Although he doesn’t have the same worldwide name recognition as William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer – who lived, approximately, from 1343 to 1400 – is sometimes known as the father of English literature. Widely considered the greatest English language poet of the Middle Ages, he authored The Canterbury Tales and a slew of other poetry.
Here are five of Chaucer’s major contributions to the history of the English language.
He helped found the English vernacular tradition.
Some scholars point out that an English literary tradition had begun to emerge centuries earlier, so it’s not exactly accurate to say that Chaucer started the trend. Still, he was certainly going against the grain when he chose to write The Canterbury Tales, his magnum opus, in English. During the fourteenth century, French and Latin were viewed as more sophisticated and more permanent than English. Chaucer proved that literature written in English could be every bit as beautiful, enjoyable, complex, and profound as literature written in a supposedly “better” language.
His work indirectly contributed to the creation of English language dictionaries.
As the centuries went on and the English language evolved, people realized that it was becoming harder and harder to understand Chaucer’s writings. According to Jack Lynch’s The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, disappointment over how difficult it had become to appreciate his amazing literature – as well as anxiety that more-recent works of literature might meet the same fate – helped spur on the (futile) Early Modern efforts to halt linguistic change in English. One result of these efforts was the creation of English-language dictionaries (link to “The Strange Origins of the English Dictionary”).
He introduced rhyme royal into English.
Traditionally, Germanic poetry focused more on alliteration (using words that start with the same sounds) than on rhyme, as in Beowulf and other Old English texts. Chaucer chose to focus on rhyme, which was unusual for an English language poet of his time, but not completely original.
However, he was probably the first person to include rhyme royal in English language literature. Rhyme royal is a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-b-b-c-c with specific meter. It was a popular form through the Reformation, and it’s been used in a few poems since then, such as W.H. Auden’s Letter to Lord Byron and W.B. Yeats’s “A Bronze Head.”
He’s the source of the “The ____’s Tale” trope.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Richard Dawkins’s The Ancestor’s Tale are just two examples of titles inspired by The Canterbury Tales. This work of Chaucer’s contains connected stories almost all of which have titles like this (“The Pardoner’s Tale,” “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.”)
People Still Read – And Play With – His Work Today
If you read the Troilus and Criseyde excerpt earlier in this article, you might be surprised to learn that Chaucer is still read today. It’s relatively easy to learn enough Middle English to understand his work, and there are plenty of translations to help you out if you struggle.
However, people today do more than just read Chaucer’s work – many deeply enjoy it. Full of emotion, wit, social critiques, and a surprising number of fart jokes, works like The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde enchant audiences today.
Chaucer scholarship is a substantial academic field, but even beyond that, fans of Chaucer have fun playing with his identity, language, and writing.
A few years ago, an English language professor named Brantley Bryant wrote a blog in a humorous interpretation of Chaucer’s voice. Although he no longer updates the blog, the old posts can be great fun to read, and the related Twitter account is still active. Occasionally, a movie or mini-series is released that explicitly pays homage to The Canterbury Tales.
In 2004, Canadian hip-hop artist Baba Brinkman released a fantastically creative rap album remixing The Canterbury Tales. There’s even a wine company called Chaucer’s that sells such old-fashioned products as flavored mead, with labels inspired by medieval art. You don’t have to have read Chaucer to enjoy either the rap album or the libations, so if you want to start there, go ahead!