The Canterbury Tales
If English literature has a father figure, then it is Geoffrey Chaucer (1342–1400). Chaucer was the first English writer to introduce characters – rather than ‘types’ – into fiction, and he did so to greatest effect in his best-known work, The Canterbury Tales.
Written between 1387 and his death, in the hard-to-decipher Middle English of the day, Chaucer’s Tales is an unfinished series of 24 vivid stories told by a party of pilgrims journeying between London and Canterbury. Chaucer successfully created the illusion that the pilgrims, not Chaucer (though he appears in the tales as himself), are telling the stories, which gave him unprecedented freedom as an author. The Canterbury Tales remains one of the pillars of the literary canon. But more than that, it’s a collection of rollicking good yarns of adultery, debauchery, crime and edgy romance, and is filled with Chaucer’s witty observations about human nature.
The Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
Not one to shy away from cronyism, in 1162 King Henry II appointed his good mate Thomas Becket to the highest clerical office in the land, figuring it would be easier to force the increasingly vocal religious lobby to fall into line if he was pals with the archbishop. Unfortunately for Henry, he underestimated how seriously Thomas would take the job, and the archbishop soon began to disagree with almost everything the king said or did. By 1170, Henry had become exasperated with his former favourite and suggested to four of his knights that Thomas was too much to bear. Becket was murdered on 29 December. Becket’s martyrdom – and canonisation in double-quick time (1173) – catapulted Canterbury Cathedral to the top of the league of northern European pilgrimage sites. Mindful of the growing criticism of his role in Becket’s murder, Henry arrived in Canterbury in 1174 for a dramatic mea culpa and, after allowing himself to be whipped and scolded, was granted absolution.