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Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote ...
GEOFFREY CHAUCER'S CANTERBURY TALES opens on a green spring morning beside the River Thames, towards the end of the fourteenth century. Birds are singing, the sap is rising, and a group of travellers gathers in the Tabard Inn-one of the rambling wooden hostelries with stables and dormitory-like bedrooms round a courtyard, that clustered around the southern end of London Bridge. At first hearing, Chaucer's 'English' sounds foreign, but in its phrasing we can detect the rhythms and wording of our own speech, especially if we read it aloud, as people usually did six hundred years ago: 'Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages ...'
The pilgrimage was the package holiday of the Middle Ages, and Chaucer imagines a group of holidaymakers in search of country air, leisurely exercise and spiritual refreshment at England's premier tourist attraction, the tomb of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury: a brawny miller tootling on his bagpipes; a grey-eyed prioress daintily feeding titbits to her lapdogs; a poor knight whose chain mail has left smudgings of rust on his tunic. To read Geoffrey Chaucer is to be transported back in time, to feel the skin and clothes-and sometimes, even, to smell the leek- or onion-laden breath-of people as they went about their daily business in what we call the Middle Ages. For them, of course, it was 'now', one of the oldest words in the English language.
The host of the Tabard, the innkeeper Harry Bailey, suggests a story-telling competition to enliven the journey-free supper to the winner-and so we meet the poor knight, the dainty prioress and the miller, along with a merchant, a sea captain, a cook, and twenty other deeply believable characters plucked from the three or four million or so inhabitants of King Richard II's England. Chaucer includes himself as one of the pilgrims, offering to entertain the company with a rhyming tale of his own. But scarcely has he started when he is cut short by Harry the host:
'By God,' quod he, 'for pleynly, at a word,
Thy drasty ryming is nat worth a toord!'
It is lines like these that have won Chaucer his fondly rude niche in the English folk memory. People's eyes light up at the mention of THE CANTERBURY TALES, as they recall embarrassed schoolteachers struggling to explain words like 'turd' and to bypass tales of backsides being stuck out of windows. 'Please, sir, what is this "something" that is "rough and hairy"?'
In one passage Chaucer describes a friar (or religious brother, from the French word FRèRE) who, while visiting hell in the course of a dream, is pleased to detect no trace of other friars, and complacently concludes that all friars must go to heaven.
'Oh NO, we've got millions of them here!' an angel corrects him, pointing to the Devil's massively broad tail:
'Hold up thy tayl, thou Satanas!' quod he,
'Shewe forth thyn ers, and lat the frere se ...'
Whereupon twenty thousand friars swarm out of the Devil's ERS and fly around hell like angry bees, before creeping back inside their warm and cosy home for eternity.
In gathering for a pilgrimage, Chaucer's travellers were taking part in a Church-inspired ritual. But the poet's message was that the Church-the massive nationalised industry that ran the schools and hospitals of medieval England as well as its worship-was in serious trouble. While his imaginary company of pilgrims included a pious Oxford cleric and a parish priest who was a genuinely good shepherd to his flock, it also included men who were only too happy to make a corrupt living out of God's service on earth: a worldly monk who liked to feast on roast swan; a pimpled 'Summoner' who took bribes from sinners NOT to summon them to the church courts; and a 'Pardoner' who sold bogus relics like the veil of the Virgin Mary (actually an old pillowcase) and a rubble of pig's bones that he labelled as belonging to various saints. Buy one of these, was the message of this medieval insurance salesman, and you would go straight to heaven.
Chaucer humorously but unsparingly describes a country where almost everything is for sale. Four decades earlier England's population had been halved by the onslaught of the 'Black Death'-the bubonic plague that would return several more times before the end of the century-and the consequence of this appalling tragedy had been a sharp-elbowed economic scramble among the survivors. Wages had risen, plague-cleared land was going cheap. For a dozen years before he wrote THE CANTERBURY TALES Chaucer had lived over the Aldgate, or 'Old Gate', the most easterly of the six gates in London's fortified wall, and from his windows in the arch he had been able to look down on the changing scene. In 1381 the angry men of Essex had come and gone through the Aldgate, waving their billhooks-the 'mad multitude' known to history as the ill-fated Peasants' Revolt. During the plague years the city's iron-wheeled refuse carts had rumbled beneath the poet's floorboards with their bouncing heaps of corpses, heading for the limepits.
Chaucer paints the keen detail of this reviving community in a newly revived language-the spoken English that the Norman Conquest had threatened to suppress. Written between 1387 and 1400, the year of Chaucer's death, THE CANTERBURY TALES is one of the earliest pieces of English that is intelligible to a modern ear. For three hundred years English had endured among the ordinary people, and particularly among the gentry. Even in French-speaking noble households Anglo-Saxon wives and local nursemaids had chattered to children in the native language. English had survived because it was literally the mother tongue, and it was in these post-plague years that it reasserted itself. In 1356 the Mayor of London decreed that English should be the language of council meetings, and in 1363 the Lord Chancellor made a point of opening Parliament in English-not, as had previously been the case, in the language of the enemy across the Channel.
Geoffrey Chaucer's cheery and companionable writing sets out the ideas that are the themes of this volume. In the pages that follow we shall trace the unstoppable spread of the English language-carried from England in the course of the next few centuries to the far side of the world. We shall see men and women reject the commerce of the old religion, while making fortunes from the new. And as they change their views about God, they will also change their views profoundly about the authority of kings and earthly power. They will sharpen their words and start freeing their minds-and in embarking upon that, they will also begin the uncertain process of freeing themselves.
Excerpted from Great Tales From English History (Vol. 2) by Robert Lacey Copyright © 2004 by Robert Lacey. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted August 5, 2009
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