Pursuing Chaucer

Whether you’re officially enrolled as student, or just have a desire to learn, Chaucer can prove to be an endlessly fascinating subject.

The diversity of his subject matter has been an education for me. Each time I started researching a new pilgrim—I looked at each one individually—I would find myself digging into material I’d never seen before. With one, it was medical information. I read a book written by a prominent doctor in 1368. I still shudder to think of medical practices described. Another pilgrim got me into the making of books and inks. The more you learn about 14th-century life, the better you’ll understand Chaucer’s words and images.

For example, reading the poet’s Treatise on the Astrolabe tells you a lot about his knowledge of the stars and planets. It also helps if you understand some of the complexities of medieval Catholicism. In city after city the magnificent “gothic” cathedrals could be seen under construction. Claims as Peter’s successors were made by rival popes (one in Rome--one in Avignon) persisting into the 1400s. The threat of heresy was fought against with the cruelty of the Inquisition. And the tremendous significance of the Eucharist in everyday life is a challenge for us moderns to comprehend.
The Hundred Years War devastated mainly France for decades. The Black Plague struck down kings and commoners in repeated waves of death all across Chaucer’s world. His existence could hardly be called dull.
Life was hazardous. For a poet to create a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, for a visit to the shrine of the heroic Thomas a Becket, seems quite natural.

Chaucer’s words, the ones HE chose, are the important thing. When his poetry, or any medieval poetry, is rendered in Modern English, you lose much of the intention because there is no one-to-one correspondence between many of the medieval words and the ones we use today. As a fluent speaker of Middle English, Chaucer must have known all the connotations. Yet, today a word of many definitions will often be set forth with only one up-to-date meaning. A Modern English version will still entertain you, because Chaucer is eminently entertaining. But, for example, if his word “blankmanger,” which holds the potential of white manger, is rendered as “chicken pudding” because the medieval word also refers to food—we’ve lost the image of the manger entirely.

Fear of having to read Middle English can cause some readers to be prejudiced against Chaucer and other medieval writers, to avoid them altogether. Reason to fear is overestimated. The contours of 14th century English words are different from many of ours—but they are still very recognizable. Thousands are recognizable! If you say attencioun, would you guess it was attention? How about “Oute of sighte, out of minde”? If you guessed “Out of sight, out of mind,” you were right. What I’m referring to is reading the Middle English words seen on the page of a book. I’m not talking about pronouncing it. We’re taking one thing at a time.

Reading Middle English to yourself is nothing to be afraid of. Pronouncing it is a different story. But it’s not a horror story. As a matter of fact, it gets rather amusing. There are different “schools” of pronunciation that are encouraged. Follow your instructor’s lead (if you have one), or get a recording to guide you. You can even hear it read on the web! What is amusing is that advocates of one dialect will officially debate with champions of another dialect. Each will insist he is right. Who knows for sure? A friend who attended a conference where the fine points of Middle English pronunciation were the topic of a panel discussion, was so confused by all the insistences that she exited the room in a dither. Seeing a distinguished scholar in a lounge chair in the adjoining lobby, she blurted out her frustration to him. “I don’t know WHAT they’re talking about!” Unperturbed, he responded, “Neither do they.”
Virginia Adair tells me her father used to read Middle English aloud with great pleasure. He’d never learned rules of pronunciation; he was guided by common sense. So, fear not. Decide on the “school” of your choice—and enjoy.

The newly-completed Middle English Dictionary brings us additional knowledge of the Middle Ages. It was a labor of love—it couldn’t have been less—from the 1930s until the summer of 2001. It is the grand accomplishment of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Never before was there such an extensive study of our language in the period from 1100 to 1500. If you haven’t used it or seen it, check your local college or university. Many will have a copy in the reference area. It contains more than two million entries, runs to almost 15,000 pages and takes nearly four feet of shelf space. The MED is my favorite research tool.

Lastly, if you like games, I’m offering you a chance to have the feeling of discovery I experienced. That discovery is what set me on my Chaucer quest. If you’ll e-mail me, with the subject “Chaucer riddle,” I’ll send you a copy of a game that has been played on the internet all across the US, as well as in places like Japan and England and the Canary Islands. You don’t need any special knowledge of Chaucer or the Middle Ages. You just have to be willing to let your imagination be your guide. I hope I hear from you. Actually, the game first went public with an AP high school class. What an exciting afternoon! They wrote their reactions along the edges of pages I handed out. I’ve included a few of their comments for you to read.