Not the Chaucer You’re Looking For


New Chaucer booksI received a couple of new Chaucer books recently and, despite my love of reading Chaucer, frankly, I was disappointed by both. My expectations for both greatly exceeded what little joy I received from them. I was deeply disappointed by both. And I’m here to tell you why.

Let me back up a bit, before I get into my reviews. I have a couple of dozen books by or about Chaucer and his language on my bookshelves, which suggests he is a serious interest to me, yet not quite built to the sort of obsession I have with Shakespeare and Machiavelli, but borderline (both of those authors are represented by more than four-five dozen books each). Regular readers on my blog will have read my several posts on reading and thinking about Chaucer in the past.

I particularly like wrestling with the original Middle English of his works because I like both the challenge and the joy of learning something new. It’s a bit like playing Sudoku or word puzzle games. And I love reading pretty much anything to do with the English language, so my passions converge. But I also like to read modernized versions not just the Middle English (ME), because they are faster and easier to read, and I enjoy seeing how translators approach the works differently.

InterlinearMy favourite Chaucerian book from my modest library is a battered, well-worn copy of an interlinear selection of the Canterbury Tales now a couple of decades old and held together with tape and an improvised binding because I read it so much I broke the spine. This book allows me to see both the ME and modern English wording simultaneously. That’s a bit more convenient than sitting up in bed with two books on my lap, modern and middle versions, eyes flicking from one to the other as I slowly read my way along. But I will happily open any of the versions by themselves. I suppose my next favourite edition is Neville Coghill’s verse translation from the 1950s, still popular and easy to read (it is available from Penguin Books in recent editions).*

Chaucer is often crowned the “father of modern English literature,” and the “father of modern English poetry” because he brought new, popular forms to writing that presaged modern styles. But he is also rightly considered the father of modern English. I’ll explain that comment in a subsequent post and meander a bit about how his English became our English. And I may dip into why The Canterbury Tales has long been among the list of banned books. But first, let’s look at these two recently-acquired books.

The book on the right of the picture at the top is The Canterbury Tales: Fully Annotated Edition, published by Alma Classics in 2020. It’s a hefty 608-page paperback, and it was reasonably priced at $13.50 on Amazon. Amazon’s sales page says, “Unfinished at the time of his death, The Canterbury Tales are here presented in their original Middle-English. This edition contains a wealth of material and over 3,000 notes which will help all students of Chaucer’s masterpiece.” The “original Middle English” is taken from the Ellesmere manuscript, and set in a modern typeface. I bought it specifically for that promise of being “fully annotated.”

My stack of ChaucerThe Alma books’ website notes, “Alma Classics edition of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer contains 3,000 notes and 30 pages extra material.” Well, first, that’s a different definition of “fully” than I would use.

Yes, it has a lot of footnotes, but they’re almost all brief clarifications or explanations of some (not all) ME words. Often just a single word is noted. There are a few notes to explain Latin or French terms. There are no footnotes about context, the professions or people, their clothes, their behaviour, or even where and why they are going on a pilgrimage. There is nothing to explain any of the significant textual and structural differences between the Ellesmere and Hengwrt manuscripts (many editors prefer the Hengwrt, such as those who put together the Riverside Chaucer). (see below for further comment).

There are 30 pages of notes at the end, but the whole section reads like an addon; one of those essays meant for passing exams you can find online. It has no authorship or credits, no citations or references within the text, not even back to the text itself, so its credibility is suspect. Six pages cover Chaucer’s life, but some of the comments about “lost documents” suggest this was reprinted from old sources (and its style seems different from the remainder of the section).  Four pages cover other works by Chaucer. The rest merely summarize the tales. I cannot find any reference in any of these pages that mentions why the characters were going to Canterbury. There is no index, no glossary of terms. I suspect it is a reprint of an older book now passed into public domain with the end sections added to appeal students.

In comparison, Penguin Books has a superb paperback edition of the Tales in the original ME, edited by Gillian Mann, with a wealth of notes, references, and scholarly material. It is more than double the size of the Alma version, at 1,328 pages. I would recommend this Penguin paperback version to anyone who wants to tackle Chaucer in ME, but wants solid, credible, academic support in their reading. I would also recommend the Riverside Chaucer third edition, although it is considerably more expensive and a much larger format hardcover, making it more difficult to carry around and read in bed (plus it contains texts of all of Chaucer’s works, not just the Tales). I wouldn’t recommend the Alma edition at all.

More ChaucerThe book on the left of the topmost picture is Pilgrimage: The Only Complete Version of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, by Michael Herzog. The Amazon page says, “To the frustration of modern readers, Chaucer had finished perhaps only three-quarters of his masterpiece when he died in 1400. But then, in 2015, a miracle. In an archeological dig near London’s Westminster Abbey the book you now hold in your hand was found, the only complete version of the Tales.”

