7 Epic Facts About The Canterbury Tales

British Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
British Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Poets all over the world have a lot to thank Geoffrey Chaucer for—after all, the 14th-century English bard gave them the iambic pentameter. The “father of English literature” has written many texts, but none loom as large as The Canterbury Tales.

In the famous epic poem, which dates back to 1387, a group of around 30 pilgrims, including Chaucer, are traveling from the Tabard Inn in Southwark to St Thomas Becket’s Shrine in Canterbury. To while away the time on the road, the innkeeper suggests that everyone tells two stories on the way to the shrine and two on their way back. The best storyteller gets a free supper. Chaucer illustrates characters of different classes in medieval England, so the stories are rude, vulgar, moral, and funny, depending on who’s telling them.

1. Chaucer did much more than just write The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer was born to a wine merchant somewhere between 1340 and 1345 in London. He led an eventful life: He was a page to Elizabeth de Burgh, countess of Ulster; was captured and ransomed by the French in 1359; was a diplomat sent to Europe on various missions; worked as a customs officer at Wool Quay in London (wool export was a major contributor to the economy in the 14th century); and oversaw the construction of royal buildings.

Amid all these duties, Chaucer wrote in whatever spare time he had. His other works include The Book of the Duchess, written for his patron John of Gaunt praising his deceased wife; the tragic story of Troilus and Criseyde; and dream-vision poem The House of Fame. In his later years, he devoted himself to The Canterbury Tales.

2. The Canterbury Tales is still incomplete.

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 stories, but Chaucer had planned more than 100. He started writing in 1387 and continued working on it until his death in 1400. Though the epic poem has more than 17,000 lines, it was meant to be longer. Some pilgrims introduced in the General Prologue don’t end up telling a tale. The party doesn’t get to Canterbury and their return, therefore, is also missing.

3. Chaucer’s decision to write The Canterbury Tales in Middle English was significant.

When Chaucer penned his magnum opus, most of England’s elite spoke French, thanks to the Norman invasion. His decision to write The Canterbury Tales in Middle English—the language of the common folk—cemented his literary legacy. The epic is regarded as one of the first major works of English literature.

4. There’s a free app that recites The Canterbury Tales in Middle English.

To offer people the authentic Chaucer experience, a team of researchers at the University of Saskatchewan devised an ingenious, 21st-century tool: an app that recites the poem in Middle English. It’s not an easy text to understand, so the app also features a line-by-line modern translation. The 45-minute General Prologue is taken from the Hengwrt Manuscript, written by Adam Pinkhurst (Chaucer’s London associate) at the end of the 14th-century.

Listen to the desktop version here.

5. One of the most important manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales is housed in The Huntington Library in California.

Just 92 manuscripts of the poem have survived, and none are from Chaucer’s lifetime. The order of the tales varies depending on the manuscript, leaving those who have attempted to edit the poem befuddled and wondering what Chaucer originally wanted.

One of the most important versions of The Canterbury Tales is the 15th-century Ellesmere Manuscript. It’s a beautiful piece of work, with illustrations by three artists. There are 22 images of the characters in the manuscript, and a rare portrait of Chaucer. The manuscript is owned by the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

6. Heath Ledger’s A Knight’s Tale was loosely based on a story in The Canterbury Tales.

Shakespeare’s play The Two Noble Kinsmen was based on "The Knight’s Tale," the first story in Chaucer’s epic. The medieval poet has influenced many, and his tales have been adapted into films and movies, including a modern-day series by the BBC.

In fact, Chaucer was a character in the 2001 medieval action movie, A Knight’s Tale. Heath Ledger played William Thatcher, a peasant trying to change his fate by participating in jousting competitions meant only for knights. Paul Bettany offers comic relief with his role of penniless poet Geoffrey Chaucer, and refers to his work, The Book of the Duchess, in the movie. One of the last scenes is Bettany professing, “I think I’m gonna have to write some of this story down.”

7. The Canterbury Tales inspired a social justice movement in the UK.

Refugees Tales is a project that draws attention to, and challenges, the policy of indefinite detention of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. The project is organized by poet David Herd, a professor at the University of Kent, and the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.

