I’m not sure about the rest of you, but in High School, one of my AP literature courses required that we learn a portion of the prologue in Middle English. Now rather than delight you all with a ridiculous video of me reciting it (I can still do the first 10-15 lines or so from memory), you’ll just have to use your imagination.
I’m glad I revisited this as part of my Back to the Classics, Classics Club and Mount TBR challenges. The only part I actually recall reading in class was the prologue. I remember discussing a few of the tales, but we never actually had to read them which I think is strange. Before I start to sound too impressive I did read a translated version (with the Middle English on the facing page – see photo below) and this was not the complete collection. This version of the book only contained eight of the 24 completed tales in addition to the general prologue. Just from a brief glance here, they appear to be the longer/most completed of the Tales. If Chaucer completed the collection it would contain 120 tales two for each person, one to Canterbury and one on the return so I only really read a third of the completed tales and 20% of what would have been the complete collection.
Now I should probably feel guilty about reading the translation, but I don’t. I know my limits and I knew that it would drive me crazy to read the entire thing in Middle English. However, I did find myself often times switching back and forth between Middle and Modern English as the Modern did not have the cadence, rhyme scheme or wit than the Middle English did. On the whole I’m sure the translators did a great job, but so much, I feel, was lost in completely destroying those three aspects. The only other interesting fact of the physical book was that rather than having a numbered end note or footnote system, they were organized alphabetically based on the word which was closest to the asterisks I honestly didn’t think I would appreciate that, but as I read it was surprisingly easier than having to hunt for a number or chapter and then finding the footnote.
What I found most fascinating about reading this were how shocking some of the stories felt! I often times forget that the world wasn’t always as prudish as I think it has been. I guess it ebbs and flows based on the religiosity at the time. Or perhaps, being an American descendant of Puritans (or at least their thoughts and philosophy’s) these types of things just shock me a bit more than others. Within the eight tales there were stories of adultery, cuckoldry, prostitution, pre-marital sex and there was even a hint of a cross dresser in the prologue! I mean going in I assumed this would a chaste novel, I mean the number of religious pilgrims is pretty high and yet they were some of the worst in their comments and sexism (to be expected).
The tales ranged in difference from classical love stories to open bawdiness and of all the stories, the Wife of Bath’s tale stood out. It stood out because the prologue was by far the longest of any and was easily two-to-three times longer than the tale itself. But what made it truly stand out was the frankness with which the narrator spoke about sex and her husbands and the fact that she was clearly a female empowerment figure and this was the 1400s! Her’s was a moral tale about how husbands should listen to their wives and if they don’t bad things will happen. I’m sure there are negative responses to her, like the fact that she used his physicality against him, but this was over 400 years ago and she was a strong female figure that had ideas of her own and shared them in a dominating way.
If there’s one thing I didn’t like it was that I didn’t have all of the completed tales. I mean how hard would it have been for Bantam to include the other tales especially with many of them being fragmentary one liners?
Recommendation: Definitely worth a read! Not only do you get a history lesson from the 1400s perspective, you also read about things you wouldn’t think you’d be reading about from a set of stories told over 600 years ago.
Opening Line: “Here bygynneth the Book of the tales of Caunterbury.”
Closing Line: Unwritten. No seriously, Chaucer never wrote the end.