From Old English to Middle English

    Old English came to England as the West Germanic languages of Angles and Saxons. After about 790, more and more Danes and Norwegian “Vikings” settled in northern and eastern England, as well as Scotland and Ireland. Alfred, leader of mostly Saxon Wessex in the south, succeeded in bringing these new arrivals into the Church and united them with English-speaking society around 880. Meanwhile, other Norwegian settlers had found a new home in western France. Coming from the North, these became known as Normans (North men) and the region in France where they lived received their name, Normandy. In 1066, William of Normandy claimed the throne of England after the death of Edward the Confessor and won it in the Battle of Hastings against Harold. This whole saga is the subject of the Bayeux Tapestry.

    William took control of England, and gave its land to his companions without regard for the rights and legal titles of the Anglo-Saxons. To ensure security, they constructed great stone castles inside which they had their living quarters. The entire ruling class of England (in state and Church) was of Norman origin, spoke French, and had strong roots in France. For almost 150 years, the English language was spoken but not written. The government of England was done using French while Latin was the language of the Church and of legal records. During this time, the English language grew simpler in grammar and slowly began to absorb many new words from French and Latin. Today that new language is called “Middle English.”

    In France and in the French-speaking English court, literature developed. The old heroic poems were soon overshadowed by “romances” in which stories of knights’ heroic deeds of “chivalry” gave equal importance to their “courtesy.”  Romances set in the court of King Arthur  with its Round Table developed, first in verse thanks to Chretien de Troyes, then in prose. The great love story of Tristan and Iseult was expanded into a huge prose romance clearly designed to entertain rich people with much spare time. Love thus became as important a theme as heroism, and more interesting because it led to intense self-analysis and reflection on the tension between passion and one's social obligations. This new experience of "romantic love" (courtly love) first developed in the poems written by the troubadors in southern France (Provence).

  13th century English society saw some vital developments. Early in the century King John lost the trust of the barons (most powerful lords) by his poor rule. In 1215, they and the merchants of London joined to force the king to sign an agreement guaranteeing their rights and freedom, Magna Carta. This document became a powerful symbol of the limitations of the English monarch in later centuries and has been celebrated in the United States as the origin of the ideals of equality and justice. By limiting and defining the power of the king, as well as by bringing together landowners and city merchants, it played a major role in the development of the English system of government. This was in contrast to the day in 1170 when King Henry II was so sure of his power that he sent knights to murder the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, who had challenged what he felt were his rights. He was wrong, as it happened, and the Church brought him to his knees.

  John might have tried a come-back but died the next year. Hie son Henry III was only 9 and grew up under the control of the nobles. When he became fully king he began to spend much money financing the Pope's wars and enjoying himself. In 1258, the earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort, led a revolt. The nobles elected a council, called parliament (discussion meeting) which took control of the nation's finances, derived from taxes paid by the merchants. In 1265, the king and his allied nobles defeated Simon de Montfort and killed him. Henry died in 1272.

  The new king, Edward I, saw that most of his father's income came not from dues paid by the nobility but from taxes, paid by people involved in business in the cities. Legally, taxes could only be demanded if those taxed agreed, there was no traditional legal obligation for them to give the king money. The earlier Council was composed of lords. In 1275, Edward summoned a parliament that would include representatives of the "commons" --  "gentry" (land-owning knights from the rural areas) and city merchants. This became the House of Commons and its mixed composition made it unique in Europe. From the start, it was agreed that all laws (statutes) and taxes had to be agreed by the two houses of parliament (lords and commons), that the king could not make or change laws or levy taxes otherwise.

    During the 12th and 13th centuries, cities expanded; a free class of rich merchants began to develop there, universities were founded in Paris, Bologna, Oxford and Cambridge, much changed. Great "Gothic" cathedrals were built across Europe. Philosophers learned Greek from the Arabs and translated the works of Aristotle into Latin. The logic and interest in distinguishing between categories they learned from him gave birth to the systematic theology known as “Scholasticism.” By the later 13th century, the members of the high classes in England were speaking English as their first language, although most could also speak and read French.

