Nothing like a goode booke as long as it all makes complete sense

By now you must know how much I like (like? LOVE) books and hopefully understand why my Christmas and birthday lists always have at least one (most times many more) request for a book.

It could be a classic, a thriller, poetry, or more.

For Christmas I listed a book I have been meaning to read for decades and I put it on the Christmas list along with a complete works of WB Yeats, a fedora, and various other items.

Yeats will be appearing on my March birthday list.

Meanwhile to the book I did get, courtesy of teacher daughter: The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

I am not saying I have never read any of Chaucer’s Tales but only in anthologies and in translation at that.

In this case the translation is not from French to English, or Latin, or Greek.

Instead of a Modern English translation (capitalising the first letter of the descriptive term should give you a clue) I requested the book to be in the original Middle English, as Chaucer wrote it.

Dear daughter duly wrapped up the requested title and added the tag To Dad with love from Jacqueline before putting it under the tree.

My reason for weighing up the original against a modern translation was based on how the story would flow in the original and whether a translation would flow as well. It’s a bit like Shakespeare shorn of the trimmings and presented in modern day language.

Everything I had read up to then about Chaucer and his poetic prose had suggested that trying to read Middle English without a good translation to hand would be very difficult.

Now this is certainly true of Old English, which is what the Anglo Saxon spoke after they, along with the Jutes, invaded Britain driving the Celts into the West.

You try reading Anglo Saxon and you might just as well be looking at Scandiwegian script relating to the Viking raiders or even in Greek, Hebrew or Latin.

Anglo Saxon is as far from Middle English as Russian is from Gaelic.

The point is as soon as I started reading Chaucer’s Tales I was able to follow with just the odd check to the footnotes for words.

Middle English, with the language from Shakespeare’s time being considered Late Middle English before we settled down to what we now call Modern English, or to simplify – English, is far closer to the language we speak now than it is to Anglo Saxon or the hybrid language that developed after the Norman invasion – what Willy and his boys did to the language is another story altogether.

Suffice it to say that although some of Chaucer’s words might need translation it does not really impede the understanding and enjoyment of his poetry.

When he writes ye we know it is the just as we know Ye Olde Shoppe is not Yee Oldee Shoppee it is simply The Old Shop.

Old English drew a lot on Nordic runes which were letters not in the Middle English “dictionary” and the runes became stylised and the rune known as thorn came to look like a lowercase y but still had a th sound.


Published by Robin

I'm a retired journalist who still has stories to tell. This seems to be a good place to tell them.

2 thoughts on “Nothing like a goode booke as long as it all makes complete sense

  1. I heartily recommend Terry Jones’s (he of Monty Python) “Chaucer’s Knight”. One of my Christmas presents, it’s a well researched and fascinating argument about how, in taking Chaucer’s description of the Knight at face value, we got it so wrong. Apparently, mediaeval readers and listeners would have recognised Chaucer’s sarcasm. This was no “verray, parfait gentil knyght”. It provides fascinating insights into how society was changing. I wonder how much else we miss because we’re reading it at a remove of several centuries.


    1. Having just begun my venture into Chaucer’s delightful tales I cannot yet comment on the variations between his descriptions and reality.
      I feel, however, that even in the prologue he is holding up characters in a way that the reader can see the reality.
      How many saw this at the time (after all population was far smaller and the literate amongst them much less than now) is something we will never know but I feel the Monty Python gang will have been fully aware of the nuances.


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