Taking cues from Chaucer’s poem, the project has organized walks every year in the English countryside since 2015. (In 2020, the event went online due to COVID-19.) The program on these walks of solidarity includes readings, performances, and music, and invites walkers to reflect on the immigration crisis. Writers and poets collaborate with detainees and asylum seekers who have suffered indefinite detention, and share their stories anonymously. The tales of these 21st-century pilgrims are also recounted in the three books.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

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2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

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4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

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5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

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7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

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9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

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10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Alice Walker 

Steve Rhodes, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Steve Rhodes, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Bestselling author Alice Walker is best known for her 1982 novel, The Color Purple, which made her the first Black author to win a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for Fiction. But she is also an accomplished poet and non-fiction writer with a large body of critically acclaimed literary work. Here are a few things you might not know about Alice Walker.

1. Alice Walker has multiple middle names.

Walker’s full name is Alice Malsenior Tallulah-Kate Walker. She added her second middle name to honor her grandmother Kate Nelson and great-grandmother Tallulah Calloway.

2. Alice Walker’s parents supported their daughter's writing.

Alice was the youngest of eight siblings. Her parents were sharecroppers in rural Georgia, and they were determined that none of their children would work in the fields.

3. Alice Walker was blinded in one eye.

When she was 8 years old, Walker was accidentally shot in the eye by a brother playing with his BB gun. Her injury was so severe that she lost the use of her right eye.

4. Alice Walker was an excellent student.

Walker was the valedictorian of her high school and went on to attend Spelman College and Sarah Lawrence College. While studying at Spelman College, a Historically Black College (HBCU) in Atlanta, Walker won a scholarship to study in Paris. She turned it down to go instead to Mississippi, where she joined the civil rights movement after meeting Martin Luther King, Jr.

5. Alice Walker’s first published essay won $300.

When she was 23, Walker’s essay about her time advocating civil rights, “The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?,” won The American Scholar’s essay contest in 1967 and later appeared in the magazine. It was her first published work.

6. The Color Purple is Alice Walker’s best-known book.

Walker’s 1982 novel portrays a Black Southern woman’s rocky journey toward self-empowerment. While it became a bestseller and is widely read in high school English classes, The Color Purple is often challenged and banned in school districts due to its explicit sexuality and language.

7. The Color Purple film adaptation was a box-office smash.

The Steven Spielberg-directed drama, starring Whoopi Goldberg as the protagonist Celie and Oprah Winfrey as her friend Sofia, was released in 1985 and went on to become a box-office success, staying in U.S. theaters for 21 weeks and grossing more than $142 million worldwide. Winfrey, in her first film role, and Goldberg, in her second, both received Academy Award nominations for their performances. When Spielberg completed shooting the movie, he gave Walker a painting, Man on White, Woman on Red, by the African-American artist  Bill Traylor. The painting was recently auctioned for $507,000.

8. The 1985 movie of Alice Walker’s novel led tp a Broadway musical and another movie.

In 2005, The Color Purple was turned into a Tony Award-winning musical on Broadway and ran for three years. Spielberg, Winfrey, and music producer Quincy Jones are now producing a new movie musical treatment for Warner Bros. As reported by  The Hollywood Reporter, playwright Marcus Gardley (The House That Will Not Stand) will pen the script, and Blitz Bazawule (Black Is King) will direct.

9. Alice Walker’s marriage broke barriers.

Walker met her now ex-husband, human rights lawyer Melvyn Leventhal, when they both worked in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. When they married in 1967, they became the first legally married interracial couple in the state. They had one daughter before divorcing in 1976.

10. Alice Walker rediscovered another Black writer.

In 1973, Walker and scholar Charlotte D. Hunt rediscovered the unmarked gravesite in Fort Pierce, Florida, of writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, author of the classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston had died in obscurity in 1960, and Walker had the gravesite properly marked. When Walker became a contributing editor at Ms. magazine, she published "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston" about the experience, resulting in renewed appreciation of Hurston’s work.