opening of the Canterbury Tales, from the Lansdowne Ms. 851, f. 2
Here bygynneth the Book of the Tales of Caunterbury
1. his: the neuter and masculine possessives are the same in ME. Its does not become common until the 17th century.
2. soote: apparently a variant spelling of sweet. Chaucer manuscripts use several different spellings (see, for example, line 5; none of the mss. were actually written by Chaucer himself).
3. droughte: the velar fricative represented by the gh spelling becomes silent in most varieties of MnE: OE cniht > ME cni3te > cnihte > MnE knight. But the sound is still pronounced in some northern British varieties, esp. in Scotland.
4. veyne: a plant sap vessel (now obs.)
5. licour: from Fr. liquere, ult. from Latin liquor, ‘liquid’
6. vertu: power (ult. from Latin vir, ‘man,’ virtus, ‘manliness, power’)
7. Zephirus: the Zephyr, or west wind; a mild, gentle breeze
8. inspired: literally, ‘breathed into,’ now obsolete, this use in Chaucer represents the first occurrence of the word, according to the OED.
9. holt: wood; now obsolete, but still found in place names
10. heeth: a flat, open, often wild or uncultivated field; still used in England; also found in placenames and, of course, there’s Heathcliff.
11. the yonge sonne: T.S. Eliot (whose name, spelled backwards, almost spells toilets) called April the cruelest month; Chaucer is more optimistic, but for the same reason – April brings spring in the northern hemisphere, and the sun begins to rise higher in the sky, a sign both of the regeneration of nature and of the coming of Easter, an appropriate time for pilgrimages. Note that London is farther north in latitude than Chicago, and has a darker winter, with shorter days and longer nights.
12. the Ram: Aries, the zodiac constellation
13. his half course: i.e., the sun is halfway through the house of Aries.
14. foweles: from OE fogel, fu3elas (plural); the OE velar fricative becomes a glide in ME, and the unstressed vowel drops out in MnE, giving us fowl.
15. According to popular folklore, during their mating season in the spring, birds sleep with their eyes open
16. hir: the third person plural possessive retains the initial h- ; the th- form, which gives us their, is already being used, esp. in the north of England.
17. corages: hearts (< Romanic cor; cf. MnFrench coeur, Ital. corraggio); the heart is conceived as the seat of thought and feeling
18. longen folk to goon: the plural of the verb long ends in –en, and the infintive of go retains a final –n; both disappear in MnE
19. palmers: pilgrims; refers particularly to someone who makes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and returns with a palm frond (the medieval equivalent of the bumper sticker to prove you’ve visited someplace); also used for pilgrimages to local shrines
20. strange: foreign; cf. stranger. The modern notion of strange as ‘odd, unusual, different’ stems from the original meaning, ‘not from around here.’
21. strondes: shores; cf. MnE strand. The strand is the shoreline, the beachfront. It’s a Gmc word, now labeled poetic or archaic, though found in names, esp. in England.
22. ferne halwes: ‘distant, far, remote’ + ‘shrines’ ferne derives from far and is common in Old and Middle English; hallow, literally ‘holy one,’ refers to a saint, and the pural form to shrines of saints.
23. kowthe: from the OE past participle of the verb cunnan, ‘to know.’ Here the word means ‘known.’ Couth gives us the MnE modal verb could. It survives in the MnE adjective uncouth, applied to someone who doesn’t know how things are done. Couth is often reinvented as the joking opposite of uncouth: That was a very couth thing to do; yes, I’m really couth. Other words that survive mostly in the negative in MnE are unkempt (kempt is the past participle of combed; unkempt means ‘uncombed’); disheveled (a synomyn borrowed from Old French: déschevelé = having uncombed hair, cheveux); discombobulated (a joke word made up in the 19th century).
24. sondry: literally ‘separate’ – compare asunder, ‘in pieces’; the word survives in the retailing term sundries, a section of a department store for miscellaneous items; compare similar retailing terms, notions, dry goods. Sundry here means something like ‘various’ or ‘other.’
25. Engelonde: note that England has 3 or 4 syllables (depending on whether the final –e is pronounced as a separate syllable), reflecting a reduction of OE Englalonde on the way to becoming the MnE disyllabic England.
26. wende: from OE wendan, ‘to go.’ OE has two verbs meaning ‘go’: gan, which gives us go, going, gone; and wendan, which gives us the past tense of go, went. It also gives us the verb wend, found today only in the express To wend one’s way. Because wend is so rare in MnE, it is sometimes “corrected” to wind: “To wind one’s way,” on the analogy with winding roads.
27. the hooly blisful martir: Thomas à Beckett had been Henry II’s best friend and Chancellor of England. Henry appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury as well, thinking that would give him control over the English Catholic church (remember, this is before the Reformation; Henry II comes before Henry VIII). But Beckett took his duties as Archbishop seriously and defended the Church against the King’s attempts to seize its lands and money. Henry felt his former friend had betrayed him, and is supposed to have told a group of supporters, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” The barons interpreted this as an order and they went to Canterbury Cathedral where they stabbed Beckett to death in the sanctuary. The populist archbishop had endeared himself to the people, who protested to Henry. To appease them and to get back in the Church’s good graces, Henry performed penance and crawled publicly before the Cathedral. Beckett was later declared a saint by the Church. T.S. Eliot wrote a play about the story, “Murder in the Cathedral.” Jean Anouilh’s play Beckett, which suggested that the King and his Chancellor might have been more than just friends, starred Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton (who recreated their stage roles in the hit film by the same name). According to the story, O’Toole played Beckett and Burton played Henry, but one night early into the play’s Broadway run they decided on a whim to switch roles. Burton proved a natural Beckett, and O’Toole was a perfect petulant Henry, and the play became an instant hit.
28. hem: third person plural object pronoun, again showing the h- form, not the th- form.
29. holpen: past tense of help, originally a “strong” verb that has been replaced by the “weak” form helped. Helped begins to appear c. 1300; halp (sg.) and holpen (pl.) continue through the 17th c.
30. seeke: = sick. Chaucer rhymes two identical sounds in this last couplet; this is considered not just acceptable but a pretty neat trick. One of the goals of pilgrims to shrines was (and still is) to seek intervention by the saint to cure illness, or to thank the saint after having been cured.