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To the Middle Ages with Geoffrey Chaucer

While the most popular English poet around the world is Shakespeare, he is hardly the true founder of English poetry. By the time Shakespeare was born, its history had been as long as a millennium. Yet when we come to the question who started the present tradition of English poetry, which includes Shakespeare, Milton, Byron and many others, we cannot but think of Chaucer.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343–1400) was a non-aristocratic Londoner, born into a merchant’s family. Little is known about his early years, yet it was a very significant period of English cultural history, that coincided the coming of Chaucer. Since the Norman Conquest in 1066, the original poetic tradition of Anglo-Saxons had long been interrupted. The new upper classes were of French origin and uninterested in the native English culture. Though written English was never given up fully, the more prestigious written language was French. However, English was spoken in daily life by most people of any class. So, if you were an educated English person then, you did not need to speak French all the day, but you were obliged to write in it. Such situation is called bilingualism.

It was King Edward III (reigned 1327–1377) who first thought this situation unnatural. His decision to make English language official had, in fact, political reasons. Since 1337 Edward had been in conflict with French kings, to whom he refused to pay tributes. Though by 14th century England’s submission to France had been little more than nominal, the French crown was still getting large sums of money from England. Edward, understandably, thought he should have rather had it himself. This was the beginning of the Hundred Years War (1337–1453).

At first, Edward claimed the right to the French throne, but later he changed his policy. He saw that he could rely very much on common English people – yeomen (that is, middle-class farmers). It was them who helped him to win the famous battles at Crécy, 1346, and at Poitiers, 1356. These were simple people who spoke English and felt hostile to anything French. So Edward began his greatest plan – that of making up native English identity.

By 1360s, Edward was strongly promoting English as the language of national culture. One of the first poets to establish the new literary canon was Geoffrey Chaucer.

Since about 1367, Chaucer was in touch with the king’s family and served as a diplomat. As such, he had a chance to visit France and Italy and to know the latest trends in literature. In Italy, he came to know the works of Petrarch and Boccaccio, and could have possibly met the latter personally.

Chaucer was fascinated by the sweet lightness of poetry in Romance languages. He wanted English verse sound as simple, musical and refined as French and Italian ones did. His poetic debut in 1369 was The Book of the Duchess, in the memory of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, who had died earlier in that year. Rather plain in form, it nonetheless gave Chaucer the reputation of a talented poet. He became the court poet of the royal family, and in 1374 King Edward granted him with a free daily supply of wine (after Edward’s death in 1377, his successor Richard II replaced wine with money).

Yet Chaucer’s plan was much more ambitious than just winning admiration. He wanted to re-shape the whole English literature. Therefore, he had to compete with other poets who had different ideas how it should have been done. There were many authors who wanted to restore the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse which had faded away under the Normans. Chaucer felt that it was impossible. The language of his contemporaries was Middle English, rather than Old English of Anglo-Saxons. The difference was enormous. Old English sounded a bit like modern German: it had noun cases, prefixes and many compound words, so most words were generally much longer than in modern English. However, it lacked constructions like ‘will have done’ or ‘is going’, because the only two tenses were Past and Present (not unlike those in modern Russian). Middle English, after having undergone French influence, was much more like the English we speak today. It is when the silent ‘e’ at the end of words and the ‘-s’ plural form of nouns appeared. Besides, many French words were adopted by speakers of English and are still used today. These fall into categories as such:

1) words for facts and objects of upper-class lifestyle: chair (as more refined than Anglo-Saxon stool), castle, count (title), manor, mirror, music;

2) words concerning spiritual or emotional matters: manner, honour, favour, mercy, joy, chaste, tender, pleasant;

3) political and social terms: parliament, charter, royal, prince, heir, judge, jury, merchant;

4) words related to religion: chapel, prelate, Paradise.

However, this does not mean that all of these ideas were totally new for Anglo-Saxons. Many words from Categories 2 and 4 are just the result of replacing the Old English words with their French equivalents which were thought to be more ‘stylish’. There are also some cases when the Anglo-Saxon word survives, but is considered more informal than its French counterpart: if you wish to be polite, you say rather stomach (F) than belly (AS).

But many French loanwords went in place of the Anglo-Saxon words by pure chance: such are pork, mutton, table, flower. Finally, some ideas still can be expressed in any way you like: you can say either to end (AS) or to finish (F), lovely (AS) or beautiful (F), weapons (AS) and arms (F).