Well, although I suspect modern readers felt little frustration although some scholars might, that news excited and bemused me. I had never heard of such a find and spent many hours online looking for any news items about the find. Fruitless hours, it turned out, because it’s fictional. Herzog was using a literary trope about uncovering a “lost” manuscript… not unlike the trick Edgar Rice Burroughs used in A Princess of Mars, back in 1912. And Herzog himself used the same tactic and fictional manuscript in his earlier novel about Chaucer’s “missing years” — This Passing World, The Journal of Geoffrey Chaucer. But it doesn’t say that anywhere on the Amazon page or the book’s jacket. I was fooled into thinking I was buying something previously unpublished by Chaucer. Nope: it’s all by Herzog. Hence my disappointment.

Well, he does use the Canterbury Tales as his basis, rewriting the existing tales in modern prose, and then adding stories for those left unwritten by Chaucer. Not that I’m opposed to prose versions: I have other prose editions by Peter Ackroyd (The Canterbury Tales, Viking-Penguin, 2009) and by John Tatlock and Percy MacKaye (The Modern Reader’s Chaucer, Free Press,1966) and have read prose versions by others. Yet as much as it might be easier to read prose, there is something delightful about the poetry that gets lost in the transition. And when the prose is modernized, even more so. (FYI, about a quarter of the original Canterbury Tales was written in prose).

Yes, human nature may be the same today as it was in the 14th century — Chaucer’s quite clear that his pilgrims feel love, lust, greed, jealousy, anger, passion, pride, faith, happiness, humour, and the rest of the gamut of emotions and attributes in ways we can easily empathize with today —but people and societies have changed a lot in other ways since Chaucer’s day in other ways and I want the text to reflect that. I want to imagine them as people from Chaucer’s day, not mine.

The Amazon page continues:

Here, for the first time ever, readers can meet all thirty fascinating, raucous, endearing, unabashed pilgrims, enjoy each of their intriguing, surprising and uncensored tales; and discover to which of them the Host awards the prize for telling the best story.

Well, not quite. You can read a variation of the same tales Chaucer penned in the late 14th century, all 24 tales, and then read some new stories — call them homages — by Herzog. They’re not bad, they’re just not Chaucer. I admire Herzog’s chutzpah, his talent, and his impressive academic and teaching qualifications (he has a PhD in Comparative Literature, spent 45 years as a professor, more than 30 years of which he taught Chaucer; and I’m just a humble lay reader), but… they’re not by Chaucer. And his prose is… well, not very Chaucerian. Part of the magic of reading Chaucer is the suspension of belief that allows the reader to slip back 650 or so years. And some of that comes from retaining archaic idioms and usage in the text.

As a former book editor, I should add that, in formatting a book of this sort, having the chapter names (the names of the tales) printed at the top of either the recto or verso pages (facing or reverse side; also odd or even) would make it much easier for the reader to identify their location and find it later. Herzog’s book lacks them

Let me give you a short example. Here is the opening of the General Prologue in ME. Try to read it aloud. You’ll find there are words that look odd but sound familiar when spoken (e.g. fowles,, perced, roote, flour, nyght, heeth). You’ll also find there are forms of words that seem familiar but odd (e.g. slepen, open ye, seken, holpen). And there are unknown words, too (e.g. holt, strondes, kowthe, palmeres). You can listen to Coghill read the ME version from an old 78 rpm record, on YouTube.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

In the Alma edition (Ellesmere ms), reviewed above, there are seven brief notes for this verse: 1. sweet; 2. also; 3. grove, woodland; 4. hearts; 5. distant shrines; 6. St Thomas Beckett; and 7. sick. Can you tell which words they relate to? The answers are below. Here’s a modern, unrhymed verse translation of those lines from the Harvard Chaucer website.

When April with its sweet-smelling showers
Has pierced the drought of March to the root,
And bathed every vein (of the plants) in such liquid
By which power the flower is created;
When the West Wind also with its sweet breath,
In every wood and field has breathed life into
The tender new leaves, and the young sun
Has run half its course in Aries,
And small fowls make melody,
Those that sleep all the night with open eyes
(So Nature incites them in their hearts),
Then folk long to go on pilgrimages,
And professional pilgrims to seek foreign shores,
To distant shrines, known in various lands;
And specially from every shire’s end
Of England to Canterbury they travel,
To seek the holy blessed martyr,
Who helped them when they were sick.

You can actually read the entire Canterbury Tales in interlinear translation on that site. Well worth your time, I might add, unless you have a hardcopy version.