In the late 13th and early 14th centuries in Italy, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) showed that his native Italian was as capable as Latin of expressing deep emotions and thoughts, in the Divine Comedy, especially.

The 14th century

    From about 1350, two other Italians were continuing his task: Petrarch and Boccaccio. Dante took the love lyrics that had first been composed by the troubadors of southern France (Provence) and applied their conventions in writing about the lady he was devoted to, Beatrice, in his Vita Nuova. Petrarch is commonly known as the “Father of Christian Humanism,” the founder of the Italian Renaissance. As a poet writing (like Dante) in Italian, he composed his Canzoniere to celebrate a woman named Laura. Like Beatrice, Laura died in her youth and the devotion of both poets is idealistic, even mystical. In addition to writing long narrative poems that Chaucer adapted in his Troilus and Criseyde and the “Knight’s Tale,” Boccaccio gave renaissance Europe a collection of stories about the fall of great men, De Casibus, that established the almost senseless fall of a great man from prosperity to ruin as the essence of tragedy.

The 14th century was a turbulent century for England and France. In 1327 King Edward II was forced by Parliament to abdicate for failing to rule effectively. He was murdered in prison soon after. His young son became Edward III who in 1338 launched a military campaign against France, the start of what is know as the Hundred Years' War. The claim was that the king of England was the legal king of France. The main reason for the war was in fact a need to provide the nobility of England with opportunities for plunder and ransom. In 1346, the English army, armed with longbows, defeated the French at Crecy, killing many of the leading noblemen.

In 1347-8 the whole of Europe fell victim to the Black Death, which killed between 30 and 50% of the population, leaving some villages completely empty. It is only amazing that society continued to function during such a terrible plague.

Edward III's eldest son, the Black Prince, was a ferocious fighter who had won major battles at Bordeaux and Poitiers in 1355-6 but he died suddenly in 1376, and Edward III died in1377. The new king was the son of the Black Prince, Richard II, but he was only 10. He ruled with great difficulty, opposed fiercely by his uncle Thomas, duke of Gloucester. Richard's only glorious moment came when he confronted the rebel army of peasants during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, aged only 14. Richard wanted peace with France, so he married a French princess in 1396, though she was only 8. Thomas of Gloucester, hostile to peace, prepared to depose Richard so Richard ordered his murder. Also involved in this plot was Richard's cousin, Henry, son of John of Gaunt, who was sent into exile. On hearing of the death of his father, fearing to lose all his property, Henry raised an army, invaded England and deposed Richard. He was murdered in prison soon after. Henry IV had to confront a number of revolts led by other lords. His son Henry V returned to France and won a famous battle at Agincourt in 1415. He too wed a French princess and it was agreed their son should be king of both England and France. But Henry died when that son was only 6 months old and the ensuing struggle for power led to the Wars of the Roses. Meanwhile, Joan of Arc helped give new courage to the French and England was driven out of France.

    Geoffrey Chaucer  (see also a separate large Introduction)

    Chaucer was born in London in 1343 or so, died in 1400. His family was a merchant family but he grew up in the royal court and spent his life in the king’s service. He knew Latin, French and Italian. Having twice been sent to Italy, he was able to bring back books by the 3 great Italian writers and translated (adapted) some of what he found in them. He also translated BoethiusConsolation of Philosophy from Latin.

His adaptation of Boccaccio’s Filocolo as Troilus and Crisseyde is a work on another scale altogether, 8239 lines of rhyme-royal (seven-line stanzas rhyming ababbcc) in five books, the first major work of English literature and sometimes called the first English novel on account of its concern with the characters' psychology.

The story comes from Boccaccio's Il Filostrato, and it is most intriguing that Chaucer nowhere mentions the name Boccaccio. Instead, in Troilus, he claims to be simply translating a work by a certain Lollius, wrongly assumed in the Middle Ages to have written about Troy, whereas he is in fact radically altering Boccaccio's story to make it deeper and more poetic.

