Nov 132018

Edward III of England was born on this date in 1312. He was king of England and Lord of Ireland from January 1327 until his death. He is noted for his military success and for restoring royal authority after the disastrous and unorthodox reign of his father, Edward II. Edward III transformed the kingdom of England into one of the most formidable military powers in Europe. His long reign of 50 years was the second longest in medieval England (after that of his great-grandfather Henry III) and saw vital developments in legislation and government, in particular the evolution of the English parliament, as well as the ravages of the Black Death.

Rather than dribble on endlessly concerning his reign, I want to emphasize two aspects of it: (1) The constant squabble over whether the king of England was also the king of France, and (2) Edward’s conscious effort to evoke king Arthur as the spirit pervading his monarchy.  The first point is generally glossed over these days, particularly with Brexit looming and nationalists marching around singing “Rule Britannia” and “There’ll Always Be An England” as if since the dawn of time, England/Britain has been a gloriously separate island nation, untouched by wogs across the channel. The inconvenient historical truth is that England was a part of Denmark for many years, and when Normans conquered England under William the Bastard, it became an adjunct of Normandy for at least a century. It was not in any sense an isolated kingdom and cannot legitimately be said to have been for centuries before. Celts were conquered by Romans who made Britain part of their empire for centuries. When they left, Angles and Saxons moved in, and, according to legend, Arthur rose to take back land for the Celts that had been stolen first by Romans, then by Anglo-Saxons. Edward embraced the legend of Arthur for complicated reasons.

Edward was born at Windsor Castle and was often referred to as Edward of Windsor in his early years. The reign of his father, Edward II, was a particularly problematic period of English history. One source of contention was the king’s inactivity, and repeated failure, in the ongoing war with Scotland. Another controversial issue was the king’s exclusive patronage of a small group of royal favorites. The birth of a male heir in 1312 temporarily improved Edward II’s position in relation to baronial opposition. To bolster further the independent prestige of the young prince, the king had him created earl of Chester at only 12 days of age.

In 1325, Edward II was faced with a demand from his brother-in-law, Charles IV of France, to perform homage for the English Duchy of Aquitaine. Edward was reluctant to leave the country, as discontent was once again brewing domestically, particularly over his relationship with the favorite Hugh Despenser the Younger. Instead, he had his son Edward created Duke of Aquitaine in his place and sent him to France to perform the homage. The young Edward was accompanied by his mother Isabella, who was the sister of King Charles, and was meant to negotiate a peace treaty with the French. While in France, Isabella conspired with the exiled Roger Mortimer to have Edward deposed. To build up diplomatic and military support for the venture, Isabella had her son engaged to the twelve-year-old Philippa of Hainault. An invasion of England was launched and Edward II’s forces deserted him completely. Isabella and Mortimer summoned a parliament, the king was forced to relinquish the throne to his son, who was proclaimed king in London on 25 January 1327. The new king was crowned as Edward III on 1st February at the age of 14.

It was not long before the new reign also met with other problems caused by the central position at court of Roger Mortimer, who was now the de facto ruler of England. Mortimer used his power to acquire noble estates and titles, and his unpopularity grew with the humiliating defeat by the Scots at the Battle of Stanhope Park and the ensuing Treaty of Edinburgh–Northampton, signed with the Scots in 1328. Also the young king came into conflict with his guardian. Mortimer knew his position in relation to the king was precarious and subjected Edward to disrespect. The tension increased after Edward and Philippa, who had married at York Minster on 24 January 1328, had a son on 15 June 1330. Eventually, Edward decided to take direct action against Mortimer. Aided by his close companion William Montagu and a small number of other trusted men, Edward took Mortimer by surprise at Nottingham Castle on 19th October 1330. Mortimer was executed and Edward III’s personal reign began.

