Monday, February 6, 2017

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

Every modern language seems to have its vital, foundational literary work: Italian has Dante's Divine Comedy, Spanish has Don Quixote, and English has Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. And yet, like other such works, the writings of Chaucer are more often talked about than read; unlike Shakespeare's, his characters have not so often strutted upon the stage. In the UK, the BBC has done them both as a period puppet piece as well as a modernized version, and in 1972 the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini made a memorable film version -- but here in the US there have been no major film or television adaptations, unless you count the somewhat squishy "A Knight's Tale." Still, Chaucer's influence has been deeply felt; his Troylus and Criseyde was one of Shakespeare's sources for his play of the same name; the Wife of Bath's Prologue was translated in 1700 by John Dryden; and in the twentieth century there have been no fewer than seven translations or adaptations into modern English, most recently by Peter Ackroyd (in prose) and Sheila Fisher (in verse).

Yet although it is now more than 600 years old, Chaucer's poetry is strikingly modern, some might even say postmodern. Chaucer plays around with unreliable narrators -- one might say that CT has 29 of these -- and even inserts himself into the narrative (Chaucer's offering, the sing-songy "Tale of Sir Thopas," is rejected by the Knight, who swears that his "drasty rhyming is nat worth a toord" ('your filthy rhyming isn't worth a shit'). Part of the fun in reading Chacuer, of course, is discovering that bathroom humor, pathos, pride, and human stupidity are all at least 600 years old!

It should also be noted that, work of genius though it is, the Canterbury Tales are also incomplete. Chaucer's plan called for two tales from each pilgrim on the road to and back from Canterbury, whereas in the version that he left us, we never actually arrive at Canterbury, and not all of the pilgrims even get one tale, let alone two. Early readers often filled the gaps with tales of their own, including one version -- the "Tale of Beryn" -- in which they actually do reach Canterbury. The exact order of the tales is also unclear, although they are generally organized into seven Fragments, within which the order of tales and characters is at least somewhat consistent from manuscript to manuscript.

We'll start with what's now known widely as the "General Prologue" -- a preface to the Tales as a whole which Chaucer probably composed after some, but far from all, of the tales we know now were completed.  It offers a description of the visage (face), character, and "array" (clothing and equipment) that every pilgrim presented, and as a snapshot of late Medieval England, it's without peer.  Few of the pilgrims get off easy; aside from the Knight (and there's some debate about him), only the Parson and the Plowman -- and perhaps the Clerk -- get off without some harsh words and ironic comments on how they each fall short of the ideal for their class.  You'll notice, too, that by far the largest single block of pilgrims are "clerici" -- that is, religious : the Monk, the Friar, the Prioress (with a second nun and a priest), the Sumnour, the Pardoner, and the Clerk -- such that nearly 1/3 of a group of pilgrims, or any random group on the street, would be in religious orders or jobs!  Today, when the worldwide number of what the Vatican calls "members of the consecrated life" is only about 950,000 -- barely one hundredth of one percent of the present world population of seven billion -- times have certainly changed, and dramatically.  Of all the various clerical occupations, only that of the "Clerk" -- a sort of graduate student -- represents a significant class today; there are 20.2 million college students in the United States today, about 6% of our current population.

16 comments:

  1. I have not read this story since high school. It is still such a fun story to read. All of the 27-28 pilgrims and their voyage. I think the biggest challenge is trying to understand the Old English. I can't help but to think that while times have changed, the overall plot and characters in Canterbury Tales,reminds me of life's journey for different people. Whatever and wherever they are going to or seeking. Love the story, its a great.

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  2. This is my third time reading the Canterbury Tales, and it is one of my favourite stories that I have read in a Brit Lit class. While it has been a few years since I last read the text, I remember enjoying it. I also distinctly remember that one favourite characters in the text is the Wife of Bath. I like how Chaucer starts the prologue describing springtime, as I feel that the use of seasons is meant to be symbolic. Springtime is meant to symbolize the start of their journey and is most likely used because Spring is quite often associated with fresh starts and youthfulness. I forget whether Chaucer continues to use seasons as symbolism throughout the rest of his story.

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  3. I think this is the first time reading Chaucer in the original Middle English. Knowing some German, I found the vowel pronunciation similarities familiar, although I want to keep turning the "w" into a "v" sound. Languages are interesting in what they reveal about people, and in the subtle nuances contained within. I suppose in the context of European development, Middle English shows us how the language is moving further from its Germanic origins and into what we know today. This is a time without universities, publishers, and Webster's Dictionary to regulate language, so it is still relatively malleable. Although this flexibility still exists to some extent in England, it was still very present into the 19th and 20th century. Check out Lancashire dialect as an example of modern English that contains a vocabulary and vernacular that is sometimes from another age.

