Category Archives: Middle English

“Whan That Aprille Day”: Book Review of “Chaucer’s Language.”

Since Chaucer himself invited us:

On the first daye of Aprille, lat us make tyme to take joye yn alle langages that are yclept ‘old,’ or ‘middel,’ or ‘auncient,’ or ‘archaic,’ or, alas, even ‘dead.’

chaucers-language-simon-horobin-paperback-cover-artAs promised last week, I am reviewing Simon Horobin’s introductory volume on Chaucer’s language.  Horobin’s book, targeted to upper-division undergraduates or others with a background in Chaucer but not in linguistics, introduces the sounds, dialects, vocabulary, grammar, and discourse features of Middle English as used by Chaucer.  The book itself is 177 pages, but it also includes appendices with further reading, sample passages and commentary, and a glossary of linguistic terms.  Since I can’t run through the whole book, I will briefly look at three ways in which this book illuminated my appreciation of Chaucer.


First, sound and dialects.  Middle English was generally composed of four dialects: Northern, Southern, East Midland, and West Midland.  Chaucer lived in London, where he used the Southern dialect frequently.  Yet because his Canterbury Tales contains the stories of a wide array of people, he skillfully weaves their way of speaking into his tales, making him “the first writer in English to employ dialect variation” (26).  For example, the Reeve’s Tale portrays two Cambridge students from the North who speak in strange ways, using “I is” instead of “I am” and using a-sounds where Southerners would use o-sounds (33).  Putting different dialects into his characters’ mouths enabled Chaucer to flesh out their personalities and poke fun at people from other regions of the country.  Horobin points out that “Chaucer’s works were composed for oral performance, and his first audience was probably composed of listeners rather than readers,” so understanding the sounds of Chaucer is key (11).

Second, spelling.  Chaucer was able to portray dialect differently because English spelling was not standardized in his day.  People spelled as they spoke, so that while there were fewer of present-day English’s inconsistent spellings, people from different regions might have a hard time reading one another’s writings.  For example, the northern student in the Revee’s Tale:

To grynde oure corn and carie it ham agayn; (4033)

By contrast, the Southern dialect in the mouth of the Summoner:

That oon of hem cam hoom, that oother noght. (2021)

Notice how the northerner’s different pronunciation of the vowel in “home” changes the spelling.  Chaucer’s Southern spelling, while sometimes very different from our spelling, is still more recognizable to me than Northern English, simply because Chaucer’s London dialect would later become the basis for standardized spelling.  This is why the northern students in the Reeve’s Tale were so hard to read for me!

Third: vocabulary.  Middle English vocabulary was derived from Old English, French, Latin, and Old Norse.  Whereas Old English speakers, like modern-day Francophones, eschewed word-borrowing, Middle English began to be the mutt that modern English has become.  Horobin shows how Chaucer took words from particular registers, such as Latin mostly used in ecclesiastical settings, and repurposed them for the vernacular English of his tales.  He shows how every word can have an intricate past that Chaucer’s audience would have picked up on easily but not us.

Why is Chaucer’s language key?  Chaucer was one of the first major vernacular English authors.  It was not obvious that the Canterbury Tales would be in English.  English poets of his day often wrote in French, and some even in Latin.  Horobin points out that English was considered more democratic.  The Black Death had also created a new middle class that wanted entertainment in a language they could understand.  Chaucer certainly understand that language is always changing:

Ye knowe ek that in forme of speche is chaunge
Withinne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden pris, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thinketh them, and yet thei spake hem so… (Troilus and Creseyde)

I would recommend Horobin’s book as a textbook and a short read for anyone interested in the history of the English language.

Middle English Mondays: “Queynte” and Sexual Euphemisms.

Last week I was unable to continue my “Middle English Mondays” because of finals.  But here I am, with the most vulgar blog post topic I have so far: Chaucer’s wordplay on “queynte,” a word that sounds very similar to Middle English “cunte.”  I trust you can figure out what the latter word means!

Eve Siebert at Skeptical Humanities has a great post on this word:

The word that Chaucer uses is not “cunt,” but “queynte.” “Queint,” as a noun, literally means “a clever or curious device or ornament” (Middle English Dictionary) or an “elegant, pleasing thing” (Riverside Chaucer). When used to refer to a woman’s genitalia, it is both a euphemism and a pun.

Her post explains the most well-known puns on “queynte” in The Canterbury Tales, so I won’t detail how the word shows up in “The Miller’s Tale” or “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue.”  Instead I will look at both how the word shows up the The House of Fame.

The House of Fame is one of Chaucer’s dream-visions, a medieval genre in which a protagonist experiences an allegorical dream, often with a didactic dream guide.  Dream visions often drew heavily on classical myth.

The House of Fame is perhaps Chaucer’s most enigmatic dream-vision.  Scholars aren’t even sure whether it was left incomplete or has a deliberately ambiguous ending.  In one of its dream-episodes, Chaucer enters the Temple of Venus and reads the story of Dido and Aeneas:

What shulde I speke more queynte,
Or peyne me my wordes peynte
To speke of love? Hyt wol not be;
I kan not of that faculte.
And eke to telle the manere
How they aqueynteden in fere,
Hyt were a long proces to telle,
And over-long for yow to dwelle. (lines 245-252)

In other words: Why should I speak more elegantly of their love?  I know not how, and also to tell how they became acquainted in love – it would take too long to tell the story.  I love the pun here on the first “queynte,” in the sense of clever or elegant, and the word “aqueynteden,” equivalent to the modern word “acquainted.”  Chaucer here insinuates that their becoming acquainted has something to do with her queynte.

Given the word “queynte” has dropped out of modern English, this wordplay doesn’t translate well, and the most that one modern translator can convey is

Why should I speak more artfully or strive to paint my words in speaking of love?

That said, I do admire Neville Coghill’s modern rendering of the queynte wordplay in “The Miller’s Tale” (explained in Siebert’s post above):

Students are sly, and giving way to whim, / He made a grab and caught her by the quim

“Quim” is not a word we hear much these days (I had to look it up) but Coghill manages to preserve both the rhyme scheme and the wordplay.  I find it fascinating how hard it is to translate even Middle English, a language so similar to ours especially in Chaucer’s dialect.  If you want to read more on Chaucerian language, check out his other uses of the word “queynte” or just read his blog.  Also, in honor of “Whan That Aprille Day,” I hope to have a review of Simon Horobin’s book on Chaucerian English.

Middle English Mondays: “Wode” in the Canterbury Tales.

chaucerOne 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.

One.  The most basic meaning of wood is the one that has survived: dead trees.  In the yeoman’s portrait, Chaucer describes him as a man who

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!

For some modern-day woad users, click here:

For some modern-day woad users, click here:


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!

If this tempts you to read Chaucer in the original, then get yourself a Riverside Chaucer and check out the Middle English Dictionary online.  If not, then continue onto my next post.