When he began to write Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer was already fully aware of the need to make the English language into a poetic diction that would be as powerful in expressing emotion and reflexion as the other literary languages he knew. He was familiar with the writings of Ovid, Cicero, Virgil, Macrobius, Boethius, and Alain de Lisle in Latin, with Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio in Italian, with the Romance of the Rose and other French works, as well as with the native English romances. He had travelled, too, his mind was European. The opening lines of Troilus and Criseyde show why John Dryden called Chaucer the "father of English poetry" (in the Preface to his Fables Ancient and Modern of 1700):

    The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
    That was the king Priamus sone of Troye,
    In lovinge, how his aventures fellen
    Fro woe to wele, and after out of joie,
    My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
    Thesiphone, thou help me for t'endite
    These woful vers, that wepen as I write.

    To thee clepe I, thou goddess of torment,
    Thou cruel Furie, sorwing ever in peyne,
    Help me, that am the sorwful instrument,
    That helpeth loveres, as I can, to pleyne.
    For wel sit it, the sothe for to seyne,
    A woful wight to han a drery feere,
    And to a sorwful tale, a sory chere.

Chaucer was following in the footsteps of Dante in his attempt to form vernacular English into a poetic language able to stand beside the language of Virgil and the classics.

Troilus and Criseyde is set inside Troy during the Trojan War. In Book 1 of Chaucer's version, one of Priam's sons, Troilus, appears as a young warrior scornful of love, until he glimpses Criseyde in a temple. Love's arrow having wounded him, Troilus suddenly finds himself deeply in love with her. He withdraws to complain alone, but a friend of his, Pandare, overhears him and he admits he is in love with Criseyde. Pandare offers to help Troilus meet her.

Much time elapses as they slowly establish a relationship, until at last Pandare skillfully arranges for them to spend a night together. This represents the first movement, 'from woe to wele' a rise to happiness. Suddenly Criseyde learns that her father, a prophet who has fled to the Greeks, is arranging for her to leave Troy and join him. The lovers are separated by blind destiny. Once in the Greek camp, Criseyde soon turns for protection to a Greek Diomede and although she and Troilus exchange letters, soon she seems to forget him. One day Troilus finds a brooch he gave her fixed in a cloak he has torn from Diomede during the fighting, and knows that she has betrayed him. He tries to kill Diomede, but cannot. Suddenly the book seems to be over, since the love-tale is at an end:

    Go, little book, go, little myn tragedye,
    Ther God thy makere yet, er that he dye,
    So sende might to make in some comedye!
    But little book, no making thou n'envie,
    But subgit be to alle poesye;
    And kiss the steppes, whereas thou seest pace
    Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, Stace.

    The remaining stanzas seem to suggest Christian and moralizing readings of the story at odds with the main narratorial tone. Finally comes an invitation to "moral Gower, philosophical Strode" (Chaucer's friends) to correct the work if necessary, and a final prayer translated from Dante's Divine Comedy.

The Canterbury Tales

Once that was completed, he began to compose the Canterbury Tales, presented as a collection of very disparate stories of varying kinds related within the framework of a pilgrimage to Canterbury. A similar external “frame” is faound in Boccaccio’s Decameron but it is not sure that Chaucer knew that work directly. However, Chaucer never completed the Canterbury Tales, which remained unfinished at his death.

Chaucer offers in the Tales a great variety of literary forms, narratives of different kinds as well as other texts. The pilgrimage framework enriches each tale by setting it in relationship with others, but it would be a mistake to identify the narratorial voice of each tale too strongly with the individual pilgrim who is supposed to be telling it.

After the General Prologue, the Tales follow. The following is a brief outline of some of the most often studies tales.

The work begins with a General Prologue in which the narrator (Chaucer?) arrives at the Tabard Inn in Southwark to set out on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury, and meets other pilgrims there, whom he describes. In the second part of the General Prologue the inn-keeper proposes that each of the pilgrims tell stories along the road to Canterbury, two each on the way there, two more on the return journey, and that the best story earn the winner a free supper.