To mark his claim to the French crown, Edward’s coat of arms showed the three lions of England quartered with the fleurs-de-lys of France. The French carried out raids on English coastal towns, leading to rumors in England of a full-scale French invasion. In 1337, Philip VI confiscated Edward’s duchy of Aquitaine and the county of Ponthieu. Instead of seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict by paying homage to the French king, as his father had done, Edward responded by laying claim to the French crown as the grandson of Philip IV. The French rejected this claim, of course, because the inheritance passed through a woman (his mother), and previous claims by others had settled the matter that the claimant must be descended from previous kings through the male line only (agnatic descent). Instead, they upheld the rights of Philip IV’s nephew, king Philip VI (an agnatic descendant of the House of Valois), thereby setting the stage for the Hundred Years’ War.

The Hundred Years’ War was not a single war, but a series of wars between England and France concerning who owned what and where. At the start of the wars it is not legitimate to say that there was a well-defined sense of either English national identity or French national identity. By the end of them, lines were more clearly drawn even though England still had claims to French territory.

Central to Edward III’s policy was reliance on the higher nobility for purposes of war and administration. While his father had regularly been in conflict with a great portion of his peerage, Edward III successfully created a spirit of camaraderie between himself and his greatest subjects. Both Edward I and Edward II had been limited in their policy towards the nobility, allowing the creation of few new peerages during the 60 years preceding Edward III’s reign. The young king reversed this trend when, in 1337, as a preparation for the imminent war, he created six new earls on the same day. At the same time, Edward expanded the ranks of the peerage upwards, by introducing the new title of duke for close relatives of the king (a policy which continues to this day). Furthermore, Edward bolstered the sense of community within this group by the creation of the Order of the Garter, probably in 1348. A plan from 1344 to revive the Round Table of king Arthur never came to fruition, but the new order carried connotations from this legend by the circular shape of the garter.

Edward’s wartime experiences during the Crécy campaign (1346–7) seem to have been a determining factor in his abandonment of the Round Table project. It has been argued that the total warfare tactics employed by the English at Crécy in 1346 were contrary to Arthurian ideals and made Arthur a problematic paradigm for Edward III, especially at the time of the institution of the Garter. There are no formal references to Arthur and the Round Table in the surviving early 15th-century copies of the Statutes of the Garter, but the Garter Feast of 1358 did involve a round table game. Thus there was some overlap between the projected Round Table fellowship and the actualized Order of the Garter. Polydore Vergil tells of how the young Joan of Kent, countess of Salisbury – allegedly the king’s favorite at the time – accidentally dropped her garter at a ball at Calais. Edward responded to the ensuing ridicule of the crowd by tying the garter around his own knee with the words “honi soit qui mal y pense” – shame on him who thinks ill of this – which became the motto of the Order. How much of this is true is difficult to determine now. You will note that a distinctly English Order of Chivalry had a French motto.

This reinforcement of the aristocracy must be seen in conjunction with the war in France, as must the emerging sense of national identity. Just as the war with Scotland had done, the fear of a French invasion helped strengthen a sense of national unity and nationalize the aristocracy that had been largely Anglo-Norman since the Norman conquest. Since the time of Edward I, popular legend suggested that the French planned to extinguish the English language, and as his grandfather had done, Edward III made the most of this scare. As a result, the English language experienced a strong revival. In 1362, a Statute of Pleading ordered the English language to be used in law courts, and the year after, Parliament was for the first time opened in English. At the same time, the vernacular saw a revival as a literary language, through the works of William Langland, John Gower and especially The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Yet the extent of this Anglicization must not be exaggerated. The statute of 1362 was in fact written in the French language and had little immediate effect, and parliament was opened in French as late as 1377. The Order of the Garter, though a distinctly English institution, included also foreign members such as John IV, Duke of Brittany and Sir Robert of Namur. Edward III – himself bilingual – viewed himself as legitimate king of both England and France, and could not show preferential treatment for one part of his domains over another.

So . . . how do you see England now? Has it always stood out from “the continent” in splendid isolation, or was it once something else?