Old English (Anglo-Saxon) the language spoken in England before the Norman Conquest of 1066

Middle English the language spoken between 1066 and 1500

modern English the language spoken from 1500 up to now

case the way to change nouns, which is absent in modern English, but can be seen in Russian: дом – дома – дому, etc.

loanword a word which comes from another language

compound word a word which is made up of two or more words, like ‘loanword’

alliterative verse Old Germanic verse based on repetitions of consonants. For instance: In a summer season, when soft was the sun (the repeated sound is ‘s’).

narrative poem a long poem where a story is told (Russian поэма), as different from a smaller, lyric poem (Russian стихотворение)

stanza a small section of a poem, which has 2, 4 or more lines with repeated rhymes

So the language Chaucer spoke was no more Old English of ancient epic poetry. It needed some newer means of expression. Chaucer sought to adapt it to the style of French and Italian verse, and he succeeded in it. His real triumph was Troilus and Criseyde, a narrative poem written in late 1370s, where he first introduced his famous ‘royal rhyme’ – a 7-line stanza, much loved by later English poets

But the principal work of Chaucer’s was yet to come. Fascinated by Boccaccio’s Decameron, he wanted to create his own collection of purely English stories. His project was great – he planned 120 stories told by 30 characters, 4 stories each. His work was not completed, and now we have only 24 stories plus a prologue. Two of them are in prose, the rest in verse, mostly in plain double-line stanzas. The prologue is where Chaucer gets us acquainted with all the characters, one of them being the poet himself.

While Boccaccio’s storytellers are set in the gloomy atmosphere of the 1348 plague, Chaucer’s scene is much nicer. On a fine spring day 30 people go on pilgrimage to Canterbury, and the prologue opens with the loveliest description of spring in English literature. The pilgrims are of very different social background and represent the whole England of 14th century: a knight, a miller, an abbot, a student, a townswoman and many others. Each one’s story matches his or her personality and social status; Chaucer deliberately shifts his style from high to low, from pathetic to funny.

His stylistic achievements were so impressive that the English literature was happy to take the Chaucerian way. By the late 14th century, the English people’s enthusiasm for education in their native language was so great that the English Bible, translated from Latin by John Wyclif, appeared. This, however, was suppressed by Roman Catholic Church who did not like the idea (the present English Bible is Protestant and dates from 1608). But as far as church matters were not concerned, English language became a steady part of people’s national identity. Short after Chaucer’s death, King Henry V (reigned 1413–1422) introduced the first state standard of English language, called Chancery Standard. It was based on the London dialect and was the first attempt to give English language uniform norms of grammar and spelling.

Appendix 1

Some adventures of English words.

Old EnglishMiddle Englishmodern English







to sleep


Appendix 2

Read Middle English yourself!

A Brief Manual

1. A Middle English text may look puzzling, but it will be much easier to make it out if you remember some simple rules:

• There are many extra or lacking letters, especially e’s: softe = soft, castell = castle, minde = mind, kepe = keep.

• Instead of ea, ie and ee, there usually is only e: gret = great. Instead of oo or u, there is typically o or sometimes ou. So if you cannot recognize the word in the book, try to say it aloud – this may be the key.

• Some letters are used interchangeably. These are: v, w and u; y and i; c, ck and k; ei, ai, ey and ay.

• There are some h’s where in modern English they are absent: hyt = it.

Now, can you make out what these words mean?

bedde, lyf, bocke, kynge, to rede, smale, herte, swete, bytwene


• In Middle English, 3d singular of Present Simple ends with -th instead of -s, and infinitives can sometimes have -en at the end.

• Verbs may have prefixes y- or be- which have the meaning of Perfect, like some prefixes in Russian.

2. These are some lines from The Canterbury Tales. Try to read and understand as much as you can.

A knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.

Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,
And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre,
As wel in cristendom as in hethenesse,
And evere honoured for his worthynesse.


chivalrie (modern English chivalry) a knight’s morals; knighthood

curteisie (modern English courtesy) politeness

werre, ferre = war, far

hethenesse a hethen (modern English heathen) is a person who worships other gods than Christ, so hethenesse means heathen era or heathen community

By Maria Eliferova ,
Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow