History by Day: April 17



In 1397

Geoffrey Chaucer's words took wing

When he recited "The Canterbury Tales"

In the court of the king.*

*King Richard II who reigned from 1377 to 1399.  Richard's court cultivated art and literature. It was customary for courtiers---Chaucer being one---to read their poetry to a royal audience.  But Chaucer wrote about his pilgrims in English, the vernacular, instead of the  Norman French of the ruling class.  English was spoken by the peasants who had revolted 16 years before in the Peasants' Rebellion or Wat Tyler's Revolt. This was the first popular uprising in English history. Ironically, Tyler marched a group of rebels from Canterbury to  London to oppose the institution of a poll tax and demand economic and social reforms. Below is a translation into Modern English  of the opening lines of the Prologue of "The Canterbury Tales" which was written in Chaucer's Middle English.

When April with his showers sweet with fruit

The drought of March has pierced unto the root

And bathed each vein with liquor that has power

To generate therein and sire the flower;

When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,

Quickened again, in every holt and heath,

The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun

Into the Ram one half his course has run,

And many little birds make melody

That sleep through all the night with open eye

(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-

Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,

And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,

To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.

And specially from every shire's end

Of England they to Canterbury wend,

The holy blessed martyr there to seek

Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak.


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  • Thank you! A way into Chaucer at last! I have always been defeated by trying to translate and haven't gotten into the tales themselves.

  • Great post, AW! I did not know that about the vernacular English.
    I had a professor in college who could recite the prologue in Middle English. It was beautiful. The characters are from all walks of life, too. Thank you!

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