Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale: New Edition Now Available
The Pardoner’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer is probably one of the most accessible works of Middle English for modern readers – it features a neat moral parable, bawdy language and a barbed satire of the avarice prevalent in some elements of the medieval Church. The Pardoner’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer is also fairly short, and that no doubt makes it a favourite for English Lit classes at school and university level.
But even though Geoffrey Chaucer’s language is not that hard to understand, the very fact that every line or so you have to refer to a glossary or footnote does mean that the experience of reading a poem such as The Pardoner’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer can be frustrating and less enjoyable than it might be. Although there are some good prose translations available, I thought it would be useful to make a verse translation of the poem – partly because I thought it would be useful for others – and partly to help me re-engage with the text and get to grips with the meaning (it’s so easy to just read something and get the gist of what it’s about, but actually digging around and working out the meaning can be very rewarding). So to that end I have created an eBook of The Pardoner’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer, and a free online version, which feature both the original Middle English text, a parallel Middle and Modern English text in verse and also a Modern English version on its own. The verse translation into Modern English does not scan or rhyme perfectly – to do so would, I think, bend the meaning too much, but I hope it gives some of the flow or the original while also retaining the meaning.
Troilus and Criseyde was the direct source for Shakespeare’s own Troilus and Cressida. It tells the story of two lovers separated by war – the Trojan War in fact!
It’s not one of my favourite poems by Chaucer – the Canterbury tales are much more down to earth for my taste. But it is still a great work of art, and a must read for anyone interested in Medieval English literature.
Here’s an excerpt from the first section of the translation:
After the siege and the assault of Troy, when that burg was destroyed and burnt to ashes, and the traitor tried for his treason, the noble Æneas and his kin sailed forth to become princes and patrons of well-nigh all the Western Isles. Thus Romulus built Rome (and gave to the city his own name, which it bears even to this day); and Ticius turned him to Tuscany; and Langobard raised him up dwellings in Lombardy; and Felix Brutus sailed far over the French flood, and founded the kingdom of Britain, wherein have been war and waste and wonder, and bliss and bale, ofttimes since.
And in that kingdom of Britain have been wrought more gallant deeds than in any other; but of all British kings Arthur was the most valiant, as I have heard tell, therefore will I set forth a wondrous adventure that fell out in his time. And if ye will listen to me, but for a little while, I will tell it even as it stands in story stiff and strong, fixed in the letter, as it hath long been known in the land.
Weston’s translation is clear for the modern reader, but retains the power of the original poem (although in prose format).
At University I studied Medieval History, Language and Literature, which I loved, and I guess it has influenced some of my interests later in life! I went on to do a Masters in Medieval Literature, choosing The Court in English Alliterative Poetry, 1350-1450 as my thesis topic. Why did I choose this subject and what is it for starters? Well if you know anything about Medieval English literature you will no doubt have heard of Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales. Chaucer was from London and wrote in English that was heavily influence by French and Italian poetic styles. His main verse form was called rhyme royal using five stresses per line arranged in rhyming couplets. Chaucer was probably writing for an audience associated with the Royal Court, one linked more to the culture of continental Europe perhaps. In contrast English poetry going back to Anglo-Saxon was traditionally based on an alliterative line with up to four alliterating stressed words per line and not really using rhyme at all. This tradition did survive the Norman Conquest and lived on through poems such as the Twelfth Century Layamon’s Brut. By the late Fourteenth Century, you might think that it would be fading away, but this was not the case. There were poets, mostly located in the North West of England and North Midlands who kept the art alive and indeed produced wonderful works of art like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which combines the descriptive power of alliterative verse with a finely honed courtly sensibility.
I have written a short story based on one of the most popular of Marie de France’s Breton lais, its known as Bisclavret, or sometimes, as in Eugene Mason’s translation, The Lay of the Were-wolf.
I thought it might be helpful to provide a translation of the whole original lai. So here for your reading pleasure is Eugene Mason’s 1911 translation. The complete Lais of Marie de France are available in a variety of different formats including free copies at Gutenberg.
THE LAY OF THE WERE-WOLF
Amongst the tales I tell you once again, I would not forget the Lay of the Were-Wolf. Such beasts as he are known in every land. Bisclavaret he is named in Brittany; whilst the Norman calls him Garwal.
