On this date in 1397 Geoffrey Chaucer recited the Canterbury Tales for the first time at the court of Richard II. Chaucer scholars have also identified this date (in 1387) as the start of the book’s pilgrimage to Canterbury from the Tabard Inn in Southwark.
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of over 20 stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century, during the time of the Hundred Years’ War. The tales (mostly written in verse, although some are in prose) are presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The prize for this contest is a free meal at the Tabard Inn on their return.
After a long list of works written earlier in his career, including Troilus and Criseyde, House of Fame, and Parliament of Fowls, The Canterbury Tales was Chaucer’s magnum opus. He uses the tales and the descriptions of its characters to paint an ironic and critical portrait of English society at the time, and particularly of the Church. Structurally, the collection resembles Boccaccio’s Decameron, which Chaucer may have read, or encountered, during his first diplomatic mission to Italy in 1372.
It is sometimes argued that the greatest contribution that this work made to English literature was in popularizing the literary use of the vernacular, English, rather than French or Latin. English had, however, been used as a literary language for centuries before Chaucer’s life, and several of Chaucer’s contemporaries—John Gower, William Langland, and the Pearl Poet—also wrote major literary works in English. It is unclear to what extent Chaucer was responsible for starting a trend rather than simply being part of it.
Chaucer’s English is a little hard to grasp at first but it is worth learning how to pronounce it as Chaucer would have to preserve the euphony. I have little time for translations into modern English which rob the work of its poetics. Also, if you read it out loud it usually makes sense and you only rarely need to refer to a glossary (plus a bit of training in some of the grammar that differs from modern English, such as plural forms, verb conjugations, and the placement of adjectives).
Although no manuscript exists in Chaucer’s own hand, two were copied around the time of his death by Adam Pinkhurst, a scribe with whom he seems to have worked closely before, giving a high degree of confidence in the accuracy of the oldest surviving manuscripts. Spelling in Chaucer’s day was not standardized and was much more indicative of actual pronunciation than modern English. Thus, for example, Chaucer’s generation of English speakers was among the last (in London) to pronounce e at the end of words, so for Chaucer the word “care” was pronounced something like /karah/ (roughly rhyming with Sarah). This meant that later copyists tended to be inconsistent in their copying of final -e and this for many years gave scholars the impression that Chaucer himself was inconsistent in using it. It has now been established, however, that -e was an important part of Chaucer’s spelling, having a role in distinguishing, for example, singular adjectives from plural, and subjunctive verbs from indicative.
The pronunciation of Chaucer’s writing otherwise differs most prominently from Modern English in that his language had not undergone the Great Vowel Shift that occurred in English roughly between 1500 to 1700 when English vowels changed from “Continental” values to those of modern standard English (regional dialects still maintain the old values in some areas of Britain). Pronouncing Chaucer’s vowels the same way as they sound in modern Spanish or Italian will get you closer the mark. In addition, sounds now written in English but not pronounced were still pronounced by Chaucer. Take the word “knight,” for example. The “k” was pronounced, and the “gh” was a guttural /ç/ like the “ch” in “loch” in modern Lowland Scots (in which “night” and “bright” are pronounced much as Chaucer would have done).
If you are not reading this in public where people around you might think you are going a bit loony (if they don’t already), give it a whirl out loud. Here is the beginning of Chaucer’s description of the meeting of the pilgrims at the Tabard Inn.
Bifel that in that season on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght was come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde;
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And well we weren esed atte beste;
The Canterbury Tales was written during a turbulent time in English history. The Catholic Church was in the midst of the Western Schism (the split from the eastern church which I described here) and, though it was still the only Christian authority in Europe, its practices were mired in controversy. Lollardy, an early English breakaway religious movement led by John Wycliffe, is mentioned in the Tales, as is a specific incident involving pardoners who claimed to be collecting for St. Mary Rouncesval hospital in England but were actually pocketing the proceeds. The Canterbury Tales is among the first English literary works to mention paper, a relatively new invention in the West, which allowed dissemination of the written word more easily than former writing materials such as vellum and parchment. Political clashes, such as the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt and political unrest that ended in the deposing of King Richard II, further reveal the complex turmoil surrounding Chaucer. Many of his close friends were executed and he himself was forced to move to Kent to get away from events in London, where he was a courtier to king Richard.
Some scholars have tried to link specific characters in the Tales to historical figures, but the more usual interpretation is that Chaucer is treating them as archetypes. Chaucer purpose is more concerned with a general critique of society of the time as a whole rather than skewing particular individuals (which would have been dangerous). His critique, however, is subtle. On the surface, through subtle use of language, he appears to be taking the individual pilgrims to task, rather than condemning society as a whole.