Here’s how Herzog frames that bit in his prose:

In sparkling Spring, when the sweet showers of April have again prevailed over arid March, bathing each follicle of the flower in that liqueur which inspires its beauty — when Zephyrus joins in, his sweet breath awakening tender crops in every field and land, and the youthful sun has kicked its heels halfway through the season of the Ram, while small birds that sleep all night with open eyes pound out their melodies at Nature’s relentless bidding — we find ourselves yearning to go on pilgrimages to well-known but far-off shrines in various lands, while seasoned pilgrims seek out new and exotic places of worship. In England, of course they travel near and far, from every shire, to Canterbury, eager to supplicate the holy blessed martyr who has always helped them in their ailments.

Tatlock and MacKaye render it thus:

When the sweet showers of April have pierced to the root the dryness of March, and bathed every vein in moisture whose quickening brings forth the flowers; when Zephyr also with his sweet breath has quickened the tender shoots in holt and moor, and the young sun has run his half-course in the Ram, and little birds make melody and sleep all night with eyes open, so nature pricks them in their hearts; then folk long to go on pilgrimage to renowned shrines in sundry distant lands, and palmers to seek strange shores. And especially from every shire’s end in England they go their way to Canterbury, to seek the holy blessed martyr who helped them when they were sick.

And from Ackroyd**:

When the soft sweet showers of April reach the roots of all things, refreshing the parched earth, nourishing every sapling and every seedling, then humankind rises up in joy and expectation. The west wind blows away the stench of the city, and the crops flourish in the fields beyond the walls. After the waste of winter it is delightful to hear birdsong once more in the streets. The trees themselves are bathed in song. It is a time of renewal, of general restoration. The sun has passed midway through the sign of the Ram, a good time for sinews and the heart. This is the best season of the year for travellers. That is why good folk then long to go on pilgrimage. They journey to strange shores and cities, seeking solace among the shrines of the saints. Here in England many make their way to Canterbury, and to the tomb of the holy blissful martyr Thomas. They come from every shire to find a cure for infirmity and care.

These are not bad versions, and some lines are beautifully expressive but certainly different from the original. And I have issues with some phrases all three use. Will modern readers understand Zephyr? Or what the “season of the Ram” or “sign of the Ram” is? Is youthful sun really the synonym for young sun? What are palmers? When did Chaucer ever mention the “stench of the city”?

Compare them with two verse translations. First Neville Coghill’s rhyming verse:

When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
As brings about the engendering of the flower,
When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
Exhales an air in every grove and heath
Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And the small fowl are making melody
That sleep away the night with open eye
(So nature pricks them and their heart engages)
Then people long to go on pilgrimages
And palmers long to seek the stranger strands
Of far-off saints, hallowed in sundry lands,
And specially, from every shire’s end
Of England, down to Canterbury they wend
To seek the holy blissful martyr, quick
To give his help to them when they were sick.

And finally Burton Raffel’s more recent version:

When April arrives, and with his sweetened showers
Drenches dried-up roots, gives them power
To stir dead plants and sprout the living flowers
That spring has always spread across these fields,
And the God of Winds then blows his gentle seeds
In every wood and heath of England, feeding
Tender crops, as the sun, still young in the sky
Compels small birds to sing their melodies,
Creatures who sleep at night with open eyes
(Exactly as Nature frames their lives’ short ages).
Pilgrims dream of setting foot on far-off
Lands, or worship at distant shrines, their thoughts
Reaching for grace, as holy teachers taught them.
And mostly, from everywhere in England, they hurry
To the blessed ancient town of Canterbury,
To worship the martyred spirit of Thomas a Beckett,
Who’d helped so many, lying deadly sick.

I think you’ll agree with me that the modern versions, prose and poetry, include a lot of interpretation and often have material that Chaucer didn’t include, but might help explain his words (i.e. adding Thomas Beckett’s name in the above piece; calling it the west wind instead of Zephirus; writing Aries instead of the Ram). Some of it is understandable: modern readers need some guidance to appreciate the references to things 14th-century readers would have taken for granted (Beckett’s shrine in Canterbury, for example). But if something is gained, something of Chaucer is also lost in the translation (which is why I like to have the ME or an interlinear edition when I read the modernized editions).

Chaucer himself recognized that language changes and meanings shift over the years. In his epic poem, Troilus and Cressida, Book II, he wrote:

Ye knowe eek, that in forme of speche is chaunge
With-inne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden prys, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thinketh hem; and yet they spake hem so, 25
And spedde as wel in love as men now do;
Eek for to winne love in sondry ages,
In sondry londes, sondry ben usages.

In modern English this is:

You know also that forms of speech change
within a thousand years, and words, lo!
that had a value, now wondrous odd and strange
we think them: and yet they spoke them so,
and did as well in love as men do now.
And to win love in sundry ages,
in sundry lands, there were sundry usages.

But back to Herzog. He conflates the prologues and introductions that precede most of the tales, as well as the few epilogues to some, into the stories themselves. Personally, I think this is a mistake. The prologues tell us about the speakers, their personal lives, and often their relations with other pilgrims. When they are blended into the tales, they lose their specialness.

