrim is an audience to the tales and can be categorized as the reader reading the entire story ‘Canterbury Tales.’ Nonetheless, Chaucer can control and dictate the other pilgrims’ reactions to the tales, but the reader is free to react and understand them differently. The reader can misunderstand the stories as he wishes, making it the writer’s job to try and give enough details and context to show the reactions of the imaginary reader.

Some tales such as that of the prioress try to show the issue of literacy and orality based on the pilgrim’s time. The tale’s setting is in the Jewish Ghetto, considered a Christian city in Asia. The seven-year-old widow’s son walks through the ghetto to get to school, taught about literacy. The other young students learn how to read so that when they are older, they are taught singing from the antiphoner. It shows that orality and literacy in the tale are very important since when a student is reading, he can still have a picture of what is happening in the story he is writing on. It shows that orality is preferred more than literacy, especially when the boy is punished for not singing (Crosby, 1930, p. 415). Instead of learning how to read as a child, the older boys teach him all the words. Reading and looking for literacy is considered an uninteresting and lonely thing to do. The boy does not learn to read since he is more interested in singing than the older boys.

Chaucer fears that the audience may not connect with his story unless he tells them of stories that will make them interrupt him and spoil the story. It will show that he has achieved his goals which are to invoke the emotions. The medieval audience never felt any need to hear the tale even if they were bored, and the Canterbury Tales is an excellent example of this. He uses several passages to address the audience in the lines “Thow, redere, maist thiself ful wel devyne That swich a wo my wit kan nat diffyne” (Crosby, 1938, p. 420). Chaucer believed that the audience would listen to a reading of his work as he was writing the above line, and he made references to a similar audience to those present in books such as The Legend of Good Women, House of Fame, and Troilus. It shows that The famous contemporaries influenced Chaucer to write the story using oral delivery.

Chaucer’s story makes us understand that he is an entertainer, and he was writing it to an audience that expects nothing more than a good story from him. Entertainment is part of the story, and that is why he uses orality, which involves the audience in the narration. The audience involvement can be explained in two different scenarios. These scenarios have similarities since they provide a more predictable response against which Chaucer gets a chance to play his particular details and provide a means to create irony and humor (Reiss, 1980, p. 396). The first audience involvement is explained directly from their knowledge, and Chaucer senses it. He tries to incorporate crucial details because of what the audience brings. Some take the form of playful allusions, while others are transient. He also uses important events only when the audience reads the poem from an oral viewpoint. It is hard to identify the occasional one (Reiss, 1980, p. 396). Vivid description is placed in most parts of the prologue when explaining the pilgrims involved in the journey to Canterbury. For instance, the monk is described as, “His head was bald, that shone as any glass and eke his face, as he had been anoint. He was a lord full fat, and in good point, His eyen steep and rolling in his head That steamèd as a furnace of a lead, His boots supple, his horse in great estate. Now certainly he was a fair prelate” (Chaucer, 1400, p. 9). It shows the monk’s physical appearance. This is a form of orality since it shows how the monk looks with his oily face, and he is in good health. It also makes the reader understand more about the monk and his appearance.

In summary, orality has been extensively used in the poem Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The poem was written in 1400, and Chaucer has used several things to promote orality. For example, he has used vivid descriptions throughout the prologue to explain more about the pilgrims, which helps the readers create a picture of them. The initial lines in the prologue show the time and place where the story is set. Chaucer explains the setting in cosmic and cyclical terms, which helps celebrate the vitality and richness of the story. He describes the April rains extensively since, during this period, most people went on pilgrimages, and the pilgrims in the story are no exception. Asides from that, the frame narrative used also depicts orality. There are other tales within the main story by Chaucer, and this creates an oral perspective of the story. The poem also shows how the pilgrims believed in oral culture during the period Chaucer wrote it. The story of the prioress shows how orality was deemed to be better than literacy and that was why the boy loved singing rather than reading and he wanted to sing like the others rather than read like them.


Chaucer, G. (1400). The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue. Penguin UK. 1-38.

Crosby, R. (1938). Chaucer and the Custom of Oral Delivery. 413-432.

Reiss, E. (1980). Chaucer and his audience. Directions in Medieval Literary Criticism14(4), 390-402.


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