Middle English, a phase in the evolution of the English language spanning approximately from the late 11th to the late 15th century, serves as a window into the linguistic, cultural, and social transformations that occurred in England following the Norman Conquest. Geoffrey Chaucer, often hailed as the "Father of English literature," is one of the most prominent figures from this era. His work, notably "The Canterbury Tales," is celebrated for its rich use of Middle English and its reflection of mediaeval society.
Understanding Middle English
Middle English evolved from Old English after the Norman Conquest in 1066, incorporating a significant amount of Norman French vocabulary and influences. It was characterized by considerable dialectal variation, a result of the regional divisions of Anglo-Saxon England and the impact of Scandinavian and Norman invasions. This period saw the gradual standardization of English, culminating in the emergence of Chancery Standard in the 15th century, which heavily influenced modern English.
1 Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
When April with its sweet-smelling showers
“Showers” mean “rains”
2 The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
Has pierced the drought of March to the root,
“Drought” comes from the word “dry”. March is dry as opposed to April that brings rains.
3 And bathed every veyne in swich licour
And bathed every vein (of the plants) in such liquid
Plants are compared to people and water to their ‘blood’ that runs through their veins.
4 Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
By which power the flower is created;
5 Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
When the West Wind also with its sweet breath,
Zephyrus is the Greek god of western wind.
6 Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
In every wood and field has breathed life into
7 The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
The tender new leaves, and the young sun
8 Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
Has run half its course in Aries,
Aries is a Zodiac sign that runs from the end of March to mid-April.
9 And smale foweles maken melodye,
And small fowls make melody,
It is interesting that ‘fowls’ is another word for ‘birds’.
10 That slepen al the nyght with open ye
Those that sleep all the night with open eyes
11 (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages),
(So Nature incites them in their hearts),
It is in this particular part of the year when nature celebrates the transition to Spring, that the pilgrims tend to start their journey to Canterbury, where the relics of Thomas Becket, also known as Saint Thomas of Canterbury, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until his murder in 1170. Following his death, Becket was venerated as a martyr and saint by the Christian Church, and his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral became a major pilgrimage destination. Pilgrims sought to visit his shrine as, according to their belief, praying at his tomb could lead to spiritual benefits, such as the forgiveness of sins, healing, and miracles
12 Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
Then folk long to go on pilgrimages,
13 And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
And professional pilgrims to seek foreign shores,
14 To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
To distant shrines, known in various lands;
15 And specially from every shires ende
And specially from every shire's end
16 Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
Of England to Canterbury they travel,
17 The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
To seek the holy blessed martyr,
18 That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
Who helped them when they were sick.
(G. Chaucer “The Canterbury Tales”)
Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400) and "The Canterbury Tales"
The Pardoner's Tale
"The Pardoner's Tale" is a moral story that reveals the corruption and hypocrisy of the church at the time. The pardoner, who admits to his own deceitfulness in selling indulgences—pardons for sins—tells a tale condemning greed. The story follows three rioters who set out to kill Death, only to find gold and eventually meet their tragic end due to their own greed. This tale is notable for its exploration of themes like avarice, death, and the moral blindness of humanity. Full of irony an humour, this tale is one of my personal favourites.
Examples of Middle English from "The Pardoner's Tale"
Here are a few lines from "The Pardoner's Tale" that showcase the Middle English language:
"Radix malorum est Cupiditas" (The root of evils is greediness).
"Thanne sholde we lyve in as greet murye as in helle"
(Then we should live in as great merriment as in hell).
"For dronkenesse is verray sepulture
Of mannes wit and his discrecioun"
(For drunkenness is the true burial
Of a man's wit and his discretion).
These excerpts highlight the linguistic characteristics of Middle English, such as its spelling, vocabulary, and syntax, which differ significantly from modern English but also show the roots of the language we know today.
The Legacy of Middle English and Chaucer
The study of Middle English and Chaucer's works provides invaluable insights into the linguistic and cultural heritage of the English-speaking world. Chaucer's use of the vernacular Middle English, rather than Latin or French, for literary expression was revolutionary at the time and contributed significantly to the development of English as a legitimate literary language.
Chaucer's Middle English is a bridge to the past, offering a glimpse into the mediaeval mind, its worldviews, humour, and tragedies. Through "The Canterbury Tales," and especially "The Pardoner's Tale," modern readers can connect with the human experiences and societal issues of the 14th century, which, in many ways, are not so different from our own. Chaucer even tells the reader directly that he would dedicate special attention to the description of the characters of the story.
36 Er that I ferther in this tale pace,
Before I proceed further in this tale,
37 Me thynketh it acordaunt to resoun
It seems to me in accord with reason
38 To telle yow al the condicioun
To tell you all the circumstances
39 Of ech of hem, so as it semed me,
Of each of them, as it seemed to me,
40 And whiche they weren, and of what degree,
And who they were, and of what social rank,
41 And eek in what array that they were inne;
And also what clothing that they were in;
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