Episode 128: The Canterbury Tellers

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories told by pilgrims during their trek to Canterbury Cathedral. The pilgrims represent a cross-section of English society in the late 1300s, and Geoffrey Chaucer paints a vivid picture of each one. He also modifies his language to fit the social class of each character. In this episode, we explore the descriptions of the various pilgrims in the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales, and we examine how the language of the poem reflects the state of the English language in the late 1300s.


19 thoughts on “Episode 128: The Canterbury Tellers

  1. This podcast continues to be totally brilliant – I think it’s the longest running one I still listen to, and I’m planning to relisten to the first bunch of episodes when I have time. But this time I think you missed the subtext about the Knight. As Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) has demonstrated in “Chaucer’s Knight: Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary”, Chaucer’s list of the places where the knight had been is a list of places where massacres took place during that period of the Crusades. Chaucer’s audience would have known that the knight was a nasty piece of work and that ‘He was a veray parfit gentil knight’ was on the sarcastic side of irony.

    • Thanks for the comments about the podcast. With respect to your question, I haven’t read Terry Jones’s book, so I can’t really address his arguments. In the episode, I tried to focus on the actual text of the Canterbury Tales. There is certainly a lot of sub-text in the poem, and knights were often viewed as thugs despite their glowing reputation in the surviving literature. However, Chaucer was very much a product of the courtly culture and had very close ties to the royal court. He was also a former soldier himself and a ‘knight of the shire’ from Kent. Maybe he was implying that the knight was a thug, but I don’t think he ever expressed that sentiment in his other poetry. Also, in preparing these episodes about Chaucer, I have poured through several biographies of Chaucer and about 20 other books discussing the Canterbury Tales. Most of those sources take Chaucer’s depiction of the knight at face value. However, it is certainly possible that there was an implied sub-text which is frequently the case with Chaucer’s writings.

      • It seems contemporary historians’ take on chivalry is that our view of it is as it was imagined and revived by Victorians in the 1800s. Our view of knights as Dudley Do Right characters roaming about selflessly righting wrongs is a product of that era, not of the reality at the time. We view chivalry through the rose-coloured goggles of Victorian romantics. Chivalry was a far less prohibitive code; in practice, knights’ behaviour was ruled first by pragmatism then by ceremony.

        • I agree that chivalry was romanticized by later generations, including the Victorians; but that romanticization began much early, as in the actual “romances” that spoke of chivalry in Arthurian summations such as Le Morte d’Arthur, or perhaps more aptly the Middle English Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

      • Hi Kevin,
        You mean pored rather than poured I think.
        What a brilliant podcast series: extremely addictive – in a good way! And an elegant website for that matter. Visually attractive, excellent structure and clever text management tools.
        I’ve enjoyed bingeing since I discovered it in early June 2022 and am getting alarmingly close to your present day posts. I’ve pretty much decided that I’ll start from the beginning again when that happens!

  2. I guess you’ll get to this when you discuss the great vowel shift, but I’m wondering about the English regional derivation of the American pronunciation of clerk and derby. You mentioned that the English pronunciation (“clark” and “darby”) stems from London after the vowel shift. Did the American pronunciation come from a part of England such as East Anglia, the West Country, or Yorkshire? And did it crop up in a particular part of America, such as New England, Pennsylvania, or the South?

    • I haven’t traced the subsequent developments of that particular sound change that closely. Frankly, I wasn’t even able to pin-point exactly which parts England used each pronunciation. It is generally agreed that the /ar/ pronunciation was used in London and the “south of England,” but beyond that, it is quite vague. Early American English was heavily influenced by migration from the West Country of England (especially in the American South) and part of the Midlands of England. There was also influence from Kent and East Anglia in the early migrations to the New England colonies. I suspect that the /ur/ pronunciation was more common in those areas, but again, I’m not 100% sure about that. Over time, the /ar/ pronunciation has spread throughout England, so we can’t necessarily use the modern pronunciation landscape as a guide to the pronunciation in the 1600s and 1700s.

  3. In the podcast I think you said the pronounciation “Cl-ahh-k” is “British”. The Scots certainly say their R’s. Further, to me your middle English pronounciation, a bit closer to “cl-air-k”, sounds almost like it could be a Scottish accent. Did they skip both vowel shifts to /ar/ and /ur/?