Herzog, like Ackroyd, isn’t afraid to be vulgar where Chaucer was, but also sometimes sounds a tad prudish. Chaucer used scatological and sexual humour in many of his tales, in part to give the speakers their own personality, but also to play on words. He might be called bawdy or ribald and is sometimes accused of misogyny, but he wasn’t obscene. We can’t judge his words by our own standards: 600-plus years ago people thought differently. So how do modernizers translate his most controversial words?

In The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, Chaucer has her saying

And faire and riche, and yong, and wel bigoon;
And trewely, as myne housbondes tolde me,
I had the beste quoniam mighte be.

The Middle English Compendium primly translates quoniam as “the female pudenda” and the Harvard interlinear translation has “pudendum.” Herzog has her say “…my husbands told me I had the best sweet thing they could imagine,” which strikes me as missing the point. Acroyd has a much coarser “As my husbands always told me, I had the nicest pussy in England.” Raffel gives us the awkward, “And truly, as my new husband often stated,/My crotch was just as perfect as that part can be.” Coghill uses the Latin quoniam and refuses to even post a note explaining the term, but a few lines further, he uses Chaucer’s term “chamber of Venus,” also used by Herzog. I suspect Cognhill was raised in an era when most British school students learned Latin and sniggered over Catullus. Modern readers, however, need something less obscure, but that also captures some of Chaucer’s earthiness.

Similarly, there are puns around the word queynte, which is both clever (“quaint“) and cunt. As the Harvard interlinear version of The Miller’s Tale has it modestly:

As clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte;
For clerks are very subtle and very clever;
And prively he caughte hire by the queynte,
And intimately he caught her by her crotch,

And later in the same tale, the word reappears as clever again, although I wonder if there is another pun hidden here:

What al this queynte cast was for to seye.
What all this ingenious scheme meant.

Herzog has for the second line in the first quote:

…as these crafty and clever young students so, slyly he managed to grab her pussy…

In the age that has elevated the coarseness and misogyny of Donald Trump, I can’t imagine how anyone can slyly grab a woman’s genitals. But Herzog misses the pun altogether. Coghill is more accommodating, trying to keep both the pun and the vulgarity by using an archaic slang word that isn’t Chaucerian at all (in fact it dates from the 17th or even 18th centuries):

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

Tatlock and MacKaye blushingly avoid even the suggestion of impropriety:

And he held her hard about the waist.

Not surprising, given that their version was first published in 1912, but it misses both the point and the Miller’s personality completely. Ackroyd is far more direct, yet equally missing the pun in favour of vulgarity:

He was, like many students, a crafty and resourceful man. What does he do? He begins to caress her cunt…

Crafty while caressing her genitals? Another image I fail to see. And finally, Raffel has

Clerics are smooth, and sly, carefully taught
And suddenly he caught her by the crotch

Which, too, gets the point across but misses Chaucer’s play on words. Translation, even from an earlier form of English, can be tricky, especially when one runs into the vernacular and slang.

Herzog adds his own epilogue to the Tales, in which the host decides whose tale was the best, a piece that includes comments from other speakers. Chaucer never got to finish his own work, and even if he had, I think it unlikely he would have reached the same conclusion. But you can decide that for yourself.

Overall, Herzog’s book isn’t bad, it’s just not the Chaucer I was looking for. Sadly, neither book is. But I’ll put them on my bookshelf beside the rest where they may prove a resource at a later date.


* Interlinear pagesHere are two sample pages taken at random of how the interlinear edition works and reads. You can click on it to see a larger image. The ring binding was not from the original publication but added by me many years ago after I had read the book so often I broke the spine and pages came loose. These are from the Knight’s Tale. This book is no longer in print, which is a great shame, even though it didn’t include the entire canon of the Tales. This is the second copy of this book I’ve owned; the last one suffered a similar fate but was not repaired for continued reading. I hope you will take a moment or two to examine the pages and try to read the original before you read the modern version. Perhaps you will discover some of the delight I find in doing so. And if you were paying attention when you looked at the photos above, you will see I have the Riverside in both 2nd and 3rd editions, and a second copy of the 3rd (a student’s copy with underlining and notes).

** FYI, Ackroyd omitted The Tale of Melibee and The Parson’s Tale from his translation; Coghill also avoided translating them, but did provide a synopsis of them.

Answers: 1. soote: sweet; 2. eek: also; 3. holt: grove, woodland; 4. corages: hearts; 5. ferne halwes: distant shrines; 6. blisful martir: St Thomas Beckett; and 7. seeke: sick.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Pingback: The Father of Modern English – Scripturient

  2. Pingback: The Father of Modern English - PostX News Canada

  3. Pingback: Reading Animal Fairm – Scripturient

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top