Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote…
With these words, Geoffrey Chaucer begins the Canterbury Tales, a collection of lyrical stories told by a group of medieval pilgrims traveling to Canterbury. Originally written in Middle English (the medieval forerunner of our modern language), the Canterbury Tales remains one of the most elaborate and brilliant works of the English poetic art. Since today is Whan That Aprille Day 2017 and the start of National Poetry Month, it’s fitting for us to look back and celebrate this monumental piece that’s been a literary cornerstone for centuries.
The plot of the Canterbury Tales rests on the simple truth that travel during Chaucer’s day was a tedious, boring affair. To pass the time on the road, thirty of Chaucer’s fictional pilgrims compete to see who can tell the best story, agreeing that the winner will eat a lavish dinner paid for by the twenty-nine losers. Each character jockeys to tell a tale more elegant, outrageous, or pious than the last, and the pilgrims often discuss or debate between each story. Although Chaucer died before he finished the collection (completing only a fraction of his planned tales), he still managed to create colorful stories that explore and illustrate the scope of many topics, a few of which are below:
A wide array of medieval people comprises the group of pilgrims, and they depict even more types of people in their tales. Characters range from a dignified knight, to an outspoken divorcée, to a drunken miller. As the tales progress, each pilgrim shows his or her own passions and prejudices, reflecting different aspects of human nature. They develop as people and become more complex—just as we do throughout our lives—questioning each other and developing their own loves and hatreds. As we watch them interact, we begin to see some of them in ourselves or people we know, giving us a chance to evaluate, consider, and (at times) appreciate our own personalities and actions.
The Canterbury Tales stands as a combination of both popular entertainment and literary art. Its stories include sincere romances, knightly quests, and rowdy low-brow comedies, so most readers (medieval and modern) have found that they enjoy at least one. Chaucer also guides his readers through the emotional spectrum, creating moments of explosive hilarity or deep emotion within mere lines of each other. As many literary writers do, he deals with his contemporary society, and he isn’t afraid to praise its strengths, denounce its failings, and mock it (and his characters) to prove a point. While his primary goal is to regale his readers, Chaucer satirizes and philosophies numerous topics, which creates a thought-provoking, often-humorous experience as well.
3. Medieval History
Although the characters of the Canterbury Tales are purely fictional, their actions and stories tell us much about culture and life in the Middle Ages. The societal expectations and stereotypes of Chaucer’s day are illustrated in their interactions and judgments of each other. The rivalries that form between them also reflect the many levels of tension in medieval society: educated versus uneducated, noble versus commoner, church law versus societal desires, etc. The stories’ topics show the fears and hopes of medieval people. Some even display the discrimination and chauvinism that existed; while we might (and should) be unsettled by such concepts, they’re a valuable window into times past, as is much of the book.
4. Middle English
In the original Middle English, the Canterbury Tales is an example of the English language in all its nonsensicality and admirable beauty. Not only does Chaucer craft thousands of rhyming couplets, he bends the language to do so, playing on words’ meanings and twisting phrases. His verse flows effortlessly across the page in a testament to the frustrating nebulousness, grammatical resilience, and deranged elegance of his—and, by extension, our—English.
As we celebrate poetry and language on Whan That Aprille Day, it’s worth returning to a work that provides so much to appreciate. The Canterbury Tales is one such work. As one of the pieces that helped define Middle English, it left an undeniable mark on the English language, and its insights into culture and human nature continue to inspire artists and readers. So, take today to celebrate the poetic art and try something new: pick up the Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English and give it a shot. And be sure to tip your hat to Chaucer, the medieval poetic master who wrote such a spectrum of tales!
Many editions of the Canterbury Tales can be found online. Those who’d like to try Middle English will appreciate Harvard University’s great interlinear translation. For those who’d prefer a Modern English version, I recommend Ecker and Crook’s rhyming translation.
Resources for Reading Middle English
- John Gardner’s short guide on how to pronounce words and sounds
- Harvard University’s series of online lessons for learning the basics of pronunciation and grammar
- The Middle English Dictionary, a comprehensive guide to the language—great for looking up words and quotations