The Tales reflect diverse views of the Church in Chaucer’s England. After the Black Death, many Europeans began to question the authority of the established Church. Some turned to Lollardy, while others chose less extreme paths, starting new monastic orders or smaller movements, and exposing church corruption in the behavior of the clergy, false church relics or the abuse of indulgences. Several characters in the Tales are religious figures, and the very setting of the pilgrimage to Canterbury is religious (although the prologue comments ironically on it being more of a seasonal vacation than a devotional exercise).
Two characters, the Pardoner and the Summoner, whose roles involve the church’s secular power, are both portrayed as deeply corrupt, greedy, and abusive. A pardoner in Chaucer’s day was a person from whom one bought Church “indulgences” for forgiveness of sins, but pardoners were often thought guilty of abusing their office for their own gain. Chaucer’s Pardoner openly admits the corruption of his practice while hawking his wares. The Summoner was a Church officer who brought sinners to the church court for possible excommunication and other penalties. Corrupt summoners would write false citations and frighten people into bribing them to protect their interests. Chaucer’s Summoner is portrayed as guilty of the very sins he is threatening to bring others to court for, and is hinted as having a corrupt relationship with the Pardoner. In The Friar’s Tale, one of the characters is a summoner who is shown to be working on the side of the devil, not God.
Churchmen of various kinds are represented by the Monk, the Prioress, the Nun’s Priest, and the Second Nun. Monastic orders, which originated from a desire to follow an ascetic lifestyle separated from the world, had by Chaucer’s time become increasingly entangled in worldly matters. Monasteries frequently controlled huge tracts of land on which they made significant sums of money, while peasants worked in their employ. The Second Nun is an example of what a Nun was expected to be: her tale is about a woman whose chaste example brings people into the church. The Monk and the Prioress, on the other hand, while not as corrupt as the Summoner or Pardoner, fall far short of the ideal for their orders. Both are expensively dressed, show signs of lives of luxury and flirtatiousness and show a lack of spiritual depth. The Prioress’s Tale is an account of Jews murdering a deeply pious and innocent Christian boy, a blood libel against Jews which became a part of English literary tradition. The story did not originate in the works of Chaucer and was well known in the 14th century.
Pilgrimage was a prominent feature of medieval society. The ultimate pilgrimage destination was Jerusalem, but within England Canterbury was popular. Pilgrims would journey to cathedrals that preserved relics of saints, believing that such relics held miraculous powers. Saint Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, had been murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by knights of Henry II during a disagreement between Church and Crown. Miracle stories connected to his remains sprang up soon after his death, and pilgrimages to the cathedral became common, especially in the warmer weather of Lent. The pilgrimage in the Tales generally ties all of the stories together as an overarching representation of Christians’ striving for heaven, despite weaknesses, disagreement, and diversity of opinion.
The upper class or nobility, represented chiefly by the Knight and his Squire, was in Chaucer’s time steeped in a culture of chivalry and courtliness. Nobles were expected to be powerful warriors who could be ruthless on the battlefield, yet mannerly in the king’s court and Christian in their actions. Knights were expected to form a strong social bond with the men who fought alongside them, but an even stronger bond with a woman whom they idealized who strengthened their fighting ability. Though the overt aim of chivalry was noble action, its conflicting values often degenerated into violence. Church leaders tried to place restrictions on jousts and tournaments, which at times ended in the death of the loser. The Knight’s Tale shows how the brotherly love of two fellow knights turns into a deadly feud at the sight of a woman whom both idealize, with both knights willing to fight the other to the death to win her. Chivalry was on the decline in Chaucer’s, and it is possible that The Knight’s Tale was intended to show its flaws. Chaucer himself had fought in the Hundred Years’ War under Edward III, who was a great believer in the principles of chivalry. Two tales, Sir Topas and The Tale of Melibee, are told by Chaucer himself, who places himself with the pilgrims in his own story. Both tales focus on the ill-effects of chivalry—the first making fun of chivalric rules and the second warning against violence.
The Tales constantly reflect the conflict between classes, in particular the division of the three estates: “those who pray” (the clergy), “those who fight” (the nobility), and “those who work” (the commoners and peasantry). Most of the tales are interlinked by common themes, and some reply to other tales. Conventional social rules apply when the Knight begins the game with a tale, as he represents the highest social class in the group. But when he is followed by the Miller, who represents a lower class, it sets the stage for the Tales to reflect both a respect for and a disregard for upper class rules. The Tales are a healthy mélange of opposites: the lofty and the mundane, the serious and the comic, the bawdy and the pious, the mythic and the ordinary. There is something for everyone.
