NOTE: Fake pardoners claimed they could do almost anything for the right sum of money, even remove an excommunication. Despite widespread abuses, though, there still were plenty of people gullible enough to believe in a pardoners powers. Theres something suspect in the fact that the Pardoner sings Come hither, love, to me, to the Summoner, who accompanies him in a strong bass voice. Some see more than a hint of sexual perversion in this young man who has thin locks of yellow hair that he wears without a hood because he thinks its the latest style.
His small voice and the fact that he has no beard, ne never sholde [would] have, leads Chaucer to suspect he were a gelding or a marea eunuch or effeminate man. NOTE: Scientific opinion of the day believed that thin hair represented poor blood, effeminacy, and deception, while glaring eyes like the Pardoners indicated folly, gluttony, and drunkenness. Chaucers audience would catch the references just as we would instantly see the significance of a villain in a black cape and with a black moustache.
As if the description werent bad enough, the Pardoner tricks people into buying phony relics of saints, such as a pillowcase that he says was Our Ladys veil, or a piece of sail allegedly belonging to St. Peter. No wonder he makes more money in a day than the poor Parson does in two months. Ironically, Chaucer calls him a noble eccesiaste, since he can sing a church lesson beautifullyfor money, of course. His tale is right in character: he tells what the pilgrims say they want to hear. He says he bases his sermons on money being the root of all evil (he ought to know).
But he admits hes not a moral man, although he can tell a moral tale. In his tale about three rowdies, he ironically delivers a sermon against gluttony and other sins. Afterwards, the Host lights into the Pardoners hypocrisy with such force that the Pardoner is speechless with anger. Chaucer is probably the earliest English poet youre likely to read. A first glance at the original Middle English of the Canterbury Tales, with all those strange-looking words, might be enough to tempt you to slam the book shut, either in disgust or in terror at having to learn it all.
But take a closer look and examine some of the words. Youll see that many arent any harder to understand than when some people, trying to be olde-fashioned, write shoppe instead of shop. (Chaucers English is in fact where this idea originated. ) Try to get a dual-language edition of the Canterbury Tales, in which the Middle English original is printed on one side of the page and modern English on the other. When youve gotten some practice reading the original words and checking against the modern English, youll find that the rhythm of Chaucers poetry gets easier to understand. Why is it called Middle English?
Simply because its at the midpoint between the ancient language spoken by the Anglo-Saxons of England and the English we speak today. In fact, you might feel grateful that youre reading Chaucer instead of the poetry of some of his fellow fourteenth-century poets, because Chaucers dialectthe Middle English spoken in Londonis the language that evolved into our English, while the dialects the other poets used died out. Imagine trying to read something written in a hillbilly drawl or in a Scottish brogue; standard English, even if its not what we speak all the time, is easier to read.
Even if Chaucer had never written a word, it makes sense that the speech of London, the hub of English society, should develop into the standard English that eventually came over on the Mayflower. But Chaucer gave a great boost to the prestige of English, as Shakespeare did later on. Its partly because of Chaucers terrific (though unintentional) public relations job that the poet John Dryden, three hundred years later, called him the father of English literature. There is a robust flavor to Chaucers language that we cant get in a translation, no matter how good it is.
You wont be able to get the nuances of all the old words. But after a while youll almost be able to hear the pilgrims chatting away. The opening of the General Prologue bursts with spring, with new life, and shows that Chaucer is both similar to and different from his poetic predecessors. He uses many images of spring that would be familiar to a medievel audience: the April showers (familiar to us too) piercing Marchs dryness, the licour in each plants vein, the breezes inspiring the crops. Its short, but enough of a description to give us a sense of waking up to new and exciting events.
Even the birds sleep with open eyes because of the rising sap. Then, instead of moving from the conventional spring setting to a description of courtly romantic or heroic deeds, as his audience might expect, he draws us into a very down-to-earth world. Spring isnt romance; its the time of year when people long to go on pilgrimages. We can all identify with the feeling of spring fever, when we want to travel and shake off the winter doldrums. Whats more, in case we or Chaucers listeners are expecting a conventional medieval description of moral allegorical typesGreed, Love, Fortune, etc.
or battles, were in for a shock. Other poets presented characters for moral purposes or to embody ideals such as courtly love. But Chaucer doesnt deal in types, whether religious or courtly, but in portraits of real people. He even ignores the unwritten rule of the time that, if youre describing someone, you start at the top, very orderly, and work down. Chaucer will start with someones beard, then hat, boots, tone of voice, and finally his political opinions! (Thats just a partial description of the Merchant. ) Hes not reporting for a moral purpose, but out of love of life and the people around him.
Imagine that youre minding your own business in a wayside tavern and in burst 29 people representing every facet of society. For Chaucer, that meant the nobility, embodied in the Knight and Squire; the church, in the form of the Prioress, Monk, and others; agriculture (the Plowman); and the emerging middle class (the Merchant, Franklin and tradesmen). Rather than shy away from this motley crew, Chaucer the narrator (who is not the same, remember, as Chaucer the poet) befriends and describes them, inserting his own opinions freely.