Episode 127: The Road to Canterbury

In the mid-1380s, Geoffrey Chaucer gave up his London job and residence and moved to Kent along the pilgrimage route to Canterbury. This move inspired the creation of the Canterbury Tales which remains the most well-known work of Middle English literature. In this episode, we explore the background of the poem and the circumstances which led Chaucer to abandon London in favor of Kent. We also examine the opening lines of the General Prologue of the poem.


24 thoughts on “Episode 127: The Road to Canterbury

  1. Apparently when we covered this important work back in my high school literature class, I tuned out! I’ve already learned so much more about the background, the setting, the language, etc. just from this intro. Looking forward to the next installment. Thanks Kevin!

    • Me too. I learned the general prologue at school, and tried getting a copy of the Tales out of the library a decade ago, but got put off by the academic introduction. Then the BBC did a modern-day adaptation of some of the Tales, but then hearing from this podcast about the interaction between the characters being at least as interesting as the Tales themselves has inspired me to give them another go.

  2. Thanks Kevin, I really enjoyed that.
    I think it interesting that British English now rarely uses liquor to describe alcoholic drinks, except in the phrase “cannot take his/her liquor”. We certainly don’t go down to the “liquor store” in the way that other English speakers do… We do have lots of other euphemisms for alcohol; booze, drink, grog to list but a few, but liquor has become a a bit of a specialised word used by cooks and pharmacists!

    • I think that we Brits have re imported many words and phrases from American Films & TV. I don’t remember the word Liquor being used in my youth. We would be more likely to say ” He can’t hold his drink”. Another re imported word is gotten (Thank’s Ollie that’s another fine word you gotten back for us). Of course, I may be wrong but that is what my parents and school teachers told me when I grew up in Kent.

  3. In Québec French, but not in France, “liqueur” is the word for soft drink. Any fizzy non-alcoholic drink. Dunno if it’s an older form that survived here while dying out in France. Colonial languages tend to be more conservative than those of the mother country … as we shall see in an upcoming episode!

  4. Regarding the poem starting in the spring, from the 12th century until 1751 the legal year in England began on 25 March.

  5. That was a very interesting discussion on the likely pronunciations of ei/ey and ai/ay. One thing really jumped out at me: The Middle English pronunciation of “ay” sounds very much like the modern Australian pronunciation of “ay.” I’m not Aussie, but I listen to a couple of podcasts from there, “day,” for example, sounds very much like the Chaucerian “day” I think you used as an example. Is this a case of coincidental evolution, or did Australian English arise from people who came from a part of England that still used the old pronunciation?

    • I haven’t studied the historical evolution of that particular sound within Australian, but I suspect that it is simply a case of coincidental evolution.

    • I’m Australian, and that bit of the episode was VERY startling. Yes, sounds thoroughly Australian.

      Our accent descends to a degree from London Cockney

  6. Hi Kevin,
    This was yet another expertly constructed episode. Many Thanks.

    When you were pronouncing the diphongs AI and EI you sounded very Cockney. I wonder if that’s how the dialect developed; it failed to go through the great vowel shift.


    • I haven’t researched the historical development of that specific sound within the Cockney dialect, but I am going to try to trace these vowel changes through the late Middle English period into Modern English – including regional accents like Cockney. So stay tuned for that.

      • Will do Guvner. (My Grandad and dad were both born within the sound of Bow bells). I was born in Chatham so I grew up with loads of different accents from London, Kent and elsewhere. It’s amazing how many how many different accents you can get in one area.

  7. As an aside I understand that the gate of a horse known as a Canter comes from the phrase Canterbury Gallop. This was the joyful gallop a horse was said to do when they were in site of Canterbury.

    • Yes, the verb ‘canter’ is derived from the term ‘Canterbury pace’ in reference to the pace of horses taking pilgrims to Canterbury.

  8. I started at the beginning just a month or so ago and I’m “only” up to the 1066 ep.

    But I’m SO tempted to cheat and listen to this next…

    Goddess, give me strength!

  9. Hi Kevin,
    Thanks for another great episode!
    Is there any reason for reading the first line of Chaucer’s General Prologue with “April” pronounced as /’a:pril/ (two syllables, first syllable stressed), not /a’prile/ (three syllables, middle syllable stressed, the last syllable with the “schwa”)?
    I mean, /a’prile/ fits in nicely with the “da DUM da DUM” rhythm of other lines, whereas /’a:pril/ either creates an awkward gap and obviously breaks the iambic pattern, or changes it to trochee (WHAN that Aprill WITH his…).
    A quick look at manuscripts didn’t help much: there’s “Aprille”, “Aprill” and even “Aueryll”.

    • I think that is a valid reading, and you are correct that it would better fit the rhythm of the poem. But as you noted, most versions of the poem omit the ‘e’ at the end of ‘April.’ That suggests that the word was usually pronounced with 2-syllables, and thus, the rhythm that you propose wouldn’t work. I don’t really have the answer, but I also noticed that the rhythm of the first line (without the ‘e’ in ‘April’) is not strictly iambic pentameter.

  10. Hello,

    I found this episode to be very interesting, thank you! However, The Decameron is not a collection of poems but a collection of novellas. 🙂

  11. A wonderfully informative episode! Kevin, thank you again for embarking on this extraordinary project, which has given such delight to your listeners. I have three comments —

    1. Is it possible that the shift to an -s plural was encouraged by French? Modern French nouns take a plural in -s (sometimes -x), so Londoners may have been getting it from both sides, northernerS and NormanS. Squeezed like that, how could they stick to -en for long?

    2. My edition of “The Pardoner’s Tale,” edited by Prof. A. C. Spearing, includes a brief pronunciation guide that recommends dropping the final -e whenever the following word in the line begins with a vowel – a process I’d call “elision” from my study of poetry in other languages. Have you found lines where the meter requires or forbids pronouncing the final -e, which have nothing to do with elision? I was surprised to hear this is used to reconstruct how the words were once pronounced.

    3. I was drinking kir with a French friend here in the States, and she referred to cassis as a “liquor.” I said no, it’s a liqueur. She had a lot of trouble hearing the difference (especially because they’re the same word in French). Then I realized the main difference is one of stress: liqueur is a more recent borrowing, so we put the stress on the last syllable, but liquor has had time to anglicize.

    • It is possible that French played a role in the ultimate adoption of the plural -s ending. Some scholars have suggested that the use of the same ending in French reinforced the trend within English, but it doesn’t appear that English actually borrowed it from French.

      I am familiar with rule which you referenced regarding the dropping of the final -e, but I think it was much more random than that in actual usage at the time.

      And yes, ‘liquor’ is one of many words that has been Anglicized over time. The pronunciation with the stress on the first syllable is usually (but not always) a sign that the word has been in the English language for a long time.

  12. Les has already mentioned the vowels sounds sounding like modern Cockney and I quite agree it was the first thing that came to mind. Also, if you’re in a London Pie and Mash shop ( and you really should) the sauce that is poured over the pies and mashed potatoes is called to this day “liquor”
    Fab show, and many thanks!

  13. Great job on reading the Middle English of the Prologue of C’s CT. It’s very musical. Well-well done, K. I loved it, truly.

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