While Chaucer clearly states the addressees of many of his poems (the Book of the Duchess is believed to have been written for John of Gaunt on the occasion of his wife's death in 1368), the intended audience of The Canterbury Tales is more difficult to determine. Chaucer was a courtier, leading some to believe that he was mainly a court poet who wrote exclusively for the nobility. He is referred to as a noble translator and poet by Eustache Deschamps and by his contemporary John Gower. It has been suggested that the poem was intended to be read aloud, which is probable as this was a common activity at the time. However, it also seems to have been intended for private reading, since Chaucer frequently refers to himself as the writer, rather than the speaker, of the work. Determining the intended audience directly from the text is even more difficult, since the audience is part of the story. This makes it difficult to tell when Chaucer is writing to the fictional pilgrim audience or the actual reader.
Chaucer's works may have been distributed in some form during his lifetime in part or in whole. Scholars speculate that manuscripts were circulated among his friends, but likely remained unknown to most people until after his death. However, the speed with which copyists strove to write complete versions of his tale in manuscript form shows that Chaucer was a famous and respected poet in his own day. The Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts are examples of the care taken to distribute the work. More manuscript copies of the poem exist than for any other poem of its day except The Prick of Conscience, causing some scholars to give it the medieval equivalent of bestseller status. Even the most elegant of the illustrated manuscripts, however, is not nearly as highly decorated as the work of authors of more respectable works such as John Lydgate's religious and historical literature.
John Lydgate and Thomas Occleve were among the first critics of Chaucer's Tales, praising the poet as the greatest English poet of all time and the first to show what the language was truly capable of poetically. This sentiment was universally agreed upon by later critics into the mid-15th century. Glosses included in The Canterbury Tales manuscripts of the time praised him highly for his skill with "sentence" and rhetoric, the two pillars by which medieval critics judged poetry. The most respected of the tales was at this time the Knight's, as it was full of both.