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Chaucer, in the style of Bill Bailey. See, it isn’t that hard to understand!

What are the most typically Chaucerian features Bill Bailey picks up on and exaggerates?

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In my first Chaucer post I talked about Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog, the cleverest and most hilarious medieval blog there is.

I could easily spend an entire day gleefully chortling over Chaucer’s posts, as he keeps us updated on how the fourteenth century is looking and invites other medieval celebs to guest post.

If unlike me however you don’t have hours to waste but want to consume the same hilarity in 140 characters, the blog has a twitter account!

So, self-indulgently, I’m going to do my THIRD Chaucer post. The second one is here.

 

Chaucer is jokes

A lot of discussion of The Canterbury Tales is focused on the interplay of comedy and seriousness, of ‘game’ and ‘ernest’, that runs throughout the whole collection. It can be addressed in terms of the whole work, or analysed in just one tale at a time. A really good tale to look at is The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, which schizophrenically flips back and forth between ‘moral teachings’ and more light-hearted scenes.

The important questions to think about are:

♦ Is there ever any kind of moral instruction in the comedy

♦ Is Chaucer constrained by the medieval literary theory that all writing must have a moral purpose?

♦ Are there places where Chaucer parodies this emphasis on a ‘moral’?

♦ Does Chaucer ever suggest that the two might be closely intertwined?

 

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From timetravel-britain.com

 

Chaucer and the Retraction

A good thing to include in your answer to a question on this theme is the RETRACTION: Chaucer’s apologetic sign-off at the very end of The Canterbury Tales. Here he urges his audience to ignore the frivolous, playful parts of the work and instead focus all their attention on extracting its real moral core. It seems to be an embarrassed rejection of half his work. What’s Geoffrey up to NOW?

Here’s Chaucer asking for forgiveness for his own bad behaviour:

“Wherfore I biseke yow mekely, for the mercy of God, that ye preye for me that crist have mercy on me and foryeve me my giltes; and namely of my translacions and enditynges of worldly vanitees, the whiche I revoke in my retracciouns”

And here Chaucer tells us he would have written a better work if it weren’t for his own ineptitude: 

“Now preye I to hem alle that herkne this litel tretys or rede, that if ther be any thyng in it that liketh hem, that thereof they thanken oure Lord Jhesu Crist, of whom procedeth al wit and al goodnesse. / And if ther be any thyng that displease hem, I preye hem also that they arrette it to the defaute of myn unkonnynge and nat to my wyl, that wolde ful fayn have seyd bettre if I hadde had konnyge. / For oure book seith, “Al that is writen is writen for oure doctrine,” and that is myn entente.”

pilgrims

The pilgrims

Remember: retractions of this sort were common features in medieval literature. Chaucer is calling on a very conventional medieval trope to end his work. Because of this it’s not clear just how sincerely he endorses this self-admonishing. He would of course have been very aware that the bawdier parts of his work were not exactly how the Church went about preaching its rules of good behaviour. But then again, do we too enthusiastically make Chaucer our contemporary? Are we too eager to perceive him as ‘one of us’ – as a modern someone not quite wholly aligned with the Church, and of course not really believing all that stuff about strict moral teaching? Here at the very end of the Tales, is Chaucer performing another well-constructed act of irony and self-deprecation, or is he deploying a standard trope that works as a necessary disclaimer to appease his harsher critics?

What ON EARTH is he doing?

The retraction rounds off a work that’s generally believed to be unfinished. We were originally promised tales on the return journey too but we never make it to that. It’s a conclusion that seems to give us an answer to our ‘ernest/game’ dilemma, but only as part of a work that hasn’t actually finished yet. How tantalising!

In the style of oure greate Father of Poetry, I think I’ll leave it here too. X

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I here decree it time for another medieval post. Let us begynne.

I came across this really good blog full of interesting things about medieval literature. There’s lots on Chaucer so definitely have a look.

It guilt-tripped me into posting about Chaucer and throwing as many exciting, stimulating, awe-inspiring facts into the online nethersphere as possible. So lat me torne to my tale ageyn.

In case you’ve forgotten what he looks like, this is what he looks like:

THE BIG G

In my spare time I like to sit around and picture this respectable, clerkly Chaucer figure secretly sniggering at the filthiness and explosive slapstick of his tales. Sometimes I do other stuff in my spare time.

