A FEW ODD FACTS ABOUT GEOFFREY CHAUCER AND ME

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People who read each other’s blogs sometimes make the mistake of thinking they know each other pretty well.  But blogs are deceiving.  What a blogger omits gets left out of the picture. Here, for instance, are a few oddments you may not have thought of in connection with the author of TGOB.

1.  Geoffrey Chaucer was master of the English language circa 1400. (If you’re wondering what this has to do with me, read on.)

2.  English 715 years ago (aka “Middle” English) wasn’t exactly a foreign language, but some — including me — might call it close to one.

3.  “Middle” English pronunciation was also something else.  It was spoken just before what linguists call “the great vowel shift”  — an oddity occurring with all English speakers in the early 15th century (don’t ask me why) that moved our vowels a notch further forward in our mouths from the point where Europeans sound out the same vowels.  Example:  the color that you get by mixing blue and yellow used to be pronounced “grain” (and spelled “grene”); after the shift, it began being pronounced “green” and still is, except perhaps in Ireland. (In fact, Middle English does have a faint Irish lilt.)

4. Why am I telling you this?

  • First, to take a break from sex, love and death, which I seem to have been writing about quite a bit lately.
  • And second, because starting tomorrow I’m taking a six-week course in Chaucer designed for retired Princetonians.  (Or non-retired ones who have their days free to do as they please.) Just Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  And just the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.  It’s being given by a renowned Professor Emeritus from Princeton University named John Fleming who has no idea I’m blogging about him and his short course.

So many people have signed up for Professor Fleming’s course that it’s being held in the former courtroom of Princeton Boro. (That is, it was a courtroom before the Boro merged with Princeton Township to become just plain Princeton. But you don’t need to know all that local political history to understand this Chaucer thing must be a very popular subject here in Princeton to fill a courtroom, however small by courtroom standards.)

5.  The subject seems to have been so popular there had to be a lottery for seats, and I won one of them!

6.  In 1954 I took a course in Chaucer and everything he wrote, including The Canterbury Tales. I was in graduate school  at USC. (Southern California, not South Carolina.)  I still have the textbook and my notes for the exam but can’t read the notes or any of my marginal commentary anymore.  So I bought the currently recommended text and will bring both to class, like the goody-goody I used to be.

7.  My having had a course in Chaucer sixty-one years ago does give me a leg up on the pronunciation, believe it or not.  I checked myself against an online spoken version of the first twenty-six lines of the Prologue, and I wasn’t bad at it.  I missed the beat fairly often but got most of those retrograde vowels right.  Here it is, if you’d like to try yourself:  http://www.nativlang.com/middle-english/middle-english-canterbury-tales.php

8.  Or, if you’d rather not bother with all those vowels, this is what the beginning looks like:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote |
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, |
And bathed every veyne in swich licour |
Of which vertu engendred is the flour; |
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth |
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth |
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne |
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne, |
And smale foweles maken melodye, |
That slepen al the nyght with open ye |
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages); | (
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, |
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, |
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes; |
And specially from every shires ende |
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende, |
The hooly blisful martir for to seke, |
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke. |
Bifil that in that seson 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 wel we weren esed atte beste.
So hadde I spoken with hem everichon
That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take oure wey ther as I yow devyse.

9.  What saddens me is that I can’t remember the name or face of the Chaucer professor back in 1954.  I liked him quite a bit, perhaps because he admired a proto-feminist paper I wrote about Criseyde in Troilus and Criseyde, centered on her declaration that she was her own woman. And now he’s gone, gone with the wind — blown clear out of my mind, both the look of him and any way of identifying him.  I didn’t even write his name in the textbook, perhaps because I thought I might sell it again afterwards, although how I could have sold it with all those handwritten illegible notes in it I can’t imagine. I think his last name began with a W, but I’m not sure.

10.  And if all this messing about in the faraway past sounds too odd for you, think of it this way:  Maybe after our seemingly endless freezing winter of Northeastern discontent, I just can’t wait for those soote (sweet) shoures (showers) of Aprille and those smale foweles (birds) to maken melodye.  Reading about it in Chaucer, even in Middle English, speeds it up.  By the time the course is over, the shoures and foweles will really be here.