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  4. I was introduced to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in a history class I took one of my first semesters here at RIC. I really enjoyed the stories, but we were not required to read the original texts, instead a translation. Now, in this class, I found it difficult to work through the text on my own, taking far longer than I should have. However, once we began reading it in class aloud, I really started enjoying working through the language, as if it were a puzzle. There are some really interesting characters and descriptions and storylines that can be uncovered within the text, and I think hearing it aloud can be a huge benefit. I look forward to delving into the text further.

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  5. This is my first time reading Canterbury Tales or Chaucer in general. Chaucer's English can be a bit of a challenge, but at the same time it is very entertaining to read. I constantly find myself looking at all the footnotes as I read through each line. It is interesting to see the early forms of words we use today and how they evolved over time.

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  6. I read Canterbury Tales in my senior year, though then it was in the modern English. I'm tempted to see what the Middle English holds, though I have a hard time with it (especially in reading aloud, a skill I'm still working with).

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  7. Although I feel like I get the gist of it, I have trouble understanding the sarcasm in Chaucer's writing. It's hard to tell whether he likes someone or not, so I assume he makes fun of all of them, more or less. However, what does he think about the wife of bath? She's an incredibly liberal character, and I have to wonder whose views she reflects, and what is she an example of? The tone Chaucer has for her in the prologue did not sound sarcastic or admonishing, but was it?

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  8. As opposed to my other class mates responses, I have never read Canterbury Tales so reading the general prologue I very much struggled through the reading. However, from when we were reading during class I saw why Chaucer is known as the Father of English literature because of how well written he described the appearance and behavior of all of the pilgrims. I can't wait to continue reading and find what other writing techniques he has.

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  9. Reading Chaucer in both Middle English and Modern English is, to say the least, interesting. To me, it seems more rhythmical in Middle English, but in Modern English it is coherent. Nonetheless, one can see the origins of our modern language in the original language that Chaucer wrote in. It is also interesting to see how many works can be tied to one, either by direct influence or inspiration. This is true of Shakespeare, Keats, and whole slew of authors, but perhaps most notably true of Chaucer.

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  10. I have read Chaucer in high school and I loved the few stories we have read of course if I'm not mistaken it was in modern maybe middle English because some parts were easy to understand while others no so much. Thinking back I do wish it could have been completed I've always been curious on where it would lead up too and which one would be the lucky winner of the story telling. The story telling was a way for the people to get along and maybe even come closer together even though many were shady. I can't wait to read the stories and learn more.

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  11. Before reading chaucer I was very skeptical. This is another piece of literature that at first can be very intimidating. Adjusting to the modern and middle english is very difficult and takes a great understanding of the language in order to be able to follow the stories. Through breaking down the literature i developed an understanding and enjoyment reading Chaucer. Thinking about the people of this time and these tales it is evident that these tales were meant to bring people together and used to have a good time. The readings continue to get more and more interesting as I develop a greater admiration to middle and modern english.

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  12. Before this I had only heard of Chaucer and had a professor refer to him. I hadn't read him yet and let me tell you it was no easy feat. English that isn't in the modern way we speak now is HARD. Luckily we have the internet which can help. Once working my way through the language it was much more enjoyable to read, kind of like a puzzle when having to figure out meanings. I am starting to like reading this kind of material rather than only having an appreciation and respect for it.

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  13. Thank goodness for translations. Middle English can be quite intimidating to read, especially when it has been a while. Pronunciation is quite similar to German. Enough of that. Chaucer is quite tounge in cheek while describing these "pilgrims" heading to pay homage in Canterbury to St. Thomas Becket. These seem to be pilgrims of a questionable nature. They are all so far affiliated with the church yet do not seem to be holy people at all, but some very self serving citizens of the world putting on quite the show for the people around them. Chaucer is painting a very interesting visual of those that potentially participate in such journeys. I think it is showing a very real picture of how people who were supposed to be without fault are actually real people, with faults, desires and secrets.

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  14. This is my first time reading Chaucer’s work and by far the biggest challenge was understanding the language it’s written in. Once translated it was much more entertaining and overall enjoyable. I think what stands out most to me when reading pieces of old English is seeing the transformation of the English language from what it was to what it is today.

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  15. I found this extremely difficult to read. But as many others said up above once it was translated, it became much easier. Chaucer was something that was extremely funny to read if you could pick up on his sarcasm. All I can say is THANK GOD FOR TRANSLATIONS!

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  16. Geoffrey Chaucer uses The Canterbury Tales to paint an ironic but informative portrait of English society at the time. In the prologue of The Canterbury Tales, we learn the reason why Canterbury was significant to the people of England. People travelled from all over to the city of Canterbury, where is was said that the remains of a Christian martyr named Thomas Beckett had laid. It was believed that Beckett had the power of healing which shows throughout the story. The belief in a higher power is always significant in Chaucer’s work.

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