THE MILLER’S TALE

This tale is probably the most fun. You can really hear Chaucer having fun. I promise you’ll have fun – ARE YOU HAVING FUN YET?

In terms of getting started with Chaucer’s language, have a look at the first post I did.

Some things to remember:

  • Each of The Canterbury Tales is told by a different character on the pilgrimage. This means Chaucer is telling a story about people telling stories. It also means that he is writing as if he were that character. Look out for places where we can really detect Chaucer’s own voice breaking through his character’s tale.
  • The tales are all written in different medieval styles and genres. These include the beast fable (Nun’s Priest’s Tale), the hagiography (Second Nun’s Tale), the morality tale (Monk’s Tale) and the fabliaux. You MUST be sensitive to the fact that Chaucer is always attempting to reconstruct a certain literary formula. Sometimes he parodies it, sometimes he develops it, other times he just leaves it. He returns obsessively to the idea of representation – to all the hundreds of different ways to tell a story. It’s never just about the content of the tales. Take note of the genre, the voice, the references, the tone, etc.

The Fabliaux: 

These kind of tales are Chaucer’s most evidently comic; they are rambunctious, slapstick, noisy, sex-obsessed, bodily. The fabliau is also the most represented genre among all the tales.

And now to a brilliant passage from The Miller’s Tale, probably Chaucer’s most perfect reproduction of the typical ‘fabliau’. There’s a love triangle, and plenty of sex and pranks. This bit comes during the night where Alison is in bed with her lover Nicholas, while her husband is shut up in a barrel downstairs. Another admirer of her’s, Absolon, comes calling at her window. Absolon doesn’t quite get the kiss he was hoping for from his lady.

The wyndow she undoth, and that in haste.

“Have do,” quod she, “com of, and speed the faste,

Lest that our neighebores thee espie.”

This Absolon gan wype his mouth ful drie.

Derk was the nyght as pich, or as the cole,

And at the wyndow out she putte hir hole,

And Absolon, hym fil no bet ne wers,

But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers

Ful savourly, er he were war of this.

Abak he stirte, and thoughte it was amys,

For wel he wiste a womman hath no berd.

He felte a thyng al rough and long yherd,

And seyde, “Fy, allas! what have I do?”

“Tehee!” quod she, and clapte the wyndow to,

And Absolon gooth forth a sory pas.”

I don’t know about you, but I certainly did not expect medieval English to be quite so… rude, when I first studied it at A Level. This kind of explicit and irreverent bawdiness is entirely in keeping with the typical medieval fabliau. This genre loves to turn things upside down; saying things it shouldn’t say, humiliating characters in authority, and often privileging the immoral.

Let’s look at the LANGUAGE here:

– Chaucer is masterful when it comes to representing speech and making it sound natural, colloquial and realistic, and then integrating it right into the verse. Look at ‘”have do,” quod she, “com of, and speede the faste”‘. A phrase like “com of” would not be used outside speech, but it fits the punchy iambic beat of the verse, “have DO” and “com OF.” Alison’s “Tehee” at the end is very famous! Also just a note here: “the” is a shortened version of “thee”, as in ‘you’. It’s really easy to read it just as ‘the’ and end up completely confused.

– Note the really whole, bright, monosyllabic rhyming words. Always inevitable, they help reinforce the metrical pattern, ending the line on a clear sounding note and packing the verse up into its rhyming pairs. The rhymes are almost deliberately coarse, the words bare-faced: “cole” rhymes with Alison’s “hole”, and “ers” (that’s arse) rhymes with “wers.” It’s like a medieval limerick.

– Sometimes there are roughly two parts to each line: they bounce along, going up and down like a nursery rhyme. It really emphasises the tale’s strong, constant metrical rhythm. Look at “The wyndow she undoth, and that in haste” and “Abak he stirte, and thoughte it was amys”

– We often find that Chaucer rhymes words that in modern English do not sound similar, such as the top two, “haste” and “faste.” Places like this provide clues as to how medieval people pronounced certain words. They are still rhyming words! Don’t overlook them.

And to end:

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There he is!

This first post is going to throw all the WJEC A Levellers doing any of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales streighte unto the deepe ende. As Chaucer probably wouldn’t say.

When people first come across Chaucer, their first reaction is usually ‘Um, sorry, no, I think you’ll find that this is not English.’