It is a certain thing, and within the knowledge of all, that many a christened man has suffered this change, and ran wild in woods, as a Were-Wolf. The Were-Wolf is a fearsome beast. He lurks within the thick forest, mad and horrible to see. All the evil that he may, he does. He goeth to and fro, about the solitary place, seeking man, in order to devour him. Hearken, now, to the adventure of the Were-Wolf, that I have to tell.
In Brittany there dwelt a baron who was marvellously esteemed of all his fellows. He was a stout knight, and a comely, and a man of office and repute. Right private was he to the mind of his lord, and dear to the counsel of his neighbours. This baron was wedded to a very worthy dame, right fair to see, and sweet of semblance. All his love was set on her, and all her love was given again to him. One only grief had this lady. For three whole days in every week her lord was absent from her side. She knew not where he went, nor on what errand. Neither did any of his house know the business which called him forth.
On a day when this lord was come again to his house, altogether joyous and content, the lady took him to task, right sweetly, in this fashion, “Husband,” said she, “and fair, sweet friend, I have a certain thing to pray of you. Right willingly would I receive this gift, but I fear to anger you in the asking. It is better for me to have an empty hand, than to gain hard words.”
When the lord heard this matter, he took the lady in his arms, very tenderly, and kissed her.
“Wife,” he answered, “ask what you will. What would you have, for it is yours already?”
“By my faith,” said the lady, “soon shall I be whole. Husband, right long and wearisome are the days that you spend away from your home. I rise from my bed in the morning, sick at heart, I know not why. So fearful am I, lest you do aught to your loss, that I may not find any comfort. Very quickly shall I die for reason of my dread. Tell me now, where you go, and on what business! How may the knowledge of one who loves so closely, bring you to harm?”
“Wife,” made answer the lord, “nothing but evil can come if I tell you this secret. For the mercy of God do not require it of me. If you but knew, you would withdraw yourself from my love, and I should be lost indeed.”
When the lady heard this, she was persuaded that her baron sought to put her by with jesting words. Therefore she prayed and required him the more urgently, with tender looks and speech, till he was overborne, and told her all the story, hiding naught.
“Wife, I become Bisclavaret. I enter in the forest, and live on prey and roots, within the thickest of the wood.”
After she had learned his secret, she prayed and entreated the more as to whether he ran in his raiment, or went spoiled of vesture.
“Wife,” said he, “I go naked as a beast.”
“Tell me, for hope of grace, what you do with your clothing?”
“Fair wife, that will I never. If I should lose my raiment, or even be marked as I quit my vesture, then a Were-Wolf I must go for all the days of my life. Never again should I become man, save in that hour my clothing were given back to me. For this reason never will I show my lair.”
“Husband,” replied the lady to him, “I love you better than all the world. The less cause have you for doubting my faith, or hiding any tittle from me. What savour is here of friendship? How have I made forfeit of your love; for what sin do you mistrust my honour? Open now your heart, and tell what is good to be known.”
So at the end, outwearied and overborne by her importunity, he could no longer refrain, but told her all.
“Wife,” said he, “within this wood, a little from the path, there is a hidden way, and at the end thereof an ancient chapel, where oftentimes I have bewailed my lot. Near by is a great hollow stone, concealed by a bush, and there is the secret place where I hide my raiment, till I would return to my own home.”
On hearing this marvel the lady became sanguine of visage, because of her exceeding fear. She dared no longer to lie at his side, and turned over in her mind, this way and that, how best she could get her from him. Now there was a certain knight of those parts, who, for a great while, had sought and required this lady for her love. This knight had spent long years in her service, but little enough had he got thereby, not even fair words, or a promise. To him the dame wrote a letter, and meeting, made her purpose plain.
“Fair friend,” said she, “be happy. That which you have coveted so long a time, I will grant without delay. Never again will I deny your suit. My heart, and all I have to give, are yours, so take me now as love and dame.”
Right sweetly the knight thanked her for her grace, and pledged her faith and fealty. When she had confirmed him by an oath, then she told him all this business of her lord—why he went, and what he became, and of his ravening within the wood. So she showed him of the chapel, and of the hollow stone, and of how to spoil the Were-Wolf of his vesture. Thus, by the kiss of his wife, was Bisclavaret betrayed. Often enough had he ravished his prey in desolate places, but from this journey he never returned. His kinsfolk and acquaintance came together to ask of his tidings, when this absence was noised abroad. Many a man, on many a day, searched the woodland, but none might find him, nor learn where Bisclavaret was gone.
