NPR’s 5 part program “The New Canterbury Tales” is excellent, catching up on them at
The New Canterbury Tales : NPR. Long ago I studied Chaucer’s long travelogue in the original Middle English, and the reading I heard today was so familiar. I actually had memorized the opening lines, years ago, because Mom boasted that she could still recite the Prologue some 50 years or so after graduating high school. So I had to give it a shot just so I could come home from my fancy college education one spring break and spout off about
I can get as far as
WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich 3 licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
and can patter on a bit after that with prompting, before giving up about when the “tendre croppes” appear.
Yes, of course I get what it means. Don’t you?
When you hear it pronounced, it sounds very Scandanavian and sing-songy, but with a lot of quasi-English sounding words pronounced oddly (hint: silent E was not silent in Chaucer’s day). I even remember learning about The Great Vowel Shift in that long-ago class. Just now, I read on and on, struggling to remember how to pronounce the words, and achieved a fairly consistent cadence. I’ll have to check it later against a sound file NPR will upload later, recorded by a man that has memorized the entire saga who performs for schools and theater groups.
The thing is, if you carry on reading it, IT’S PORN. At least, some of the tales are HIGHLY UNSAFE FOR WORK if you were to read it outloud in modern English… but if you’re reading it in the Middle English, you’re quite safe.
The other thing is, IT’S A BLOG POST. A medieval trip report. A dishy smorgasbord of pre-Reformation celebrity gossip.
The NPR pieces are enjoyable, because Rob Gifford literally goes out of his way to find interesting people to talk with. Even though as an Episcopalian, it’s disappointing to hear how the importance of church-going has slipped badly in Britain, part 3 is really fascinating. It starts with a visit to Charles Darwin’s home. It goes from there to touch on the tension between the different kinds of Christianity represented by the Anglican church – the moderate, intellectual kind that’s more to my taste is derided as “wishy-washy” by the evangelical/fundamentalist wing. And Gifford goes on to talk to some decidedly unchurched British youth, out for an evening’s pub crawl before ending up in a cab, talking to the driver about how rude and uncivilized his passengers sometimes are.
Great Britain has changed substantially since the time of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which described life in late 14th century England. For this five-part series, Rob Gifford retraced Chaucer’s steps, walking the 60 miles from London to Canterbury, to give a snapshot of Britain in the early 21st century.
Once upon a time, England was very Christian. One can tell just from the number of church men and women whose tales grace the pages of The Canterbury Tales.
The parson, the pardoner, the nun’s priest — the list goes on. But the church was just starting to change at the time, as the early stirrings of the Reformation were just beginning. Fast forward several centuries beyond that Reformation, and there has been plenty of change in the church in Britain in recent decades, too.
Today’s installment will be up on the NPR.org site later, and delves more into the racier, bawdier aspects of life in Britain in Chaucer’s day, and in our own time. It features fox hunting without foxes, and pole-dancing lessons. It’s also the one that features the long readings from the original poems. Huzzah!
UPDATE: Today’s installment is now online.