WRONG AND RIGHT. It is not English as we know it, but then again, Chaucer isn’t the father of Modern English poetry for nothing. Medieval English is, for the most part, pretty similar to the English we speak today, but there are phrases that can really throw you. In this post, I’ve taken a small part from The Nun’s Priest’s Tale to showcase some of the best parts of Chaucer. The earlier you realise that Chaucer never takes himself too seriously, and that if he can make something bawdy, he almost always will, the better. ‘Bawdy’ is a word always used in reference to Chaucer. It means rude. Chaucer is rude about sex.

“He fethered Pertelote twenty tyme…”

This is the part of the tale where Chaunticleer, Chaucer’s alpha male cockerel, decides to forget about the ominous warning of his dream by having sex with his hen wife, Pertelote.

“For whan I see the beautee of youre face,

Ye been so scarlet reed aboute youre yen,

It maketh al my drede for to dyen,

For al so siker as In Principio, 

Mulier est hominis confusio –

Madame, the sentence of this Latyn is,

“Womman is mannes joye and al his blis.”

For whan I feel a-nyght your softe syde –

Al be it that I may nat on yow ryde,

For that our perche is maad so narwe, allas –

I am so ful of joye and of solas,

That I diffye bothe sweven and dreem.

And with that word he fley doun fro the beem,

For it was day, and eke his hennes alle,

And with a chuk he gan hem for to calle,

For he hadde found a corn, lay in the yerd.

Real he was, he was namoore aferd.

He fethered Pertelote twenty tyme,

And trad hire eke as ofte, er it was pryme.”

CONFUSING WORDS:

This passage is especially good because several medieval words crop up that we no longer use today. Sadly, these ones you just have to learn.

  • siker: sure/more sure/certain/more certain
  • sentence: meaning
  • sweven: dream
  • er: before
  • yen: eyes
  • pryme: 9am
  • eke: also

Once you’ve got the real medieval words out of the way, the sense of the passage will become much clearer.

SECONDLY:

Find the words that look similar to modern spellings:

  •   “real” : royal
  • “diffye” : defy
  • “reed” : red
  • “whan” : when
  • “drede” : dread
  • “yow” : you
  • “maad” : made
  • “narwe” : narrow
  • “fley” : flew
  • “doun” : down
  • “gan” : began
  • “hem” : them
  • “aferd” : afraid

You should already be able to flow more easily through the passage. I would recommend scribbling all over your copy.

THEN:

Never shy away from a bold interpretation with Chaucer. Because you’re probably right. The words “trad” and “fethered” really do mean what you think they do. Chaucer’s cockerel is riding his wife. As well as regretting that their ‘perch’ is not really big enough to allow them to do so.  This straightforwardly graphic image is, as is typical with Chaucer, ironically placed right next to a piece of Latin, the line: “Mulier est hominis confusio”. NB: This is one of Chaucer’s favourite techniques! His comic tales are full of learned expressions followed immediately by slapstick scenes of sex, sweat and excretion. He is so much closer to us than we think. If there is a philosophical phrase that we don’t understand, it is likely that Chaucer didn’t intend for his original audience to it understand either.

SPEAK IT OUT LOUD!

Some of the best advice was given to me by an Oxford lecturer, who said that Chaucer’s meaning is never more apparent than when you read it out in a pretend Scottish accent. This has never failed me. In the strongest Scottish tones you can muster, perform Chaucer. All his poems were intended to be read out loud, after all!

GEOFFREY CHAUCER HATHE A BLOGGE

This is the best blog I’ve ever come across about Chaucer. With guest posts from other medieval stars, online personality Chaucer blogs about his life as a medieval poet. Have a read: not only is it funny, it shows just how easy it is to recreate Chaucerian language. You will definitely be surprised at how fluently you can read it.

CREEPY CANTERBURY TALES TOUR

For hardcore Geoffrey fans, there is a Canterbury Tales tour you can do at the real-life Canterbury. I accidentally found this video when revising for my exams. I imagine that children find this terrifying. And I would be among them, crying and begging to leave. But at least it helps you visualise the often grotesque medieval lifestyle Chaucer writes about. It also gives a nice picture of the class hierarchies in medieval society that are so crucial to the Canterbury Tales!

I love Chaucer so much that I will willingly post about him whenever. If anybody is doing other tales on the syllabus, or wants something specific focused on, let me know!

Thus endeth my tale. Amen.

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