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.
During the Middle English period, English grammar and syntax underwent significant changes. Old inflectional endings continued to erode, and new phrases were introduced in their place. The writings of Geoffrey Chaucer reflect these changes, so we examine Chaucer’s House of Fame and Troilus and Criseyde for evidence of the newly emerging grammar and syntax.
Many people are familiar with the King James Bible, but over two centuries earlier, an Oxford theologian named John Wycliffe produced the first Bible composed in the English language. Together with a group of close associates, he produced a Bible that was read throughout England. In this episode, we explore the events leading to this translation, and we also examine how the Wycliffe Bible impacted the English language.
The 14th century poem called Piers Plowman has intrigued and perplexed readers for over six centuries. In the 14th century, it was embraced by peasants who used it as inspiration in their struggle against the upper classes of England. That struggle culminated in a major peasant uprising in the early 1380s. In this episode, we explore the connections between Piers Plowman and the Peasant Revolt.
In the 1300s, the scribes of England began a gradual shift from the use of animal hides like parchment to a new material made from plant fibers. That new writing material was paper. In this episode, we explore the history of paper, and we examine the fundamental connection between texts and textiles.
In 1363, the king of England tried to ban all sports other than archery in order to ensure English supremacy with the longbow. The ban had little effect, however, as the people of England continued to play ball games and board games. In this episode, we explore how terms associated with games and sports shaped the English language, and we also examine the gaming references in Geoffrey Chaucer’s first original poem.
In the years immediately following the Black Death, a labor shortage in the countryside led to the rise of yeomen and other rural laborers. The rise of these English-speaking classes led to corresponding rise in the prestige of English. The ascendency of English culminated with the Statute of Pleading which made English the official language of the government for the first time since the Norman Conquest.
In the mid-1300s, most of Europe was devastated by a massive plague known today as the Black Death. The disease killed about one-third of the population of England, and an even higher percentage of clerics and teachers who were trained in Latin and French. These disruptions permitted a younger generation who only spoke English to fill those positions. As a result, English replaced French in the grammar schools of England, and the stage was set for a revival of English learning and literature over the following decades.
The Hundred Years War is one of the most well-known conflicts of the Middle Ages. The long, extended war introduced new weapons and new types of warfare, and it marked a transition from the traditional feudal state to the modern nation-state. The war also contributed to a rise in nationalism which led many Englishmen to regard the French language as the language of the enemy. The war was one of many factors in the 14th century that led to the decline of French and the revival of English throughout England.
In November of 2018, I gave a talk at the Harvard Divinity School as part of the Sound Education Conference. The talk was an overview of the history of English called “Regarding English.” The final version of the speech was edited for time, so I have recorded the original version of the speech with the parts that were left out. Enjoy!