Here is a recipe for a bread and egg dish called iuschett from The Forme of Curye (c.1390). Several things to notice. First, it is in English – not French. That is the direct influence of Edward’s reforms, making England more English. Second, some of the words will be unusual to you but if you say the recipe out loud you should understand it well enough. The text may be a bit hard for you to read from the image, so here is a transcription:


Tak brede y grated & ayron & swynge hem to gyder do þer to safron, sauge & salt and cast broth þer to, boyle & messe forth.

If you need help (my free translation into modern English).

Take grated bread and eggs and mix them together. Add saffron, sage, and salt, and moisten with broth. Boil the mix, and serve.

This is very much like the stuffing I use for chickens (sans eggs – yes, using “sans” is a bit coy). It sounds a tad too mushy for my tastes, so I am unlikely to try it any time soon.


May 302014


On this date in 1381 the Peasants’ Revolt in England began. It was without doubt one of the most profoundly important events in the history of Europe, equal to the French and Russian Revolutions, for example. Yet, probably because it happened so long ago, it is largely forgotten by the average person these days. In a short post like this I cannot do more than outline some of the basic events and then try to give a brief analysis, especially focusing on why it is important to know about it in the present day.

The Peasants’ Revolt has also been called Wat Tyler’s Rebellion or the Great Rising, for various reasons. The most popular term, Peasants’ Revolt, is unsatisfactory because it suggests that the uprising was confined to a particular rural class: it was not. It involved city and country people from a great variety of occupations. It was a general revolution of the underclasses against the tyranny and injustice of a socio-economic system that bled the majority for the benefit of the elite minority. It was a very early and powerful example that was to repeat itself globally wherever feudal systems existed. That is why its study is so important.

The revolt had various causes, but in the end they all boil down to economics. Of major importance was the impact on the country of the ravages of the Black Death of the 1340’s which swept all of Europe. It is estimated that as much as 50% of the population of Europe was wiped out by the plague. In England whole villages were depopulated, and nowhere was left untouched. One “solution” would have been to scale back the economy by one half and the status quo would have been preserved. But the nobility was not about to lose half its income. Instead, the workers were forced to double their labors so that the rich could maintain their wealth. Meanwhile the workers earned no more than they had before. Add to this the fact that England was engaged in an expensive and protracted war with France – The Hundred Years War (yup, it was a long one). At issue was the fact that England held hereditary right to the throne of France, and, quite naturally, the French were more than a little tired of this arrangement. Neither side was willing to give up its position, so they fought it out for 100 years. At issue, as ever, was money. Whoever controlled France controlled its wealth. All landed gentry in England owned vast tracts of land in France, and were not about to lose them.

Wars were funded in those days by taxes raised as needed. A particularly unpopular tax was the poll tax which was levied at this time at four pence per person over the age of 14. When a first poll tax failed to raise sufficient funds a second was announced. Try to imagine this situation where the people are working twice as hard as they used to be, for no more income, and are forced on top of that to fund a war that potentially enriched their overlords with the people funding them at home and abroad deriving no benefit.


A third component is the fact that a large percentage of the population of England at the time were serfs. “Serf” is really just another word for “slave.” Serfs, who were born into the condition, had to work, for the most part, without wages and had no freedom of movement. They had to work for the noble whose estate they lived on. Hence they could not seek better employment elsewhere as one can in an open labor market. Nor could they even travel from the estate. They lived and died within a few acres. You can suppose, therefore, that when you put these three factors together you have a powder keg.

The match that exploded the powder keg was lit on 30 May 1381 when a royal official, John Bampton arrived in Essex to investigate a shortfall in poll taxes. He based himself in the town of Brentwood and summoned representatives from the neighboring villages of Corringham, Fobbing, and Stanford-le-Hope to explain and make good the shortfalls. The villagers appear to have arrived well-organized, and armed with old bows and sticks. Bampton first interrogated the people of Fobbing, whose representative, Thomas Baker, declared that his village had already paid their taxes, and that no more money would be forthcoming. When Bampton and two sergeants attempted to arrest Baker, violence broke out. Bampton escaped and retreated to London, but three of his clerks and several of the Brentwood townspeople who had agreed to act as jurors were killed. Thus began the Peasants’ Revolt.

The revolt rapidly spread across the south-east of the country. A wide spectrum of rural society, including many local artisans and village officials, rose up in protest, burning court records and opening the local jails. The rebels sought a reduction in taxation, an end to serfdom, and the removal of the King’s senior officials and law courts. Inspired by the sermons of the radical cleric John Ball, and led by Wat Tyler, a contingent of Kentish rebels advanced on London. They were met at Blackheath by representatives of the royal government, who unsuccessfully attempted to persuade them to return home. King Richard II, then aged only 14, retreated to the safety of the Tower of London, but most of the royal forces were abroad or in northern England. On 13 June, the rebels entered London and, joined by many local townspeople, attacked the jails, destroyed the Savoy Palace and the Temple Inns of Court, set fire to law books and killed anyone associated with the royal government. The following day, Richard met the rebels at Mile End and acceded to most of their demands, including the abolition of serfdom. Meanwhile, rebels entered the Tower of London, killing the Lord Chancellor and the Lord High Treasurer, whom they found inside.


On 15 June Richard left the city to meet with Tyler and the rebels at Smithfield. Violence broke out, and Richard’s party killed Tyler. Richard defused the tense situation long enough, by making promises he had no intention of keeping, for London’s mayor, William Walworth, to gather a militia from the city and disperse the rebel forces. Richard immediately began to re-establish order in London and rescinded his previous grants to the rebels. The revolt had also spread into East Anglia, where the University of Cambridge was attacked and many royal officials were killed. Unrest continued until the intervention of Henry le Despenser, who defeated a rebel army at the Battle of North Walsham on 25 or 26 June. Troubles extended north to the cities of York, Beverley, and Scarborough, and west as far as Bridgwater in Somerset. Richard mobilized around 4,000 soldiers to help restore order. Most of the rebel leaders were tracked down and executed; by November, at least 1,500 rebels had been killed, and the situation was defused.


It’s a rather curious fact that proper historical analysis of the revolt did not happen until the late 19th and early 20th centuries when a detailed study of court records and local archives was carried out, coupled with a thorough examination of contemporary accounts. In consequence opinion now is rather divided as to the impact of the revolt. Until that time, the Peasants’ Revolt was considered a defining moment in English history, when the people rose up to assert their rights – rights that became embedded in English culture. Some historians still hold that position. Others are more guarded. Serfdom was not abolished, the feudal system remained intact, the taxation system was, in principle, unchanged (though eased), and England continued to have pointless, bloody wars with France.

However, the revolt heavily influenced the course of the Hundred Years War, by deterring later Parliaments from raising additional taxes to pay for military campaigns in France. The war continued but had to be funded by different means. The nobility in general was put on notice that if they wanted to wage war they were going to have to do it with their own blood AND their own money, not just for the present, but for all time. The revolt has also resonated down through the centuries in literature, history, and popular culture as an example of the power of oppressed people when they are pushed too far.

I don’t think it appropriate to give you a 14th century recipe from the tables of the nobility, although I am smart enough that I am sure I could find a way to pass it off as symbolic of what the peasantry were revolting against. On the other hand, finding a recipe for what the peasantry actually ate is an impossibility. Nobody who could write at the time cared. I suspect it was an awful lot of porridge flavored with what you could find, as well as natural things that you could gather that were not the explicit property of the lord of the manor. Our main source of 14th century recipes is Forme of Cury (Forms of Cooking), an extensive recipe collection whose authors are given as “the chief Master Cooks of King Richard II.” The original roll was written in late Middle English (circa 1390) on vellum and gives 205 recipes. So it fits right in our time period.


Not all the recipes are grand, though, and with the proper extraction of fancy ingredients you can have a fairly ordinary dish a peasant might eat, such as:


Take Caboches and quarter hem and seeth hem in gode broth with Oynouns y mynced and the whyte of Lekes y slyt and corue smale and do þer to safroun an salt and force it with powdour douce.

Which can be rendered:

Take cabbages and quarter them and boil them in a rich broth with minced onions and the white parts of leeks slit in half and cut small. Add saffron and salt, and enliven it with sweet powder.