    • The short and over-simplified answer is yes. As we have seen in prior episodes, and as we will see in future episodes with respect to the Great Vowel Shift, some of the vowel changes that took place in England had limited or no impact in Scotland. However, it is difficult to make a generalized statement about Scotland because of the interaction of Scots and modern Scottish English.

      Also, if I said ‘British English’ (and I probably did), I didn’t mean all forms of English spoken in Britain. I usually use the term ‘British English’ when I’m drawing a contrast with ‘American English’ to refer the ‘standard’ forms of English spoken in England and the US, respectively. Admittedly, it is a bit of a lazy shorthand, but the term ‘English English’ sounds odd and ‘Received Pronunciation’ seems overly formal and technical. There’s probably a better and more accurate way to phrase it, but I always assume that the listeners understand that there is tremendous dialect variation in Britain.

  4. Mildly interesting facts: gentleman came into English as a calque of the French gentilhomme. It then disappeared from French and was later borrowed back, where it is annoyingly pronounced as “gent-la-man”. On the other hand the original sense of gentle as in “parfit gentil knight” has been preserved in French. To be “gentil” is to have decent and nice behaviour.

  5. So how conscious was Chaucer of the fact that portions of his vocabulary was French? For example, I never would have guessed that “very” was originally derived from French and I’m sure that there are many many more that I don’t even realize now. Granted, I get that if he were writing in a higher register he’s naturally going to include more French based vocabulary even if he wasn’t aware of its origins just we would today. Have they been able to identify parts of the text where he deliberately threw in a French term?

    • I touched on this issue in the episode when I said that Chaucer probably just selected words that sounded sophisticated when he was writing in his higher register, and he probably didn’t give much regard to the origin or etymology of the words. However, it’s possible that he was conscious of that linguistic connection and sometimes intentionally used French words to sound more sophisticated. He was probably aware that many of those words were derived from French since he spoke French fluently. There are a few instances in the Canterbury Tales and in his separate Treatise on the Astrolabe where he used technical terms from Latin and French. He even makes a reference to the fact that those terms are loanwords in the Physician’s Tale because the host (Harry Bailey) uses a series of medical terms and acknowledges that he may not have used them or pronounced them correctly. But ultimately, it’s difficult to know for certain if Chaucer consciously chose to use French loanwords or if the words he used just happened to come from French. It was probably some combination of both.

  6. In your discussion of intensifiers, you mention that the word “very” began being used in addition to “right” to intensify words via their initial meaning of “truly.” Are the modern teen-speak “like” and “you know” also forms of this intensifier, in this case used as emphasizers? As in, “He’s, like, my favorite teacher” or “I gave it to, you know, your sister.” Did these now-proper Middle English intensifiers (very, right, …) begin with the same ill-regarded status as today’s like and you know?

    Or are like and you know just verbal filler tics?

    I’ve thought of like and you know as a method of verifying (that truth connotation again!) via emphasis/intensification that the listener is still paying attention and following you. This is similar to inflecting a declarative sentence into an implied question by raising the pitch at the end, though it’s a question that need not be answered: “I met Gordon. The man from Calgary? I think he’s polite and funny.”

    • I think there have always been and will always be people who shun change in language. Like a lot of cultural change, it makes sense that it starts with the youth. I agree with your assessment that these words and phrases act as intensifiers, which by definition make no propositional contribution to meaning, but rather add an “emotional” context.

    • I’m not a professional linguist, so I prefer to leave that analysis to the experts. I just try to report on what the experts are saying. My general feeling is that ‘like’ and ‘you know’ are verbal ticks. I don’t really think of them as intensifiers, but I can see how they could be used in that way.

  7. Like many others, I think your podcast is great! Thank you!

    Just taking this opportunity to make a comment. You said in this episode that Chaucer mentioned there were 29 pilgrims, but you counted 30. Could it be that there may be 30 in the party, but he did not consider the Pardoner as a pilgrim? The others 29 were ostensibly going for their spiritual benefit but, as you said, the Pardoner was going for his financial benefit.

    • Hi Grant. I’ve never encountered that theory before. I don’t really know the answer to your question, and I’m not sure that anyone can really say for sure. The discrepancy in the number of pilgrims is noted by many Chaucer scholars, but I never came across an explanation other than the fact that the work was never fully completed by Chaucer during his lifetime.

      • Thanks. It’s just my guess at a literary solution to the question. Owain’s post does suggest that Chaucer could present subtle clues within his work.

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