Memorizing Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

(Josh Cohen) #1

A strange idea has been creeping up on me for the past few days: to try to memorize a bit of the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. :slight_smile:

One of the reasons that it interests me is because it almost understandable, but just weird enough to give neurons a strange workout.

Here’s what it looks like:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote And bathed every veyne in swich licour, Of which vertu engendred is the flour; Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth Inspired hath in every holt and heeth The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne, And smale foweles maken melodye, That slepen al the nyght with open eye- (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages); Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes; And specially from every shires ende Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende, The hooly blisful martir for to seke That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

…and here is what it sounds like:

It would useful to have an audio book of the text with good pronunciation.


Canterbury Tales


That’s a pretty cool idea. But in Middle English? That’s pretty strange. But still cool. haha.

(Josh Cohen) #3

I wouldn’t try to memorize the whole thing, but the idea keeps growing on me. :slight_smile:

Even more challenging would be to try to memorize some Old English:

Hwæt! Wé Gárdena      in géardagum þéodcyninga      þrym gefrúnon· hú ðá æþelingas      ellen fremedon. Oft Scyld Scéfing      sceaþena þréatum monegum maégþum      meodosetla oftéah· egsode Eorle      syððan aérest wearð féasceaft funden      hé þæs frófre gebád· wéox under wolcnum·      weorðmyndum þáh oð þæt him aéghwylc      þára ymbsittendra ofer hronráde      hýran scolde, gomban gyldan·      þæt wæs gód cyning.

As I memorize poetry, I’m going to try to include short poems in other languages, just as an experiment.

(Josh Cohen) #4

UPDATE: I don’t think I’m going to memorize any of the Canterbury Tales beyond the intro posted above. It’s really interesting, but completely obscene by today’s standards. One would got slapped reciting this stuff–if anyone could understand it. :slight_smile:

The Penguin Classics version has a facing translation in modern prose, so you can go back and forth…


They actually still perform Chaucer’s poetry. I took a class on Chaucer last year, as well as a class on Old French. Both, though hardly comprehensible to the modern listener, are amazingly beautiful. Vowels in Middle English were purer than they are now – closer to the French of its day. Speaking French may have helped my understanding the poems a great deal… I had to memorize some of his poetry for the class, and I loved it – I did part of the Wife of Bath’s story.

I like your idea of memorizing part of Beowulf. But I feel that it would be much harder not understanding the meaning of the poem. I’ve memorized poetry in French, and it was a great way to learn vocabulary, though. Still, I’ve never used mnemonic devices for memorizing poetry, and I’d like to give it a try.

(Josh Cohen) #6

Chaucer is great. I memorized just the first 20 lines, but I learned the vocabulary and that helped.

I would learn the Old English words if memorizing part of Beowulf. It isn’t completely foreign:

Hwæt! = what
Wé Gárdena = we Spear-Danes [I think]
cyning = king?
þæt = that? (þ is the TH in “thorn”, and I think æ is the “a” in “cat”)

I’m starting to learn German, and have already seen a couple of Chaucer’s Middle English words in German:

eek = auch
holt = holz

If I had time I would memorize more Chaucer, but things are going to be crazy here until early December…

(Josh Cohen) #7

If anyone is interested, I found a good Canterbury Tales resource here:

All the text, with some audio…

(Josh Cohen) #8

I forgot to post this when I found it, but here is the Beowulf intro in Old English:

(Josh Cohen) #9

I haven’t listened to them, but people might be interested in these audiobooks:

Beowulf in Old English:

The Canterbury Tales in Middle English: