The Bout of Books Readathon has started off very well, with me finishing the last 150 pages of Hunchback of Notre Dame last night, and beginning Lucky Jim (am 50 or so pages in). I'll write more on that in a different post once 'Day One' is officially over, because for now I want to write about The Canterbury Tales.
I am so excited by this. Last night, having finished Hunchback, I read 'The General Prologue' and found it absolutely mind blowing. I've decided to read the Complete Tales, and am using this website to fill in the 'missing tales' that my various abridged versions do not include. A part of me wondered if it was a sensible endeavour. I have had luck with Chaucer before, and remember enjoy studying the 'Wife of Bath' at A' Level, so I ought to have had no qualms in picking it up again. Thankfully they were unfounded.
That is not to say it is an easy read. Like Finnegans Wake, I read it aloud, but I do believe that this is absolutely essential (if your are unfamiliar with Tales, you could if you like perhaps try reading aloud the bits I've quoted here). I don't see the merit in reading it in my head, and besides, it makes the whole thing much easier to understand.
I want to write a few notes, which you perhaps might find interesting, but I must say I'm also writing for my own reference, so you mustn't feel patronised by this post! Whilst 'The General Prologue' was indeed exciting, enjoyable, and thoroughly engaging, this is written in Middle English, so there is a lot of work involved in simply holding on to it. Oh, and it's so thrilling to read this!
It was written in the 14th Century, around 1387 it is believed. The Prologue sets the scene, and I'm sure you understand, reading and engaging with 'the scene' that was written over six hundred years ago as contemporary fiction is as I say utterly mind blowing. Think, this is as it was, it's believed to be a realistic portrayal, and it is so vivid. The characters are varied - there are twenty-nine, and representing a different sphere of society, and they're all making their way to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.
The Prologue opens with the much-quoted lines,
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
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(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;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.
|Canterbury Cathedral in modern times.|
It's beautiful, and invokes so clearly the excitement that spring brings.
Chaucer goes on to describe resting in The Tabard, when twenty-nine pilgrims appear, also heading for Canterbury. He tells of them all, beginning with 'The Knight', "a worthy man", "a verray parfit gentil knyght".
... he loved chivalrie,Chivalry, truth and honour, freedom and courtesy. He is well-travelled, meek, and simply dressed - "But for to tellen yow of his array, / His hors weren goode, but he was nat gay." Recently returning from a voyage ("For he was late ycome fron his viage"), he decides to go on the pilgrimage.
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie
Next, the Squire is introduced, "A lovyere and a lusty bacheler", well-travelled also, and very well-presented:
Embrouded was he, as it were a meede,Embroidered he was, as if he were a meadow bright, / All full of fresh-cut flowers red and white. / Singing he was, or whistling, all the day; / He was as fresh as is the month of May.
Al ful of fresshe floures whyte and reede;
Syngynge he was, or floytynge, al the day,
He was as fressh as is the month of May.
The Squire's servant (Yeoman) is next described dressed in green with peacock arrows - "And he was clad in cote and hood of grene, / A sheef of pecok arwes bright and kene".
|The Prioress's Tale, Burne Jones|
She was so charitable and so pitous,"yerde smerte" - I had to look that one up, it means hit with a stick. And, actually, it was particularly pertinant for me right now, because one of my neighbours has mice and she's insisting on using mouse traps, which I loathe. She, also, is beautifully dressed, with a coral bracelet, green beads, and a golden brooch -
She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous
Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or blede.
Of smale houndes hadde she, that she fedde
With rosted flessh, or milk, or wastel-breed.
But sore weep she if oon of hem were deed,
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte;
And al was conscience, and tendre herte.
Of smal coral aboute her arm she bar"Amor vincit omnia" - Love Conquers All (Latin). This is not my image of a medieval nun, and I've read suggestions that she is in the clergy for social status. I'm particularly looking forward to her Prologue and Tale.
A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene,
And theron heng a brooch of gold ful sheene,
On which ther was first write a crowned 'A',
And after, 'Amor vincit omnia'.
The Monk follows the Prioress, and his clothes are also described - fine grey fur, with a golden pin:
With grys, and that the fyneste of a lond;
I seigh his sleves ypurfiled at the hond
And to festne his hood under his chin
He hadde of gold ywroght a curious pyn;
A love-knotte in the gretter ende ther was....The Monk is a hunter: "he was a prikasour aright" ("prikasour" - horeseman or hunter), and cares not for any suggestion that hunting is unChristian - "He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen, / That seith that hunters beth nat hooly men". Again, he is not quite in fitting with the perception of the Medieval clergy, and Chaucer writes,
What sholde he studie, and make hymselven wood,Austin refers to the Augustinian order, of which there are three others: the Dominicians (Blackfriars), Franciscans (Greyfriars), and Carmelites (Whitefriars). Like the Dominicans, the Augustinian order also wore black, however they were, I believe, the only order who went into the community, and they would beg for their food, giving the surplas to the poor. During Chaucer's time, it was believed that this system was somewhat abused, and by the Monk's dress, it is clear he is one of the abusers. Along with the Prioress, it would seem that chaucer was a little cynical of the clergy!
Upon a book in cloystre alwey to poure,
Or swynken with his handes and laboure,
As Austyn bit? How shal the world be served?
Lat Austyn have his swynk to him reserved!
Following the Monk there is the Friar, and then the Merchant, whose description is brief. Chaucer writes,
For sothe, he was a worthy man with-alle,(Indeed, he was a worthy man withall, / But, to tell the truth, his name I can't recall).
But, sooth to seyn, I noot how men hym calle.
A clerk ther was of Oxenford also,He speaks very concisely, according to Chaucer - "Not oo word spak he more than was neede / And that was said in form and reverence / And short and quick, and full of heigh setence". "High sentence" meaning of deep significance.
That unto logyk hadde longe ygo.
As leene was his hors as is a rake,
And he nas nat right fat, I undertake,
But looked holwe and therto sobrely.
Ful thredbare was his overeste courtepy;
For he hadde geten hym yet no benefice,
Ne was so worldly for to have office.
For hym was levere have at his beddes heed
Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,
Of Aristotle and his philosophie
At this point, I have to say it is a little overwhelming, this constant (almost onslaught!) of characters. One after another after another makes it hard to keep track, and the confusion I suppose would reflect Chaucer, the narrator of the Prologue. Once alone in a tavern, and now surrounded by twenty-nine travellers. So far, around three hundred lines in, we have met The Knight, The Squire, The Yeoman, The Prioress, The Second Nun and Three Priests (only referred to in one line), The Monk, The Friar, The Merchant, and The Clerk: twelve of the twenty-nine. So, I think perhaps here I should close and write more later in the week!
Still to come, then, are The Franklin, The Haberdasher, Carpenter, Arras-maker, Dyer and Weaver, The Cook, The Shipman, The Physician, The Wife of Bath, The Parson, The Plowman, The Miller, The Manciple, The Reeve, The Summoner, and The Pardoner. Also, I want to write on the proposal and rules - how they agreed to all tell their tales.