Thomas Becket, Geoffrey Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales by Evi Routoula

20/07/2014 00:26

Thomas Becket, Geoffrey Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales- Evi Routoula

Thomas Becket was born in 1118 at Cheapside in London, he was of Norman origins and his family was quite wealthy. From a young age he started his religious studies, he learnt Latin and he travelled to Italy. When he returned to England he was distinguished for his services both as a civil servant and as an ecclesiastical leader. His charisma and reputation soon reached King Henry II and Becket became his Prime Minister in 1155. The two men developed a great friendship. In 1162, Thomas Becket was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury. Two years later, Henry II summoned all archbishops of England at Clarendon- a medieval castle very close to today’s Salisbury- in order to establish the limits of the ecclesiastical power compared to the royal authority. What Henry was actually asking from that assembly was to reduce the ecclesiastical influence and to remove the state from the papal power. King Henry managed to persuade all the priests to agree to his notion, except from Becket. Becket was exiled to France, where he was offered refuge by the French king and the Pope. While living in France, Becket was threatening Henry and the English priests with excommunication. Several years passed and after the Pope’s intervention, Henry II promised the safe return of Thomas Becket to England. Still, the situation between the two men was not good, Becket kept on excommunicating all priests who disagreed with him and Henry II at some point said the well-known phrase: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” According to the legend, four knights of King Henry’s decided to “rid him” of Becket. On 29th December 1170 the four knights went to Canterbury’s Cathedral and ordered Thomas Becket to follow them, he refused and they slaughtered him inside the church. Immediately after Becket’s death, the whole Europe named him a martyr and two years after his death, Pope Alexander III canonized him. Pilgrims from all over the world and especially from England started flowing at the place of his death, at Canterbury.

Geoffrey Chaucer was an English writer, poet, diplomat and civil servant. He lived from 1343 till 1400 a.d. He served three English kings and several princes. He worked as a customs’ officer, astronomer, he was overlooking the construction of palaces, he was in charge of taxation, still he remained known in history as “the father of the English literature”. Simply, he was the first person to write stories in the English language. After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the French language was the official language of the English state. All documents were written in French or in Latin. Chaucer was the first English writer to write in the common language, in English. All royal acts started being written in English during the king Richard II’s era, which was Chaucer’s era as well. Chaucer wrote many poems and novels, his most famous book, the one that will remain his most well-known for all generations to come, is “The Canterbury Tales”.

The “Canterbury Tales” are 29 short stories- the smallest one is two pages long and the biggest is 50 pages. They are stories told by pilgrims to their fellow travelers on their way to Canterbury. Canterbury like other sacred place, such as Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela attracts pilgrims. We are talking about people from all social and economical backgrounds. So, Chaucer’s pilgrims, on their way to Canterbury tell their stories. Among these stories you will find the ancient Greek myth about Theseus, pornographic narrations from drunken workmen, romantic narrations from knights and spicy stories told by elderly ladies. Twenty nine pilgrims go to Canterbury, during the long journey they tell stories: dramatic, funny, social; they are all tales, the first tales in the English language.

Translation into English by Stella Hatzi