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
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 Boethius’ Consolation 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
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
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
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
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
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.