The lady was wedded to the knight who had cherished her for so long a space. More than a year had passed since Bisclavaret disappeared. Then it chanced that the King would hunt in that self-same wood where the Were-Wolf lurked. When the hounds were unleashed they ran this way and that, and swiftly came upon his scent. At the view the huntsman winded on his horn, and the whole pack were at his heels. They followed him from morn to eve, till he was torn and bleeding, and was all adread lest they should pull him down. Now the King was very close to the quarry, and when Bisclavaret looked upon his master, he ran to him for pity and for grace. He took the stirrup within his paws, and fawned upon the prince’s foot. The King was very fearful at this sight, but presently he called his courtiers to his aid.
“Lords,” cried he, “hasten hither, and see this marvellous thing. Here is a beast who has the sense of man. He abases himself before his foe, and cries for mercy, although he cannot speak. Beat off the hounds, and let no man do him harm. We will hunt no more to-day, but return to our own place, with the wonderful quarry we have taken.”
The King turned him about, and rode to his hall, Bisclavaret following at his side. Very near to his master the Were-Wolf went, like any dog, and had no care to seek again the wood. When the King had brought him safely to his own castle, he rejoiced greatly, for the beast was fair and strong, no mightier had any man seen. Much pride had the King in his marvellous beast. He held him so dear, that he bade all those who wished for his love, to cross the Wolf in naught, neither to strike him with a rod, but ever to see that he was richly fed and kennelled warm. This commandment the Court observed willingly. So all the day the Wolf sported with the lords, and at night he lay within the chamber of the King. There was not a man who did not make much of the beast, so frank was he and debonair. None had reason to do him wrong, for ever was he about his master, and for his part did evil to none. Every day were these two companions together, and all perceived that the King loved him as his friend.
Hearken now to that which chanced.
The King held a high Court, and bade his great vassals and barons, and all the lords of his venery to the feast. Never was there a goodlier feast, nor one set forth with sweeter show and pomp. Amongst those who were bidden, came that same knight who had the wife of Bisclavaret for dame. He came to the castle, richly gowned, with a fair company, but little he deemed whom he would find so near. Bisclavaret marked his foe the moment he stood within the hall. He ran towards him, and seized him with his fangs, in the King’s very presence, and to the view of all. Doubtless he would have done him much mischief, had not the King called and chidden him, and threatened him with a rod. Once, and twice, again, the Wolf set upon the knight in the very light of day. All men marvelled at his malice, for sweet and serviceable was the beast, and to that hour had shown hatred of none. With one consent the household deemed that this deed was done with full reason, and that the Wolf had suffered at the knight’s hand some bitter wrong. Right wary of his foe was the knight until the feast had ended, and all the barons had taken farewell of their lord, and departed, each to his own house. With these, amongst the very first, went that lord whom Bisclavaret so fiercely had assailed. Small was the wonder that he was glad to go.
No long while after this adventure it came to pass that the courteous King would hunt in that forest where Bisclavaret was found. With the prince came his wolf, and a fair company. Now at nightfall the King abode within a certain lodge of that country, and this was known of that dame who before was the wife of Bisclavaret. In the morning the lady clothed her in her most dainty apparel, and hastened to the lodge, since she desired to speak with the King, and to offer him a rich present. When the lady entered in the chamber, neither man nor leash might restrain the fury of the Wolf. He became as a mad dog in his hatred and malice. Breaking from his bonds he sprang at the lady’s face, and bit the nose from her visage. From every side men ran to the succour of the dame. They beat off the wolf from his prey, and for a little would have cut him in pieces with their swords. But a certain wise counsellor said to the King,
“Sire, hearken now to me. This beast is always with you, and there is not one of us all who has not known him for long. He goes in and out amongst us, nor has molested any man, neither done wrong or felony to any, save only to this dame, one only time as we have seen. He has done evil to this lady, and to that knight, who is now the husband of the dame. Sire, she was once the wife of that lord who was so close and private to your heart, but who went, and none might find where he had gone. Now, therefore, put the dame in a sure place, and question her straitly, so that she may tell—if perchance she knows thereof—for what reason this Beast holds her in such mortal hate. For many a strange deed has chanced, as well we know, in this marvellous land of Brittany.”
The King listened to these words, and deemed the counsel good. He laid hands upon the knight, and put the dame in surety in another place. He caused them to be questioned right straitly, so that their torment was very grievous. At the end, partly because of her distress, and partly by reason of her exceeding fear, the lady’s lips were loosed, and she told her tale. She showed them of the betrayal of her lord, and how his raiment was stolen from the hollow stone. Since then she knew not where he went, nor what had befallen him, for he had never come again to his own land. Only, in her heart, well she deemed and was persuaded, that Bisclavaret was he.
