The Canterbury Tales, by Goeffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales is a great example of the kind of work that is best enjoyed by listening to it instead of reading it. First, it's poetry, and for most of its existence poetry was meant to be read aloud. Second, it's riddled with archaic spelling and vocabulary that can be difficult to understand when you are looking at words on a page, but (for me at least) is much easier to understand when you're listening to it. Third, it's full of humor. Sometimes if I'm reading something the humor in it sails right past me. Listening to the various readers in this LibriVox recording (free!) bring the humor and irony of the Tales to life is really a joy.

I've tried to read The Canterbury Tales before, only to give up after a few pages because the effort was too great. And I've got quite a few advantages over the average reader - I've actually studied Old and Middle English, and I speak French and Italian, which allows me to understand most of the Latin words thrown into the verse and figure out from the roots what most of the other unusual words mean. Listening was much easier - I could almost always figure out what an unusual word meant.

I had read that the Tales were similar to The Decameron, but I still didn't expect it to be so.... bawdy. There's farting and adultery and oh so much more! Because the pilgrims come from all walks of life I really feel like I got a good cross-section of life at the time in all its vulgar splendor. At the same time I was surprised by the amount of religiousity. References to Christianity and a concern with moral action pervaded almost all of the stories to an extreme extent. The last tale in particular kind of blew my mind; the Parson's Tale is a seemingly unending litany of sins to be avoided itemized in excruciating detail.

Wikiepedia seems to think that the Parson's Tale is straightforward and not ironic, but listening to the below made me wonder if this wasn't an exercise in irony:

Upon the other side, to speak of
the horrible disordinate scantness of clothing, as be these cutted
slops or hanselines [breeches] , that through their shortness
cover not the shameful member of man, to wicked intent alas!
some of them shew the boss and the shape of the horrible
swollen members, that seem like to the malady of hernia, in the
wrapping of their hosen, and eke the buttocks of them, that fare
as it were the hinder part of a she-ape in the full of the moon.
And more over the wretched swollen members that they shew
through disguising, in departing [dividing] of their hosen in
white and red, seemeth that half their shameful privy members
were flain [flayed]. And if so be that they depart their hosen in
other colours, as is white and blue, or white and black, or black
and red, and so forth; then seemeth it, by variance of colour,
that the half part of their privy members be corrupt by the fire
of Saint Anthony, or by canker, or other such mischance. And
of the hinder part of their buttocks it is full horrible to see, for
certes, in that part of their body where they purge their stinking
ordure, that foul part shew they to the people proudly in despite
of honesty [decency], which honesty Jesus Christ and his friends
observed to shew in his life.

I mean, come on. This can't be serious.


Richard Mason said...

I think it's interesting that Chaucer and/or the Parson are so conversant with the hinder part of a she-ape.

Hmm, Wikipedia says that there was a menagerie kept at the Tower of London starting in 1235.

Glad to see your blog isn't dead.

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Terri Kirby Erickson said...

Love your blog...I'm an avid reader, too. I still check out arm-loads of books from the library about every two weeks! :o) If you're interested in a modern-day "tale," you might check out my new poetry collection, Telling Tales of Dusk. You can get more info about it from my website, Have a wonderful day!

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