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Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer

Author: Rebecca Oberg

This learning packet should review:

-Biography of Geoffrey Chaucer
-The importance to literature and culture of Geoffrey Chaucer
-Insights into Middle English--the time period in which Chaucer was written--and tips for memorization of Middle English language
-Information about the historical context of Chaucer's work
-Information about The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's most well-known work, including the format of the stories and other key facts
-Exposure to Chaucer's language and style

This learning packet offers an informative slide show presentation as well as several multimedia clips outlining the life and works of Geoffrey Chaucer. The packet also aims to offer insight into Chaucer, his impact on literature and history, and his most well-known work through the inclusion of easily accessible texts. Since Middle English and the pronounciation/comprehension of Chaucer's work seems to be a particular sticking point for students, this is covered in an in-depth manner.

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Geoffrey Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales

This is an informative slide show outlining the biography of Geoffrey Chaucer as well as some key information about his most well-known work, The Canterbury Tales.

Source: See slide show for citation

Navigating the World of Middle English

How to Read and Speak Middle English
By Jonathan Dewbre

The written form of Middle English was used from the twelfth to the fifteenth century in works such as "The Canterbury Tales" and "Gawain and the Green Knight." Because modern English spelling and pronunciation had not yet been cemented, Middle English may look alien to us today. However, even somebody who has never studied Medieval literature can learn how to read it.

1. Select an easy text, such as the prologue to "The Canterbury Tales." A good version of Chaucer's work will include many footnotes for words that no longer occur in modern English.

2. Speak each word out loud. This is the easiest way to become familiar with Middle English. Words which are spelled strangely often become recognizable when heard aloud.
3. Pronounce every consonant, even those that seem like they should be silent. ("Droghte" sounds like "drog-tuh.") Because spelling did not become uniform until the 15th century, words in Middle English were usually spelled like they sounded.
4. Learn additional rules about consonants. "R's" should be rolled. "S's" sound like "hiss," not like "hizz." "Gh" in "knight" sounds like "kuh-niCK-tuh."
5. Learn how to pronounce Middle English vowels. Some examples: A word with a long "a," like "name," is pronounced "nAH-muh." A word with a long "e," like "sweete," is pronounced "swAY-tuh." A word with a long "i," like "shires," is pronounced "shEE-res." The "au" in "cause" makes the word sound like "cOW-suh." The "ow" in the word "fowles" makes the word sound like "fOO-les."
6. Become familiar with archaic Middle English characters. There are four main characters used in Middle English that have no corollary in Modern English: those are the Ash (Æ), the Eth (ð), the Thorn (þ) and the Yogh (ȝ). These characters are edited out in most editions of medieval texts.
7. Finally, make your own Middle English lexicon as you go along. Although Middle English dictionaries exist, it's easier to check the footnotes in a text when you encounter an archaic word, and to write it down so that you remember it next time.

Canterbury Tales: A Rap to Aid Memorization of Middle English Text

Students often are required to memorize a portion of The Canterbury Tales as an exposure to Middle English. This is often a challenge! Watch this rap version of The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales--it will aid in quick memorization of the piece.

Source: YouTube

The Canterbury Tales: An Animated Introduction

This is an animated introduction to The Canterbury Tales. See the description listed by the film's creator on YouTube:

"This was made for a Motion Graphics class at Brown University. I appropriated illuminated manuscripts from around the internet to create an opening sequence for an imagined film of the Canterbury Tales."

Interesting, entertaining, and relevant to any student of Chaucer.

Source: YouTube

The Mysterious Life of Chaucer: A Perspective From Harvard

Geoffrey Chaucer led a busy official life, as an esquire of the royal court, as the comptroller of the customs for the port of London, as a participant in important diplomatic missions, and in a variety of other official duties. All this is richly recorded in literally hundreds of documents. But such documents tell us little about Chaucer the man and poet.

Nor does Chaucer himself tell us all that much. He is a lively presence in his works, and every reader comes to feel that he knows Chaucer very well. Perhaps we do. There is a certain consistency in the character of Chaucer as he appears in his works, and occasional biographical passages, such as this from The House of Fame, seem to ring true:

"Wherfore, as I seyde, ywys,
Jupiter considereth this,
And also, beau sir, other thynges:
That is, that thou hast no tydynges
Of Loves folk yf they be glade,
Ne of noght elles that God made;
And noght oonly fro fer contree
That ther no tydynge cometh to thee,
But of thy verray neyghebores,
That duellen almost at thy dores,
Thou herist neyther that ne this;
For when thy labour doon al ys,
And hast mad alle thy rekenynges,
In stede of reste and newe thynges
Thou goost hom to thy hous anoon,
And, also domb as any stoon,
Thou sittest at another book
Tyl fully daswed ys thy look;
And lyvest thus as an heremyte,
Although thyn abstynence ys lyte."
(House of Fame, 641-60)

This has the ring of truth, and yet we can never be sure how much is true and how much a role that Chaucer adopts for his poetic self. The only non-fictionalized scrap of autobiography that we have from Chaucer is the record of his deposition in the Scrope-Grosvener Trial. It reveals Chaucer as a curious and sociable character, rather like the man who scurried about meeting and talking to all the nine and twenty pilgrims that gathered at the Tabard.

By the 1380's Chaucer had earned wide admiration for his work, and a number of contemporaries mention Chaucer and his poetry. Naturally enough, they describe Chaucer's works rather than Chaucer the man.

A biography of Chaucer therefore depends on some extrapolation and the exercise of good judgement, not always apparent in works of this genre. For a good brief life of Chaucer see that by Martin Crow and Virginia Leland in The Riverside Chaucer, pp. xv-xxvi, and, slightly altered, in The Canterbury Tales Complete pp. xiii-xxv. For an excellent full treatment see Derek A. Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A critical biography, Oxford, 1992.