Straightway the King demanded the vesture of his baron, whether this were to the wish of the lady, or whether it were against her wish. When the raiment was brought him, he caused it to be spread before Bisclavaret, but the Wolf made as though he had not seen. Then that cunning and crafty counsellor took the King apart, that he might give him a fresh rede.
“Sire,” said he, “you do not wisely, nor well, to set this raiment before Bisclavaret, in the sight of all. In shame and much tribulation must he lay aside the beast, and again become man. Carry your wolf within your most secret chamber, and put his vestment therein. Then close the door upon him, and leave him alone for a space. So we shall see presently whether the ravening beast may indeed return to human shape.”
The King carried the Wolf to his chamber, and shut the doors upon him fast. He delayed for a brief while, and taking two lords of his fellowship with him, came again to the room. Entering therein, all three, softly together, they found the knight sleeping in the King’s bed, like a little child. The King ran swiftly to the bed and taking his friend in his arms, embraced and kissed him fondly, above a hundred times. When man’s speech returned once more, he told him of his adventure. Then the King restored to his friend the fief that was stolen from him, and gave such rich gifts, moreover, as I cannot tell. As for the wife who had betrayed Bisclavaret, he bade her avoid his country, and chased her from the realm. So she went forth, she and her second lord together, to seek a more abiding city, and were no more seen.
The adventure that you have heard is no vain fable. Verily and indeed it chanced as I have said. The Lay of the Were-Wolf, truly, was written that it should ever be borne in mind.
Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.
These are the opening lines to Dante’s great poem, and probably the most famous poem of the Middle Ages. What better way to start off a new series of posts about great poetic verses from Medieval poetry.
There is so much going on in these three lines, a lot of symbolism and allegory already, but also a suggestion of the clear descriptive style that Dante uses to such great effect in his poetry. Let us take the verse line by line:
Midway along the journey of our life
With the word “our” Dante makes this poem not only about him but about us as well, an allegory that we should be taking note of as well. In the Middle Ages mortal life was seen as a journey or pilgrimage, with the ultimate goal being Heaven, thus the journey that the poet travels is through the three possibilities for a person after death: Hell, Purgatory or Heaven. The poet is notionally midway through his life in the setting of the poem as he was born in 1265 and the poem takes place in 1300.
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Oh dear, things can’t be good for Dante, he’s in dark wood, which I imagine can’t be bad thing. The simple phrase “dark wood” is a great example of the simple descriptive style, it conjures up so many allusions to being lost, to being afraid, to being isolated and outcast and to being in a dangerous place, that Dante need to say very little more than this (although he does expand on the bitterness and savagery of the place in subsequent verses).
for I had wandered off from the straight path.
And now we know why Dante is in a “dark wood”. He has gone off the straight path to God for some reason. He has sinned perhaps or has let his attention drift from the proper goal of a Christian’s life – i.e. the pilgrimage or journey towards God mentioned in the first line of the poem.
It’s not the religious content that attracts me to this verse, but the sheer simplicity and depth of meaning which is conveyed by these three lines. They effectively set-up the whole premise for the Divine Comedy.
Gentilnesse, or Gentilnes seem to be the most common spellings.
This is the firs of a regular series of posts about the meaning behind Middle English words.
What is gentleness? Is it being kind to people? Does it mean talking quietly to them and not upsetting them.
The word didn’t really take on that meaning until about the 17th century. In the time of Chaucer the word mean that one acted in a way that was appropriate for someone of noble or gentle birth. I.e. you acted like a gentleman. That might mean one acted in a temperate and kind way, but that was the behaviour expected of a noble person or gentle birth and thus the meaning.
Here’s a good example from Chaucer’s Parsons Tale (I. 585):
“He seith hit cometh him of gentilnes of his auncetres.”
1. (a) Nobility of rank or birth; (b) of animals or birds: excellence of breed or kind; (c) of fruit: excellence; of a bird: beauty, elegance.
2. (a) Nobility of character or manners; generosity, kindness, graciousness, etc.; also, good breeding; (b) as a title of address: your ~; (c) a kind or gracious act; don ~ to, to be kind or generous to (sb.).
3. People of rank, gentry; also, a person of noble rank.
Edward III pursued a deliberate policy of drawing the nobility closer to the royal court and so make them more reliant on royal patronage. This was a reaction to the chaos of his Edward II’s reign, which had seen the country devastated by rebellion and civil war.
