Author’s Note: For the sake of ease I have translated Geoffrey’s conversation and comments from Middle English into Modern English.
The firste fyndere of our fair langage – Thomas Hoccleve (14th c.)
Geoffrey Chaucer doesn’t know what coffee is. Or tea. Or refined sugar for that matter. To be honest, he was extremely surprised to receive a note from me, not expecting that I would be able to find a way to contact him, leave alone actually write. Most women that Geoffrey knows or has known can’t write, although he had seen his wife, Phillipa de Roet, write the occasional word or two on a scrap of his parchment before her death a few years prior. Mostly though, she had no reason to.
Geoffrey agreed to meet me in a local tavern, but suggested that I come with a companion, as he couldn’t account for what sort of people might also be in the tavern. Having said that, the city guards were usually pretty good in suppressing drunken brawls. I didn’t have a travelling companion to this era, so I had no choice but to brave the meeting alone.
When I arrived the tavern was dark and pretty smelly. I wasn’t used to the level of body odour of this particular place and time, as well as the muck and general waste in the streets. I had to duck to get in through the door of the inn. I passed two men on the way out, and I was significantly taller than both of them. They looked up at me as they passed, their eyes widening as they took in my stature. Clearly they were not used to seeing a woman much bigger than 4 foot 6″. I tried to wrack my brains as to who was Queen at the moment, and what she looked like. It was 1391… that meant Richard II was on the throne, and his queen was Anne of Bohemia. From what I could remember she was quite a well-beloved queen, despite being extremely young. During the Peasant’s Revolt a decade before, she had interceded for many of those involved, gaining a reputation for being kind and generous. Her husband, on the other hand, was not popular.
This, however, was not the purpose of my visit, and as I stood in the dimly lit room I scanned the room for the man I was meeting. I knew that Chaucer was in his late forties at this time, and in his note had said he would be wearing the badge of his patron, John of Gaunt (therefore a badge of Lancaster). I spotted him a few moments later, sitting towards the back of the room, his head bent as he read some scrap of paper or other by the extremely dim light afford by the dwindling candle on the table. I wondered how on earth he could see it.
I picked my way across the room, carefully stepping around or over some of the unidentifiable muck on the floor. I was up to date on all my vaccinations for the modern era, but I was taking no chances as to what sort of things I might encounter in the late fourteenth century. I had a doctor’s appointment waiting for me when I got back, just to be sure that I hadn’t picked anything up. I was fairly confident that fourteenth century bacteria and beasties would be no match for a shot of penicillin. Either way, I didn’t want to tempt fate.
‘Mr. Chaucer?’ I queried as I drew closer, causing him to look up.
‘Madame Hume? Yes? Hello! Welcome!’ said the man, looking up and then standing up, his long black robes straightening out as he did so, ‘It is wonderful – if not more than a little odd – to finally meet you!’
I let him pull out the stool on this side of the table for me, and took a seat upon it. My knees didn’t quite fit under the table, so I had to sit slightly sideways on in order to be comfortable.
‘I will have the patron bring us some of the Gascony wine that this tavern boasts,’ said Geoffrey, waving at a man picking his way through the tables, looking for mugs to clear away or drunkards to eject onto the street.
‘That would be very nice,’ I said, ‘Thank you’
It took only a few moments for the barkeep to come back with the wine and two cups for them to drink out of. Geoffrey poured it out for the both of us, and we drank the king’s health before he spoke again.
‘I have to say I did find it most unusual when you wrote to me. It is a good thing my wife is no longer alive to have seen it,’ said Geoffrey, ‘She would think I’d gone completely mad.’
‘I am surprised that you agreed to meet me,’ I said, ‘I know that this must be highly unusual for you.’
‘Well I’m never going to be able ask anyone in order to find out,’ said Geoffrey with a wry smile, ‘Then they really would start thinking I was mad Geoffrey who had lost all of his wits – not that some of them don’t already.’
‘Sorry,’ I said, holding my hands up, ‘You could say that this is all a dream.’
‘Which by the time you go again,’ he said, ‘It will probably feel like that. Depends how much of this wine I drink!’
I couldn’t help but laugh. I didn’t, however, come to this extremely dangerous place and time to talk about Gascon wine (despite the huge implications that that beverage would have on English history (it’s true)). I had come to discuss his literary works, and the impact that they were having, and would have in the future.
‘You have not yet finished your pilgrimage tales, have you?’ I asked him.
‘Not quite yet,’ he said, ‘Every time I think I have, another interesting character occurs to me, and I just have to write their story and then tell it to see what the reaction will be. Most recently I have been working on the tale of a Miller in the group on their way to Canterbury.’
I smiled, being relatively familiar with The Miller’s Tale in all it’s bawdiness. I wondered what had inspired him to write it. From my memory there were thirty pilgrims in the group of Chaucer’s tale (himself/the narrator included), although they didn’t all get their own tale. Those that did were diverse and rich in their tellings, including The Knight, The Wife of Bath, The Miller, The Summoner, & The Reeve, alongside many others. The premise is a fairly simple one; they want to keep each other entertained on the long road to Canterbury, and do so by telling tales. Whether these tales are true or not remains very much up to the listener, although the slant in which they relayed suggests that there is a ~modest amount of exaggeration going on throughout.
I asked the writer and courtier how the tales had so far been received and he replied that they were very popular, especially because they were in the vernacular so that anybody could understand them.
‘Which has been the most popular with the general public, so far?’ I asked him curiously. I knew that when I had studied his tales the class had been fairly split as to who liked what.
‘Hmmm,’ he mused, ‘It depends on who is listening. Although the knight’s tale is often very popular with the ladies, and the miller’s tale is proving to be very popular in the taverns!’
‘I’ll bet,’ I said with a smile.
‘I did actually find myself being forcibly ejected from one establishment near the River Fleet a few nights ago,’ he said, clearly amused rather than particularly offended, ‘Apparently, the landlady didn’t much take to the language used! All that did, however, was mean that everybody left the inn, and came to stand with me in the square to hear the end of the tale!’
I laughed along with him, imagining the scene and the incensed land lady. This was one of the things that is so key about Chaucer’s work, both in his own time, and throughout the ages. He was instrumental in the popularisation of the English Language for storytelling, as well as written and political works. Of course, he is not the sole reason and it is much more complex than generalised statements can put across. Edward III was the first monarch to be crowned in English (rather than French) in the earlier fourteenth century (1327), and in 1362 the Statute of Pleading had made English the official language of parliament and of the law courts. This is something I am intensely fascinated by – the juxtaposition of literature, language, and high politics, and the influence that had on the development of the vernacular tongue (it was, in brief, something that I was thinking about doing my PhD on in the days when I was still considering doing a PhD… Unfortunately the tooth fairy didn’t leave £50,000 under my pillow for me to do it! Anyway, that’s another story).
This is, of course, the main reason I have always had an interest in Chaucer and his works – what was it that encouraged him to write his works in English? Clearly at the time of his writing, the country was in the midst of what many contemporaries considered to be the apocalyptic century – there was war, famine, plague, and death on an unforeseen scale. The population of England shrank by perhaps as much as 50-60% over the course of the century. Historians estimate that the population was anywhere between 6-10 million people in 1311, but by the time the fourteenth century ended it sat somewhere between 2.5-4 million. The numbers wouldn’t recover until the beginning of the seventeenth century. This was cataclysmic, and I wonder whether a solidifying of the English vernacular was something of a rallying post, a formed identity, forged in the midst of this terrible time. Of course, this is just my initial thoughts on the subject, and other than studying the fourteenth century in my second year undergraduate degree I am not basing these thoughts on the weight of any especial evidence.
I didn’t, however, particularly wish to explore the political and social events of his lifetime with Chaucer; I could read them well enough in his stories and in the lines on his face. We did discuss the fact that many of his manuscripts had been copied a lot, testament to the enduring interest in his work. When travelling to these times I tried not to give too much away about the nature of a poet or author’s reputation in the future (butterfly’s wings and all that), but the fact that I had travelled nearly seven hundred years in order to meet him somewhat gave the game away to Chaucer. Whether he believed that I had done or so or not was beside the point.
It was needless to say, as we spoke, that Chaucer didn’t actually speak in the decasyllabic metre of a lot of his writing, although his language was full of idioms and other nuances that I had to pay careful attention to in order to understand him. As our conversation – and the wine – drew to its end, I asked him what he thought the future of England would be, now that the fifteenth century was just on the horizon. He said, with somewhat of a sparkle in his eye, that he did not know – but surely I did? All he knew was that before the sun set this evening he had to deliver a copy of his ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ to one Katherine Swynford. I couldn’t help but look slightly intrigued by this piece of information. Chaucer simply shrugged, drained the dregs of his wine and smiled, stating that just because his master was not married to Mistress Swynford, did not mean that he did not care for her deeply. I didn’t say anything, not daring in case I came across as disrespectful. It was a well known fact that John of Gaunt and Mistress Swynford had been having an affair for decades, despite the Duke being married twice to others.
I bid him farewell as he stood up and made to leave. He bid me goodbye and safe travels back to wherever I had come from, however I would go about achieving that. I told him not to think about it too hard, because it didn’t particularly warrant a plausible explanation. I watched him go, light momentarily flooding the tavern as the door opened and then closed behind him. I turned back to my wine, drank the rest, briefly examined the scattering of silver pennies he had left upon the scrubbed wooden top, and then made to follow him.
No matter how fascinating Chaucer’s company was, and how incredible it was to discuss the legacy of his work, I found myself wishing to fairly swiftly return to the twenty-first century. I was in need of a bath.
Well, I hope you enjoyed my sojourn to the fourteenth century! Went off on one a bit with this one, didn’t I?
You can listen to the first 100 lines of The Canterbury Tales, in Middle English, on this linked YouTube video. It’s pretty good pronunciation, but you will need to turn the volume up in order to catch it all! I find that it is quite soothing to listen to; very rhythmic and almost hypnotic. It is also very clearly English, unlike when I have attempted to read Old English texts. That’s a post for another time though and one that I definitely do not have the academic insight into – it’s more of a hobby than anything!
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!