The Tabard, where the tale begins, was an inn that stood on the east side of Borough High Street in Southwark. It was established in 1307, when the abbot of Hyde purchased the land to construct a hostel for himself and his colleagues, when business took them to London. It also served as a common starting point for pilgrimages because it stood south of the Thames near London Bridge on the road to Canterbury. It was demolished in the late 19th century, but a few images remain from the time right before it was torn down.
Canterbury Tales is incomplete and there is no epilog to indicate who won the contest nor the nature of the prize meal at the Tabard Inn. So, I have simply picked a 14th century recipe from the cookbook Forme of Cury (Forms of Cooking, “cury” being from French cuire) an extensive recipe collection from the 14th century whose authors are given as “the chief Master Cooks of King Richard II.” The roll was written in late Middle English (circa 1390) on vellum and details some 205 recipes (although the exact number of recipes varies slightly between different versions). Here is an image of an original copy of the recipe for pochee, poached eggs in a sauce flavored with saffron and ginger.
This is the text for those who struggle with the original:
Take Ayrenn and breke hem in scaldyng hoot water. and whan þei bene sode ynowh. take hem up and take zolkes of ayren and rawe mylke and swyng hem togydre, and do þerto powdour gyngur safroun and salt, set it ouere the fire, and lat it not boile, and take ayrenn isode & cast þe sew onoward. & serue it forth.
Here is my loose translation:
Break eggs into boiling water. When they are cooked remove them. Mix egg yolks and raw milk together and add powdered ginger, saffron, and salt. Heat the custard mix, but do not let it boil. Place the poached eggs on a plate and cover them with the custard. Then serve.
The experienced cook should not need more directions except for deciding on quantities. Here is my recipe. I recommend two eggs per person and suggest serving them with toast or bread to sop up the sauce. I have no idea how well cooked the yolks of the poached eggs would have been in the 14th century, but I surmise they would have been firm. I prefer my yolks runny. I also recommend cooking the sauce first and then keeping it warm while poaching the eggs. The combination of ginger and saffron, which was very common in medieval cookery, adds a piquant richness to the eggs. Use whatever quantities of these you prefer. When experimenting with this recipe I found that the sauce was richer with the addition of a little heavy cream. Cook’s choice. The original recipe calls for making the sauce over heat directly but this is very dangerous. It is easy for the yolks to curdle or scramble this way if you are not careful. It is much safer to use a double boiler. I’ve never owned an official one; I always use a small pan which I seat in a larger pan of near boiling water. Saves kitchen cabinet space.
½ cup whole milk
¼ tsp powdered saffron
½ tsp powdered ginger
4 tbsps heavy cream (optional)
Separate 4 eggs. Place the yolks in the top of a double boiler along with the milk, cream (if used), ginger, saffron, and salt to taste. Reserve the whites for other uses. Whisk the ingredients together until they are thoroughly mixed.
Heat the water in the bottom of the double boiler to near boiling and maintain it at that temperature. Place the top of the double boiler over the hot water and whisk the sauce steadily but constantly.
You will notice that after several minutes the sauce produces bubbles on the surface. This indicates that the yolks are beginning to cook. As the yolks cook the sauce will thicken. Remove the boiler from the heat when the sauce is thick enough to coat a spoon lightly without falling off. Keep the sauce over the hot water so that it stays warm.
At the same time that you are heating water in the double boiler, bring to the boil a generous quantity of water, with a few tablespoons of vinegar and some salt added, in a wide deep skillet. When the sauce is finished, poach the remaining 8 eggs in the boiling water, 2 at a time. You can crack the eggs directly into the water, but I prefer to crack them individually on to a saucer and then slide them gently into the skillet. That way if by chance you break the yolk you do not have a mess in the skillet, and sliding them in gently maintains the shape of the egg better. At the outset use a spatula under the eggs to ensure that the yolks do not stick to the bottom, otherwise they will break when you remove them. Splash water gently over the whites with a spoon during the cooking to ensure they set quickly without overcooking the yolk. Take the eggs up with a slotted spatula, place them on a plate, and cover with the sauce. I usually cook poached eggs to order rather than having them sit whilst the rest of the eggs cook.
Serve on heated plates with toast or crusty bread.