The nobility, and to an extent the gentry who relied on the magnates for access to royal patronage, needed such links to the court as their own incomes from land fell and as wealth became more concentrated in the central authority, as a result of the increased use of taxation and customs duties. In effect the only way for the nobility and gentry to improve their station and counteract the decline of their traditional income was to connect themselves more closely to the court. Thus they lost a degree of independence and relied more upon their influence at court. Given-Wilson in The Royal Household and the King’s Affinity points out that this was particularly the case in England: ‘The highly centralised nature of English government placed a vast store of patronage in the hands of the king, and there were very few checks on the way he dispensed of it.’ This, coupled with attempts to control feudal violence, meant that, in order to gain influence, the nobility tended to express itself less through warfare than through lifestyle, that is clothing, building, and feasting. Indeed during the fourteenth century the court became more and more a model for the lifestyle of the nobility, dictating the latest fashions. For the nobility to enjoy the patronage of the crown they too had to adopt such fashions.
This process might have been more or less important at certain stages of the period, depending on the nature of the king, but it was an important factor throughout the later Middle Ages. The nobility, if they desired to be successful, were drawn more and more into the court sphere as the crown established itself as the central authority of the state. The court, as Juliet Vale points out in Edward III and Chivalry, ‘was perhaps the area of greatest social mobility outside the church.’
Ultimately this lead to the even more sophisticated court fashions during the reign of Richard II (who invented the handkerchief!). You can read more about how aspiration of court fashions was mirrored in the literature of the period in my book The Court in English Alliterative Poetry, 1350-1450.
At the end of the fourteenth century in England there were two distinct schools of poetry. One based on rhymed metre and located around London and the royal courts, with Chaucer as its main poet, and the other using alliterative verse based in the northern counties, taking its style from Anglo-Saxon.
Alliterative poetry’s structure of two half lines each containing two stressed syllables made it appropriate for listing of detail, for instance this description of Guinevere from the Awntyrs off Arthure:
In a gleterand gide that glemed full gay- gown With riche ribaynes reuersset, ho so right redes, turned back, considers Rayled with rybees of riall aray; arrayed, rubies Her hode of a hawe huwe, ho that here hedehedes; greenish-blue, head, observes Of pillour, of palwerk, of perreto pay; fur, garments of rich cloth, jewels, pleasantly Schurde in a short cloke that the rayne shedes; Clothed, throws off Set ouer with saffres sothely to say, sapphires With saffres and seladynessercled on the sides; celidonies, set in a circular pattern
Unlike the verse of Chaucer, whose use of rhyme and subordinate clauses allows him to link words symbolically and therefore to link ideas between lines, the more static form of the alliterative line creates a greater feeling of concreteness and materiality, especially when the poet is describing material objects in the form of lists such as in the above description of Guinevere.
The style of description in alliterative verse is more concrete and direct than the rhymed metre of Chaucer. Chaucer tends to imply with a wink and a nudge his narrator’s opinion of something without actually describing them, often implying that his audience can and should imagine for themselves what something looks like. For instance compare these two descriptions of feasts, one from Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale:
I wol nat tellen of hir strange sewes, sauces Ne of hir swannes, nor of hire heronsewes. young herons
Ther nys no man that may reporten al.
I wol not taryen yow, for it is pryme;
And for it is no fruyt, but los of tyme, 72-4
With this much more detailed account from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:
Dayntes dryuen therwyth of ful dere metes, poured
Foysoun of the fresche, and on so fele disches Abundance
That pine to fynde the place the peple biforne
For to sette the sylueren that there sewes halden on clothe.
Iche lede as he loued hymselue
Ther laght withouten lothe; took, ungrudged
Ay two had disches twelue,
Good ber and bry3t wyn bothe.
Does this tell us something about the different audience of Chaucer’s poems and the alliterative poetry composed for a regional gentry/aristocratic audience? Possibly I think. In my book The Court in English Alliterative Poetry, 1350-1450 I suggest that alliterative poetry often portrayed the court and its trappings as something to aspire to – thus the lavish description. While perhaps Chaucer’s audience at the Royal and Ducal courts of London were more interested in ideas and how these were illustrated by the story. I think that Chaucer knew his audience well; they didn’t want to dwell on lengthy descriptions, but were instead more interested in the inner motivation of the story’s characters rather than their outer depiction.