I’m taking a class on Geoffrey Chaucer this semester in his native tongue. This means, I’m taking a class completely in Middle English.
The story behind Middle English is pretty cool actually. The language stemmed from Old English after William of Orange came over from Normandy (really cool history story by the way) to help England out. He spoke French and the rest of the country spoke Old English (or Semi-Saxon). So instead of forcing everyone to speak French, William of Orange compromised because he was a pretty nice guy. Thus, Middle English was born.
And it is so hard to read sometimes. Here’s an example:
“And thou, citee, whiche that I leve in wo,
And thou, Pryam, and bretheren al y-fere,
And thou, my moder, farwel! For I go;
And Attropos, make redy thou my bere!
And thou, Criseyde, o swete herte dere,
Receyve now my spirit!’ wolde he seye,
With swerd at herte, al redy for to deye”
This is from his poem Troilus and Criseyde. For those Shakespeare fans, this is what inspired Troilus and Cressida. This poem was actually inspired by an older work called Il Filostrato by an Italian writer named Giovanni Boccaccio. But I digress…
As you can see, this isn’t very much like the English we know today. There are some similarities and, if you read it aloud, it starts to sound like something that could make sense. I cannot begin to describe to you how frustrating it is to have to read this for a class and feel incredibly awkward, sitting there and only understanding half of what the teacher is talking about because I only understood half. Learning new languages isn’t my thing as much as the romantic in me wishes it were so and I would argue that Middle English is an entirely different language. It also doesn’t help that Chaucer likes to spend a lot of time in his work talking about the same thing, especially in Troilus and Criseyde. I would say that 50% of the poem is about Troilus complaining about how he and Criseyde can’t be together and how he shouldn’t bother living if this is the case. He’s the emo kid and Chaucer likes to really bring that out of him. This is what Troilus usually says,
“Woe is me! Kill me now! Waahh I can’t be with Criseyde because she doesn’t like me! I hate the world! I’d rather be dead! Curse the gods! Blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!!!!”
Now imagine that expanded to pages and pages and pages of text. Of course this is a poem and the text doesn’t take up the entire page but it’s still a lot to read, especially because it’s so difficult to understand sometimes. This is where the hate mostly rests.
Now for the love…thing.
Chaucer is incredibly revolutionary in the history of literature. Without him, the structure most commonly associated with Shakespeare (iambic pentameter) would not be brought to England until later as he was the first one to start using the five-syllable stress. He is known as the father of modern English literature and I find The Legend of Good Women and The Canterbury Tales to be fantastic works of literature that anyone should read. However, I would recommend reading them aloud.