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20 thoughts on “A FEW ODD FACTS ABOUT GEOFFREY CHAUCER AND ME

  1. Aye liketh these wordths of the verledeth taimes. They swings and swayths of many lieder forgothen.

    You were lucky to have won the lottery Mina. I was lucky too to have enjoyed my mother’s (mutters) tongue in a language that is far more logical and above all phonetic.
    I mean; to pare a perfect pair of pears would be unthinkable in Dutch.

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    • I don’t think too many retired Princetonians got into “Fifty Shades Of.” On the other hand, this is, at least in part, a classy university town with lots of aging folks who have higher educations on their CVs far more impressive than mine. And Fleming is a rarity among those willing to teach adult education — someone with world class credentials in his field. Which probably explains the over-registration. We won’t be reading it as if it were a novel, either. He’s taking twelve hours (six sessions of two hours each) to cover about 750 lines of Prologue. So I imagine it will be far more intensive than extensive, and therefore not so “tough” at all.

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  2. Judith

    Nina, I suspect you did not write the name of your Chaucer professor in your notebook because why would you? You’d never not remember his name. At least that’s how I understand my omission of such information now, looking back and wishing for it.

    My father, from the late 1940s through the mid-80s taught Shakespeare and Chaucer at Wellesley College. He prided himself in his Middle English recitations, and as a young child, and of course *his* child, I thought they were impressive. But he couldn’t roll his r’s. I think that tripped him up in Europe too, the sabbatical year we all spent in Italy while he studied Italian Renaissance literature (and, with my mother while we kids were in school, Italian Renaissance art–everywhere). His Italian lacked the lovely rolling r’s that as a second-grader I picked up easily in my school.

    Middle English is every bit as beautiful as Italian. If Prof. Fleming is a good reader, and it seems he is, you’ll be one happy retired Princetonian. Or not retired, but revisiting a love sixty-one years later. Greet plesaunce!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Judith, I’m sure you’re right about why the name of the professor was unwritten. Your girlhood sounds idyllic. Did you go to Wellesley, too? I would say “Thank you” for your post and good wishes in Middle English but I’ve forgotten how, if I ever knew.

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  3. I wish I could take this course! Haven’t read The Canterbury Tales since high school (which was too early) but loved it then. All those colorful characters. Before that, in 8th grade, we read Beowulf–Middle English to the max.

    Can’t wait for Aprille either–though ’tis the “cruelest month,” as another poet said.

    Martha

    Martha Mendelsohn marthahetty@gmail.com

    Bromley Girls April 2015 Texas Tech University Press

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    • I suppose you could commute from New York, ha-ha. You could use a brush-up: Beowulf precedes 1066 and William the Conqueror, and is therefore not Middle English but good old Anglo-Saxon before it got messed up with Old French. All I remember of that is “Hig hig” was how “hee hee” was spelled. Also “He kiste hine” meant “he kissed him.” As for Eliot, I never understood why he thought April was so cruel. But I can see why *you’re* looking forward to April: you’ve put it right there on your comment, you naughty girl!

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    • Oh Barbara, you make it sound as if I were about to walk on hot coals! (Tenacity? No exams, no getting called on in class. Easy-peasy.) As for afterwards, I can’t promise. But why don’t you list some questions as to what you’d like to know and I’ll see where I come out with that.

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  4. The conference for Chaucer scholars and other medievalists is held at my alma mater every year. In Kalamazoo. I loved Chaucer in translation, but am not keen on the original. You could probably call or email the department secretary at USC and ask if they have a list of faculty by specialty from that time period.

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    • What a good idea! But just a trifle too late. Overnight, as my unconscious continued to worry the question of who taught me Chaucer in 1954 as if it were a sore tooth, the answer arose out of my vasty deeps and came to me. (So my mind *is* still working, just a bit more slowly than it used to.) The professor in question was Meredith Thompson. No “W” in his name at all. I wonder where the “W” came from. I now even recall the name of his only dissertation student: Rudy Habenicht. Rudy gave me tea in his digs and waxed rhapsodic about the entire medieval period. It lost me but got him a Fulbright at Oxford. I’m sure Professor Thompson was proud of him. But one year of Chaucer, plus another six months of Beowulf in Anglo Saxon, was enough for me. Onward to Shelley, Byron and Keats!

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