Revolutionary Storytelling in the Midst of the Black Death


By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D. , Purdue University

Geoffrey Chaucer, the father of English poetry, was deeply influenced by Boccaccio. Chaucer’s unfinished masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, revolutionary in storytelling, took The Decameron as its source for the idea of structuring a collection of tales. Chaucer reworked the material and themes he found in Boccaccio to put his own definitive stamp on the texts he composed.

Image of an open book.
The Canterbury Tales, which remained unfinished, was structured around the idea of a collection of tales. (Image: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock)

Chaucer’s Revolutionary Storytelling

Chaucer’s storytellers are representatives drawn from the Three Orders of society, and they are all skillfully and cleverly individualized. The use of representative stock characters from the Three Orders had long been popular in literature, and indeed, this genre had its own name—Estates Satire. 

What Chaucer did that so revolutionary was to take the conventions of Estates Satire, combine it with the tale-telling game of Boccaccio, and then tweak both of these to make a text that was utterly original in many ways.

He contrives a means to get members of all the orders of society together by coming up with the idea of a large group of people traveling from London to Canterbury on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket. Along the way, these pilgrims partake in a storytelling contest to pass the time.

While Chaucer’s pilgrim group contains stock characters—a valiant knight; a noble squire who is mostly interested in singing, dancing, and women; a corrupt friar; a dishonest miller; and more—he also includes several characters that don’t quite fit into the Three Estates. The Wife of Bath, who is five times married, and a member of the merchant class engaged in the cloth trade, a shipman, a doctor, a man of law, and several others.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Plague and The Canterbury Tales

This is a text that could not have been written before the plague. Chaucer began work on it in the late 1380s after several outbreaks of plague had discombobulated the social order. In 1340, it might have seemed downright revolutionary to compose such a text.

By 1380, though, with the Three Estates model broken down and society remaking itself in a new image, The Canterbury Tales seemed a timely commentary on the current state of the world.

Given how much plague Chaucer had seen in his lifetime—he was born around 1340 and so was about seven or eight when the first and deadliest outbreak of the Great Pestilence made its way through the medieval world—surprisingly, there isn’t more mention of the plague in The Canterbury Tales

A painting showing the pilgrims going on a pilgrimage.
Chaucer put together characters from different orders of society in the name of going on a pilgrimage. (Image: William Blake/Public domain)

Apart from the reference to the intercession of Thomas Becket—and it’s not even clear that he’s interceding only in instances of plague; he may be helping people with any kind of illness—there are two more clear references to plague in Chaucer’s text. A character in “The Knight’s Tale” dies of plague at the end, and “The Pardoner’s Tale” is set in a world where people are being struck down left and right by the Black Death.

Learn more about how the Black Death transformed the world.

Silver Lining of the Plague

But it’s not only the case that Chaucer wouldn’t and couldn’t have written The Canterbury Tales had it not been for the Black Death. The most important point to understand here is that without the Black Death, Geoffrey Chaucer could not have become Chaucer. 

Chaucer’s father’s bourgeois merchant connections probably helped get Geoffrey a position in the household. It’s important to recognize how significant it was that he was in this household. Elizabeth de Burgh was the wife of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, who was one of the sons of King Edward III. Thus, due to his presence in this household, Chaucer was very close to the inner circle of the royal family.

Young Chaucer seems to have acquitted himself well and soon rose up the ranks as a civil servant. He even traveled to the continent with his master’s household when Edward III invaded France. He was tasked more and more with diplomatic missions overseas, and he did some extensive traveling in France, Spain, Flanders, and Italy, which is where he became acquainted with the work of Boccaccio. 

Then, in 1369, something both horrible and wonderful happened. Blanche of Lancaster, wife of John of Gaunt, who was the son of Edward III and the richest man in England, died of the plague. Horrible because, she died of the plague, by all accounts leaving John of Gaunt bereft; but wonderful because here is where Chaucer became Geoffrey Chaucer, father of English poetry. In response to Blanche’s death, he composed the dream vision poem known as The Book of the Duchess.

Learn more about later plague outbreaks: 1353-1666.

The Book of the Duchess

A portrait of Chaucer.
Chaucer’s storytelling choices were revolutionary at the time, even if it doesn’t seem like that now. (Image: National Library of Wales/Public domain)

In this poem, Chaucer shows off his skill and his learning. The text is full of classical references, allusions to other important texts, like the Romance of the Rose, and references to noble pastimes, like hunting. 

At the center of the poem, however, the dreamer encounters a noble knight who is lamenting the loss of his lady. When pressed, the knight tells the dreamer that he was playing a game of chess with fortune, and fortune beat him and took his queen.

Some scholars think the poem was composed at Gaunt’s request; others think Chaucer undertook the project on his own and presented it to the Duke of Lancaster as a commemoration of his wife. 

Whichever version is correct, the writing of this poem is what set Chaucer on a path that led away from civil service and diplomacy and toward literary immortality. There may not be many silver linings to be found in the dark cloud of the Black Death, but the creation of enduring works of art by people like Chaucer is certainly one of them.

Common Questions about Revolutionary Storytelling in the Midst of the Plague

Q: What part of Chaucer’s approach to storytelling was revolutionary?

Chaucer’s revolutionary storytelling brought the conventions of Estate Satire and Boccaccio’s storytelling together in an original way. His characters were representatives of the Three Orders of Society, and he put different characters from various orders of society together in the name of a pilgrimage.

Q: Does Chaucer refer to the plague in The Canterbury Tales?

In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer gives us three references to the plague. One is the intercession of Thomas Becket, which might have been because of the plague or other illnesses. The other two are in “The Knight’s Tale” and “The Pardoner’s Tale”.

Q: What is The Book of the Duchess about?

The Book of the Duchess is about the dreamer who encounters a noble knight, who is lamenting the loss of his lady.

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