Thursday, March 15, 2012

Chaucer: “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne”

Although he lived in the middle ages, Chaucer was a "Renaissance man"—courtier (to Edward III and Richard II), diplomat, government official, astronomer, and poet. About 75 years after Chaucer's death, The Canterbury Tales was selected by William Caxton to be one of the first books to be printed in England. Few other poems welcome spring with such élan:
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes.
For people seeking to dip their toe into our ancestral tongue or to hone their skills further, have a go at our Chaucer's English Knowledge Cards. Amaze your friends and family! Pass your "Intro to Chaucer" pronunciation exam! Or at least sound convincing when you're doing medieval re-enactments.
Chaucer's other great work is of course Troilus and Cressida; an illustration from William Morris's 1896 Kelmscott Press edition appears below.
 The illumination at left depicts Chaucer reading Troilus and Criseyde to the court of Richard II. According to the University of Glasgow Special Collections, from which comes the 1526 woodcut below,
"An historical romance, its tragic love story takes place during the Trojan War, an event favoured by many medieval writers. It has been suggested that this is the work by which Chaucer himself would have liked to have been remembered. It was certainly written when he was at the height of his career and public fame as a poet, and, according to Pearsall, it is self-consciously and deliberately his masterpiece. It was based on the Filostrato by Boccaccio, a work which would have scandalized its contemporary readers as being both thoroughly modern and quite wicked in its unrestrained depiction of sexual love. Chaucer’s version was probably the talk of the court in the 1380s."
The court reacting to Chaucer's wicked, sexy story.
For those who enjoy Middle English (fess up!), Chaucer Hath a Blog is worth its weight in benes yfryed (fried beans) or puddyng of purpaysse  (stuffed porpoise stomach). A short digression: in medieval times, fruits and vegetables were commonly cooked because it was believed that eating them raw caused disease. (A misconception as unfortunate as future centuries' horror of bathing). The Boke of Kervynge (carving), written in 1500, warns the cook to "beware of green sallettes and rawe fruytes for they wyll make your soverayne seke." But back to the blogosphere: I was thoroughly entertained (and impressed) by an interview conducted in Chaucer's idiom by the esteemed Canadian author "Margareth Atte-Woode." Is there anything that woman can't do?


  1. “And what is better than wisedoom (wisdom)? Woman. And what is better than a good woman? Nothing

    From Canterbury Tales”
    ― Geoffrey Chaucer

    I totally dig this Chaucer line!!!!

    1. Love this quote! Right on Penny!

  2. I going to get those Chaucer's English Knowledge Cards, so I can impress my friends!!! I wonder how this will go over haha

  3. Great stuff! You really sent me on a rewarding scavenger hunt. Check out these spoils... (Great innocent fun)
    AND (Takes a while, but...)

    1. P.S. - The youtube clip above is great but... it may be the scariest thing I've heard since Halloween:)

    2. I should have listened ... mea culpa! It sounds like a dirge!! Have to find something better...

    3. I think I will replace the ghoul guy with your rap man!