ARRIVAL AT CANTERBURY
THE CANTERBURY TALES is an inevitable starting point. All of English literature is a continuation of Chaucer's anarchic miscellany, precisely because the digest of tales he has assembled is so discontinuous. His work is already pledged to continue its own sources, with the encyclopaedic ambition of medieval narrative: it cites all prototypes and recites all stories since--in a culture where the printed book has not yet established itself--the survival of this accumulated matter depends on its perpetual repetition.
Chaucer's narrators are victims of precedent, weighed down by pre-emptive texts, biblical tags or classical sayings which mostly ten them what not to do or make them feel that their existences are hand-me-downs. The Man of Law, when his turn comes to contribute a story to amuse his fellow pilgrims, complains that Chaucer has told all possible tales, and in his synopsis of The Legend of Good Women he includes legends Chaucer had not bothered to reprise:
And if he have noght seyd hem, leve brother,
In o book, he hath seyd hem in another.
He jokes that Chaucer's mechanistic skill in metre and rhyme enables him to manufacture more or less infinite quantities of verse;