Tag Archives: Geoffrey Chaucer

Magic in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Folio 20v from Thomas Norton The Ordinall of A...
Folio 20v from Thomas Norton The Ordinall of Alchemy England: c.1550-1600 MS Ferguson 191 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am working on a project at the moment to improve my understanding of the beliefs towards magic in the Middle Ages – specifically fourteenth century England, where I set much of my historical fantasy. I would like to know more about what people of this time thought about magic.

One of my first stops is to look at some of the references to magic in the literature of the time – so where better to start than the best known writer of the time, Geoffrey Chaucer.

I am going to look in more depth in this series of blog posts at each

example, but I am starting here with a quick summary of the instances I have found so far in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

How am I defining references to magic? I am not including stories set in antiquity where pagan gods intervene on behalf of the characters, such as the Knight’s Tale where Saturn causes the death of Arcite. Neither am I including purely supernatural interventions of the devil – such as the Pardoner’s Tale. If someone summons a demon that’s fine, but I don’t think there’s actual magic in the Pardoner’s Tale.

Here are the tales that I have found so far with major examples of magic in their narratives:

Canon Yeoman’s Tale

The Canon Yeoman actually assists his own master in the practice of alchemy and the whole of his tale focuses on that magical art in quite a lot of detail. I’m looking forward to digging into this one in more depth as it should reveal quite a bit about the practice of alchemy in fourteenth century England.

 Wife of Bath’s Tale

A man is fooled into thinking he is about to meet 24 maidens, but they magically disappear to be replaced by an old hag – a witch effectively.

Friar’s Tale

On the way to extort money from a widow, the Summoner encounters a yeoman who is apparently down on his luck. The two men swear brotherhood to each other and exchange the secrets of their respective trades, the Summoner recounting his various sins in a boastful manner. The yeoman reveals that he is actually a demon, to which the Summoner expresses minimal surprise—he enquires as to various aspects of hell and the forms that demons take.

This could be a bit like the Pardoner’s Tale, but I’m including as the medieval practice of necromancy involved the summoning of demons.

Squire’s Tale

This tale includes a number of magical items such as a brass steed that can teleport, a mirror that can detect enemies and friends, a ring that allows the wearer to talk to birds and a sword that deals and heals deadly wounds. Also the tale includes a digression on astrology.

Franklin’s Tale

Aurelius needs to remove all the rocks on the coast of Brittany in order to win the hand of a lady. He does this by employing a magician.


I am planning to do a blog post for each of the examples above to look into the portrayal of magic in more depth.

The Pardoner’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer: A New Edition

Geoffrey Chaucer's The Pardoner's Tale Kindle Cover
Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale Cover

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.

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Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde Now Free Online

I have now posted all five books of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde free online.

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.

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Top 5 Medieval People

Richard I of England
Image via Wikipedia

Random post of the week – who are my top 5 people from the Middle Ages – real historical medieval people, not characters from any of my stories that is!

  1. Frederick II Hohenstaufen – not quite the Renaissance prince that earlier historians such as Kantowicz would like to think, but even so still quite amazing in what he tried to do – a cultured, yet autocratic prince, rather than a fanatic oaf of a king.
  2. Geoffrey Chaucer – he had the wit and charm to poke fun at all around him, but in quite a nice way – a bit like the Stephen Fry of the Fourteenth Century perhaps?
  3. Richard I the Lionheart – complete opposite of Frederick I at number the one above, but for bare faced oafish medieval kingly behaviour I think he has to be in my arbitrary list of Top 5 Medieval People. Hated England, hardly set foot in the place, but thanks to Hollywood’s portrayal of Robin Hood and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe I grew up with him as the quintessential English Medieval King. Robin Hood wouldn’t be on my list, but he’s fictional anyway so can’t be!
  4. Dante Alighieri – the great Italian poet who gave us the Divine Comedy and the quintessential image of hell, while sniping at all and sundry, a bit nastier than Chaucer, and in my view not as great a poet, but still fascinating and able to conjure up great images.
  5. Owain Glyndŵr – rebel with a cause, but ultimately a doomed one. Not a man I knew a lot about until I read the Welsh Wars of Independence, but what a guy, what  crazy guy, deciding to go up against the might of Lancastrian England and nearly pulling it off too! The Welsh are getting a lot of good press recently for their passion and determination, and this chap certainly had that.

What do you think? Agree/disagree? Who would be in your top 5?

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The different styles of Middle English Poetry

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’ve added a page called The Style of Middle English Alliterative Verse in the Medieval (Middle Ages) History and Literature section of this site which discusses these stylistic differences in more detail.

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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)
Image via Wikipedia

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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