One of the joys of my Chaucer class this quarter has been reading the original Middle English text. People often toss about the term “Old English” to refer to any old-fashioned English. But in medievalist lingo, Old English refers only to the texts of pre-Norman Invasion Anglo-Saxon. (Think Beowulf.) Middle English (roughly) covers everything from 1150-1500, the beginning of the Renaissance and the invention of the printing press. Whereas Old English might as well be its own language, Middle English is not hard to pick up. As one of my professors put it, “Middle English is modern English with a dictionary.” Chaucer’s Middle English is relatively easy, as he was writing from London, in a dominant dialect that looks more familiar to us than a more regional dialect of the tongue.
But that doesn’t make Chaucer’s language simple. He is a real wordsmith, playing with multiple meanings of words for his broader goals of creating stories with “sentence and solaas” — meaning and entertainment. This series of blog posts will look at some of the wordplay I’ve encountered in Chaucer this quarter. Much of this is untranslatable, so I’m also making an argument for reading Chaucer in the original.
I’ll start with the word “wode” in its three meanings. My main argument is that the triple meaning of wode in the “General Prologue” reveals Chaucer’s connections between physical wood, insanity, and the satirized failings of the first and second estate.
Of wodecraft wel koude he al the usage.
In other words, he is good at “wodecraft,” or wood-working.
Two. Chaucer also uses wood in its other sense of “madness; also, an overmastering emotion, specifically rage or fury.” He does so in two places. First, in the portrait of the lecherous and alcoholic summoner, he writes:
And for to drynken strong wyn, reed as blood;
Thanne wolde he speke and crie as he were wood
When the summoner gets drunk (as he does often) he shouts out random Latin phrases he has learned at the ecclesiastic court. His drunken shouts are like those of a crazy man!
In the portraits of the monk and the manciple, Chaucer brings out the most satirical uses of wood. Chaucer, writing an estates satire, pokes fun at both the first and second estates, the clergy and the nobility. In the monk’s portrait, he writes: “
What sholde he studie and make hymselven wood,
Upon a book in cloystre alwey to poure,
Despite being a Benedictine monk, vowed to a life of ora et labora, this monk is more interested in sporting and hunting in the great outdoors than in illuminating manuscripts in a dusty scriptorium. But Chaucer himself is a learned man who has pored over and written many books. The only one who fears that reading books will drive one mad is this jockish monk!
Chaucer also uses wood satirically in the manciple’s portrait. A manciple is a purchaser for a monastery or a lord, managing a house of some kind. Chaucer describes the men this manciple has worked for:
Of maistres hadde he mo than thries ten,
That weren of lawe expert and curious,
Of which ther were a duszeyne [dozen] in that hous
Worthy to been stywardes of rente and lond
Of any lord that is in engelond,
To make hym lyve by his propre good
In honour dettelees [debtless] (but if he were wood),
Or lyve as scarsly as hym list desire; (Chaucer 576-583)
This manciple has worked for over thirty masters, a dozen of whom were wise enough to be the stewards of the property of any lord in England. These lords could live so nicely that they would be debtless in honor “but if he were wood” – unless they were crazy. Wood here refers to the madness of an already-powerful lord wanting more power, more wealth, more luxury, than any sane human might want.
Three. While it doesn’t explicitly show up in the General Prologue, Chaucer was likely playing on the third meaning of wood/wode: a blue dye or the woad-plant used to create that dye. In medieval England, blue was a color of royalty. So the lords who desire to be too wode (blue, or noble) are really wode (crazy). The vanity and greed of the wealthy is actually insanity!
It is well known that Chaucer is a great satirist, poking fun at the three medieval “estates” of clergy, nobility, and the “everyone else” estate. Here he exploits the triple nuance of this word to create powerful satire. But since the meaning of “wood” as “crazy” disappeared in the nineteenth century, this pun can’t be translated into contemporary renderings of the Canterbury Tales!