The start of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales in modernized spelling:

1: When that April with his showers soft
2: The drought of March has pierced to the root,
3: And bathed every vein in such liquor
4: Of which vertue engendred is the flower;
5: When Zephirus eek with his sweet breath
6: Inspired hath in every holt and heath
7: The tender crops, and the young sun
8: Hath in the Ram his half course run,
9: And small fowls make melody,
10: That sleep all the night with open eye
11: (So pricks them Nature in their corages);
12: Then long folk to go on pilgrimages,
13: And palmers for to seek strange strands,
14: To far-off hallows, couth in sundry lands;
15: And specially from every shires end
16: Of England to Canterbury they wend,
17: The holy blissful Martyr for to seek,
18: That them has holpen when that they were sick.

The Knight's Tale: a romance, a condensed version of Boccaccio's Teseida, set in ancient Athens. It tells of the love of two cousins, Palamon and Arcite, for the beautiful Emelye; the climax is a mock-battle, a tournament, the winner of which will win her; the gods Mars and Venus have both promised success to one of them. Arcite (servant of Mars) wins, but he dies of wounds after his horse has been frightened by a fury, and in the end Palamon (servant of Venus) marries Emelye. The tale explores the themes of determinism and freedom in ways reminiscent of the use of Boethius for the same purpose in Troilus and Criseyde.

The Miller's Prologue and Tale: a fabliau (coarse comic tale), about the cuckolding of John the Carpenter by an Oxford student, Nicholas, boarding with him and his wife Alison; Absolon, a young man from the local church, also tries to woo her, but is tricked into kissing her behind instead of her lips. Nicholas has deceived John into believing that Noah's Flood is about to come again, so John is asleep in a tub hanging high in the roof, ready to float to safety. Meanwhile Alison and Nicholas are in bed together. The climax of the tale is one of the finest comic moments in literature, when Absolon burns Nicholas's behind with a hot iron, Nicholas calls for water, John hears, thinks the flood has come, cuts the rope holding his tub, and crashes to the floor, breaking an arm. Only Alison escapes unscathed. The narrator offers no morality.

The Reeve's Prologue and Tale: a fabliau about the cuckolding of a miller told by the Reeve (who is a carpenter, and very angry with the Miller for his tale); two Cambridge students punish a dishonest miller by having sex with his wife and daughter while asleep all in one room. Again, the end involves violence, as the miller discovers what has happened but is struck on the head by his wife because his bald pate is all she can see in the dark.

The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale: in her Prologue, the Wife of Bath tells the story of her five marriages, while contesting the anti-feminist attitudes found in books that she quotes; indirectly, she becomes the proof of the truth of those books. Her Tale is a Breton Lay about a knight who rapes a girl, is obliged as punishment to find out what women most desire, learns from an old hag that the answer is "mastery over their husbands" and then has to marry her. She is a "loathly lady" but suddenly becomes beautiful when he gives her mastery over him after receiving a long lesson on the nature of true nobility. The tale is related to the ideas the Wife of Bath expresses in the Prologue, it is also a kind of "wish-fulfillment" for a woman no longer quite young. (see below, for Gower's version of the same story)

The Clerk's Prologue and Tale: a pathetic tale of popular origin, adapted by Chaucer from a French version of Petrarch's Latin translation of a tale in Boccaccio's Decameron. The unlikely and terrible story of the uncomplaining Griselda who is made to suffer appalling pain and humiliation by her husband Walter. Griselda is of very humble origin; Walter chooses her like God choosing Israel. Suddenly he turns against her, takes away her children, sends her back home, and years later demands that she help welcome the new bride he has decided to marry. Without resisting, she obeys, and at last finds her rights and children restored to her by Walter who says he was just testing her! The narrator cannot decide if she is a model wife for anti-feminists or an image of humanity in the hands of an arbitrary destiny.

The Pardoner's Introduction, Prologue, and Tale: in the Prologue, the Pardoner reveals his own nature as a covetous deceiver; his Tale is a sermon, showing his skill, but he concludes by inviting the pilgrims to give him money and they get angry.  In the Tale, a great showpiece of moral rhetoric quite unfitted for such a rogue, he tells an exemplum against greed about three wild young men who set out to kill Death; a mysterious old man they meet tells them they will find him under a tree, but they find there gold instead. One goes to buy wine, and is killed by his two friends on his return; they drink the wine, that he has poisoned, and also die.

