The Canterbury Tales


The question of whether The Canterbury Tales is finished has not yet been answered. There are 83 known manuscripts of the work from the late medieval and early Renaissance periods, more than any other vernacular literary text with the exception of The Prick of Conscience. This is taken as evidence of the tales' popularity during the century after Chaucer's death.[3] Fifty-five of these manuscripts are thought to have been complete at one time, while 28 are so fragmentary that it is difficult to ascertain whether they were copied individually or as part of a set.[4] The Tales vary in both minor and major ways from manuscript to manuscript; many of the minor variations are due to copyists' errors, while others suggest that Chaucer added to and revised his work as it was being copied and (possibly) distributed.

Even the earliest surviving manuscripts are not Chaucer's originals, the oldest being MS Peniarth 392 D (called "Hengwrt"), compiled by a scribe shortly after Chaucer's death. The most beautiful of the manuscripts of the tales is the Ellesmere Manuscript, and many editors have followed the order of the Ellesmere over the centuries, even down to the present day.[5][6] The first version of The Canterbury Tales to be published in print was William Caxton's 1478 edition. Since this print edition was created from a now-lost manuscript, it is counted as among the 83 manuscripts.[3] In 2004, Professor Linne Mooney was able to identify the scrivener who worked for Chaucer as an Adam Pinkhurst. Mooney, then a professor at the University of Maine and a visiting fellow at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, was able to match Pinkhurst's signature, on an oath he signed, to his lettering on a copy of The Canterbury Tales that was transcribed from Chaucer's working copy.[7]


No authorial, arguably complete version of the Tales exists and no consensus has been reached regarding the order in which Chaucer intended the stories to be placed.[8][9]

Textual and manuscript clues have been adduced to support the two most popular modern methods of ordering the tales. Some scholarly editions divide the Tales into ten "Fragments". The tales that comprise a Fragment are closely related and contain internal indications of their order of presentation, usually with one character speaking to and then stepping aside for another character. However, between Fragments, the connection is less obvious. Consequently, there are several possible orders; the one most frequently seen in modern editions follows the numbering of the Fragments (ultimately based on the Ellesmere order).[8] Victorians frequently used the nine "Groups", which was the order used by Walter William Skeat whose edition Chaucer: Complete Works was used by Oxford University Press for most of the twentieth century, but this order is now seldom followed.[8]

Fragment Group Tales
01Fragment I A
  • General Prologue,
  • The Knight's Tale,
  • The Miller's Tale,
  • The Reeve's Tale,
  • The Cook's Tale
02Fragment II B1
  • The Man of Law's Tale
03Fragment III D
  • The Wife of Bath's Tale,
  • The Friar's Tale,
  • The Summoner's Tale
04Fragment IV E
  • The Clerk's Tale,
  • The Merchant's Tale
05Fragment V F
  • The Squire's Tale,
  • The Franklin's Tale
06Fragment VI C
  • The Physician's Tale,
  • The Pardoner's Tale
07Fragment VII B2
  • The Shipman's Tale,
  • The Prioress's Tale,
  • Sir Thopas' Tale,
  • The Tale of Melibee,
  • The Monk's Tale,
  • The Nun's Priest's Tale
08Fragment VIII G
  • The Second Nun's Tale,
  • The Canon's Yeoman's Tale
09Fragment IX H
  • The Manciple's Tale
10Fragment X I
  • The Parson's Tale

An alternative ordering (seen in an early manuscript containing the Canterbury Tales, the early-fifteenth century Harley MS. 7334) places Fragment VIII before VI. Fragments I and II almost always follow each other, as do VI and VII, IX and X in the oldest manuscripts. Fragments IV and V, by contrast are located in varying locations from manuscript to manuscript.

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