Tag Archives: Chaucer

Gentilnesse: Middle English Word of the Day

g hacekenti macron brevelnes(se (n.) Also gentelnasseientilnesse.

From Old French. gentillesse

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.”

Full meanings from the entry at the University of Michigan Middle English Compendium are:

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.

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Does Chaucer’s descriptive style illustrate the sophistication of his audience?

Geoffrey_Chaucer (1343-1400)
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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 hede hedesgreenish-blue, head, observes
Of pillour, of palwerk, of perre to 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 seladynes sercled 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
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.

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