Introduction to Chaucer: Middle English and the Canterbury Tales

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  • 0:11 Cheers to Medieval Literature
  • 2:00 Geoffrey Chaucer
  • 4:23 The Canterbury Tales
  • 6:05 The Language
  • 8:28 Understanding Middle English
  • 13:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kelly Sjol
In this lesson, we'll introduce medieval writer Geoffrey Chaucer. We'll take a look at his life, his most famous works, including 'The Canterbury Tales,' and we'll spend some time learning how to read Middle English.

Cheers to Medieval Literature

To Chaucer and medieval literature!

It's tempting to think about medieval literature as being boring and unsophisticated. A professor in a Chaucer class once pointed out that medieval people aren't stupid; they're smart people. And their literature is interesting and worthwhile - it's just different from ours; it just looks different because it's from hundreds of years ago. They would probably judge us for Twitter, so we should keep it in perspective. They're doing different things, but they're just as smart, innovative and interesting as we are.

One way to see this is to really read and get into Geoffrey Chaucer. He's a great example of all the cool things that people in medieval lit do. You often hear that Shakespeare is the father of English. Chaucer's like an earlier father of English; he's the original written source for tons of words we use. And he's also a funny guy. He's got sex jokes, he's got fart jokes; he's got it all. The things we think are funny, he thought were funny, too, because he's great.

In this video, we're going to take a look at his life, some of his major works and then we're going to take a look at how to approach reading Middle English, which is the language he wrote in. It's an ancestor of what we speak today. You can do it; it's just a little tricky.

Geoffrey Chaucer

Chaucer was born around 1343 (people don't exactly know when, so that's why we say 'around'). If you've ever watched A Knight's Tale, which is one of my favorite movies, you've seen one representation of Chaucer. He's played by Paul Bettany. He turns up naked on the road. He likes to give extravagant speeches introducing Heath Ledger's character, the knight. It's so good; watch it if you haven't. The thing to remember is that while it's a representation of him, it doesn't have much to do with his biography. It does reflect this idea that Chaucer really did everything. He was a page for a nobleman, he fought in the Hundred Years' War in France, he wandered around Europe (which was a lot harder back then; now you can just take Ryanair), he worked for the court, he studied law and he actually ended up being in charge of the port in London. He did everything. And, of course, he also was a writer, which is how we know him today.

Unlike a lot of people we talk about, he actually was famous and well recognized at the time for writing. He was called upon to write stuff, like this guy asked him to write a eulogy of his wife - it turned into The Book of the Duchess, which also gets a shout out in A Knight's Tale when Paul Bettany introduces himself:

'Geoffrey Chaucer's the name, writing's the game. Chaucer? Geoffrey Chaucer? The Writer?'

'What?' (They don't know what a writer is because they're ignorant.)

'You've probably read my book, The Book of the Duchess?'

Again, not accurate but all of the pieces are there.

He's also famous for works like The Parlement of Foules ('foules' meaning birds; it's about birds that talk to each other) and a poem called Troilus and Criseyde, so he writes a version of that - Shakespeare does too, but Chaucer does it first. At some point as he's writing all this stuff, he actually is awarded a gallon of wine a day by King Charles III. People think it was probably as a reward for writing - every day. That's kind of a good deal.

The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer is most famous now for The Canterbury Tales, his big work that he gained the most recognition for, at least nowadays. We refer to them as tales or stories, but they are actually in verse; they're all poems. (One of them is actually called 'The Knight's Tale', but it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot of the movie, so don't be confused. I promise this is the last time I'll talk about A Knight's Tale.) So, Chaucer presents a series of these 'tales' told by a bunch of pilgrims who are all headed to the Canterbury Cathedral, which is a big pilgrimage site in England at the time. All the pilgrims have different personalities and different jobs, and some of their stories can get pretty raunchy - which is a reason to read it, but we'll get into that a little bit later. The reason Chaucer can tell these stories, as we mentioned before, is he did so many different things and got really familiar with all sorts of people, so he could write about all these different types of personalities.

The Canterbury Tales are probably unfinished and are organized into a bunch of fragments. The text itself is lost, so it's been reconstructed from a bunch of different manuscripts. Chaucer was working on them relatively late in his career; they were definitely some of the last things he did. He died in 1400. So, that's Chaucer's life and some things to think about while you read.

The Language

Another really important thing relative to Chaucer is the language and how to approach something that is written in Middle English. Chaucer was part of a movement in the Middle Ages, and really all over the place, to write in what's called the vernacular. That just means the language that people speak. In modern day, the vernacular is English; there's no difference between the vernacular and the language literature is written in or the language important people speak. At the time, important people spoke and wrote in Latin. So, the idea of writing in the language of the people was a new idea. He wasn't the only one who was doing this, but he was kind of a big early example of it.

It's also important to note that Chaucer's English - this is around 1100 or 1400 AD in England - is called Middle English (Middle Ages, Middle English, makes sense), which is not the same thing as Old English. This is a really important distinction. Old English was around 800 AD - we're talking more Dark Ages than High Middle Ages. This is a favorite quiz question, so do not be fooled! Chaucer wrote in Middle English, not Old English - even though it is old, it's Middle English. Old English is a totally separate language. You can actually tell pretty easily if something is in Middle English or Old English because you cannot understand Old English at all. If you look at it, it has all these funky letters in it. You know when you're looking at Old English. Just be warned - teachers love to ask that question! So you can't understand Old English, but you can understand Middle English.

It's a little frightening at first, but we're going to go through some lines from the opening of The Canterbury Tales, the 'General Prologue'. We're just going to look at it and go through how to parse it, how to look at it and come out with something we can understand. I'm going to show you - it's not that hard. You can do it. We're going to do it together, and then you're going to do it on your own. I'm going to read this, and it's going to sound more foreign than it looks, so keep that in mind. Look at the text, and listen to what I'm saying.

Understanding Middle English

I'm not an expert at pronouncing Middle English, so it's not going to sound perfect, but you'll get the idea. Here goes:

'Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

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