The Monk's Prologue and Tale: a series of seventeen "tragedies" of varying length, in the Fall of Princes tradition. The stories come from various sources, including the Bible and Boccaccio, and tell of "the deeds of Fortune" in the unhappy ends of famous people, including some near-contemporaries. At last the Knight stops the series, which claims to illustrate the power of Fortune, but becomes a list of pathetic case-histories.

The Nun's Priest's Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue: a beast-fable told in a variety of styles, mock-heroic and pedantic mainly. In place of the brevity of the ordinary fable (cf Aesop) there are constant digressions and interminable speeches. The main characters are Chauntecleer and his lady Pertelote, a cock and a hen in a farmyard; Chauntecleer dreams of a fox (he has never seen one) and this leads to a debate on the meaning of dreams. A fox then appears, flatters Chauntecleer, then grabs him but the cock suggests he insult the people chasing him and escapes when the fox opens his mouth to speak. The moral of the tale for the reader is left unclear.

The Parson's Prologue and Tale: clearly designed to be the last tale in the collection, this is no "tale" but a long moral treatise translated from two Latin works on Penitence and on the Seven Deadly Sins.

At the end of the Parson's Tale, in the Retraccion, the "maker of this book" asks Christ to forgive him: "and namely my translations and enditings of worldly vanities, the which I revoke in my retractions: as is the book of Troilus; the book also of Fame; the book of the xxv ladies; the book of the Duchess; the book of St Valentine's Day of the Parliament of Birds; the tales of Canterbury, thilke that sowen into sin...".

Yet this Retraction serves to publicize Chaucer's works and had no effect on their later publication and distribution.

The Canterbury Tales has always been among the most popular works of the English literary heritage. When Caxton introduced printing into England, it was the first major secular work that he printed, in 1478, with a second corrected edition following in 1484. This was in turn reprinted three times, before William Thynne published Chaucer's Collected Works in 1532.

In the Reformation period, Chaucer's reputation as a precursor of the Reform movement was helped by the addition of a pro-Reformation Plowman's Tale in a 1542 edition. In 1561, even Lydgate's Siege of Thebes was added. The edition by Thomas Speght in 1598 was the first to offer a glossary; his text was revised in 1602 and this version was reprinted several times over the next hundred years, although Chaucer was not really to the taste of the Augustan readers. The first scholarly edition of the Canterbury Tales was published by Thomas Tyrwhitt in 1775.

In the last year of his life (1700) John Dryden wrote a major appreciation of Chaucer, based mainly on his knowledge of the General Prologue and certain tales which he had adapted into his own age's style:

    In the first place, as he is the father of English poetry, I hold him in the same degree of veneration as the Grecians held Homer, or the Romans Virgil. He is a perpetual fountain of good sense; learned in all sciences; and, therefore, speaks properly on all subjects. As he knew what to say, so he knows also when to leave off; a continence which is practiced by few writers, and scarcely by any of the ancients, excepting Virgil and Horace... Chaucer followed Nature everywhere, but was never so bold to go beyond her.... He must have been a man of a most wonderful comprehensive nature, because, as it has been truly observed of him, he has taken into the compass of his Canterbury Tales the various manners and humors (as we now call them) of the whole English nation in his age. Not a single character has escaped him.... there is such a variety of game springing up before me that I am distracted in my choice, and know not which to follow. 'Tis sufficient to say, according to the proverb, that here is God's plenty.

    Far more than Boccaccio, Chaucer gave life to the people of his “frame,” the pilgrims he introduces in the “General Prologue.” The skill with which he portrays people of differing social levels, both secular and religious, has made this the most popular part of the Canterbury Tales. The pilgrims’ portraits are often inspired by conventional ideas about the kind of people in various activities found in Chaucer’s time. The doctor loves gold, the friar likes money and young girls, but dislikes poor people, the monk enjoys the expensive sport of hunting, while the miller steals corn. By contrast, the clerk (student), parson, the plowman, and in a sense the knight seem almost over-idealized. At the same time, each pilgrim is described with traits that mark them out as individuals.