It was just before sunrise on this day in 1387. A group of religious pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn in Southwark (part of modern-day Central London), about to begin their four day journey. 60 miles to the west stood their destination: The Canterbury Cathedral, specifically the shrine of Saint Thomas Beckett. Beckett, who had been the Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, had been murdered under King Henry II’s orders (some 200 years previously) in the very cathedral where his remains were now venerated.
Along the way, the pilgrims passed the time with a contest. Each pilgrim would tell a story and the best story-teller would be awarded a free dinner at the Tabard Inn when they returned. The twenty stories, highly critical of English society and The Church, became the basis of The Canterbury Tales. Considered Geoffrey Chaucer’s greatest work, The Canterbury Tales are among the first popular works written in the vernacular—in this case “Middle English”—instead of Latin or French.
83 copies of the works are known to exist, each one hand-copied by scribes. Variances in the copies are either the result of a scribe’s error or revisions made by the author as the copy was being produced.
Also on this day—exactly ten years later—Geoffrey Chaucer first recited his Canterbury Tales for the court of Richard II.