The two troublesome ingredients for the peasant are saffron and sweet powder (a mix of pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and sugar). Those would have cost a fortune. But switch them for some wild herbs and you have what the poor folk of the 14th century might eat. However, I thought I might be a little more adventurous than that. So, I dug further into Forme of Cury and found noumbles.

There’s a lot to know about noumbles. They are the innards of a deer, to begin with. Nothing in the Medieval household went to waste, so they would be cooked and eaten. One way was to make them into a noumble pie. Now watch this:

a noumble pie (the original)

an oumble pie (caused by mishearing the original by someone unfamiliar with noumbles)

an humble pie (mistaken attribution of “oumble” because it was no longer in usage)

Voilá, you have “humble pie” which you eat to taste remorse and humility. Ain’t language grand? Noumble pie was baked so that the noumbles did not go to waste, but it would not be served to the noble hunters who were gorging on venison. Noumble pie would be given to the servants. They ate humble pie.

The recipe for noumbles in Forme of Cury is not a pie but a rich stew. Seems like a good recipe to celebrate the Peasants’ Revolt nonetheless.

Here’s the original:

Take noumbles of Deer oþer of oþer beest parboile hem kerf hem to dyce. take the self broth or better. take brede and grynde with the broth. and temper it up with a gode quantite of vyneger and wyne. take the oynouns and parboyle hem. and mynce hem smale and do þer to. colour it with blode and do þer to powdour fort and salt and boyle it wele and serue it fort.

Here’s my free rendering:

Take the innards of a deer or other animal and parboil them, then dice them. Take some of the the parboiling water or a better broth, add bread to the broth and mash it to a paste. Then mix this all together with a lot of vinegar and wine. Parboil some onions, chop them fine, and add them to the broth. Use deer’s blood to color the liquid and then add strong powder and salt. Boil it all well and serve it up.

Strong powder is a spice mix rather similar to sweet powder and it’s probably the case that chef’s had their own variants of both. Nonetheless, it’s likely that the base of strong powder was a blend of pepper and ginger which is a very common mix in Medieval cookery.

I don’t usually have deer guts and blood on hand, although when I did fieldwork in the swamps of North Carolina I certainly could have had all I wanted in hunting season. To make up, I made a couple of substitutions. No surprises to my regular readers that I used tripe as my version of innards. I think that’s fair given that stomachs are noumbles too. Blood is not actually impossible to find – certainly not in Latin America. But I was not about to go hunting all day around Buenos Aires for it. I used blood sausage instead – suitably pulverized in water. After all, blood adds taste as well as color. If you are not a tripe aficionado you can use any offal: liver, kidneys, heart, etc. I used breadcrumbs rather than going to the hassle of mashing up bread. It’s a thickening agent so it does not really matter. Here’s the results.




1lb raw tripe (or other offal)
1 pint beef stock
1 onion, chopped
½ cup breadcrumbs
2 tsps black pepper
2 tsps ginger
¼ cup red wine
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 blood sausage


Parboil the tripe. This should take about 20 minutes. Remove it from the boiling water and chop it into small dice.

Place the stock in a saucepan, add the breadcrumbs and stir well to make sure they are all evenly distributed.

Skin the blood sausage and remove the inner part in small lumps. Place them into a bottle or lidded container and add about ¼ cup of warm water. Cap the bottle and shake like mad for a minute or two. You will end up with a dark liquid with a small amount of solid residue that will settle quickly. Add the liquid only to the pot.

Add the onions (I saw no need to parboil them), ginger, pepper, red wine, and vinegar, and add back the tripe. Bring to a slow simmer stirring continuously. You do not want the breadcrumbs to clump. When the sauce has blended and thickened, turn the heat to low and let the pot gently simmer covered for about 30 minutes, or until the tripe is fully cooked. Serve in wide bowls with crusty bread.

Serves 4

Apr 172014


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;

Easy-peasy, no?

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.

cant4 cant3

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.




12 eggs
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.

Serves 4