17 April 1397, Geoffrey Chaucer told his Canterbury Tales for the first time at the court of Richard II at Westminster Great Hall.
“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, / And bathed every veyne in swych licour / Of which vertu engendred is the flour; / Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth / Inspired hath in every holt and heath / The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne / Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne, / And smale foweles maken melodye, / That slepen al the nyght with open ye / (So priketh hem nature in hir corages); /Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages. (Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Canterbury Tales”)
|An imagination of the pilgrims’ progress through the English countryside by the illustrator Paul Hardy (1862 – 1942), a regular contributor to the “Strand Magazine”, from 1903. Canterbury City Council Museums and Galleries.|
It was a very subtle revolution when Geoffrey Chaucer, a staunch supporter of "Old John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lancaster" and recently back in royal favour, read parts of his Canterbury Tales at the Plantagenet's court for the first time. Not in Norman French or scholarly Latin but in English. Three years later, Richard would tell a different tale, of the death of kings; How some have been deposed; some slain in war, Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed; Some poisoned by their wives: some sleeping killed; All murdered, as he himself would be when his nephew and John of Gaunt’s son Henry of Bolingbroke took the throne as Henry IV. But on this day, the tales turned on a travelling party on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas á Becket in Canterbury, telling a story or two for a free meal at Tabard Inn in Southwark.
Byron once found Chaucer to be obscene and contemptible, owing his fame only to his venerable age, but, even if he was only part of a trend of writing in vernacular English that started with Wycliffe’s Bible translation some ten years before, he gave voice to other characters than the nobility and the clergy, a process of democratisation in the choice of fictional characters, along the lines of Boccaccio’s “Il Decamerone”, with the same fair amount of church criticism on the eve of the Reformation. The 29 characters of the tales and the narrator tell stories of utmost cultural relevancy in the days, when the Middle Ages ended in Europe, besides nagging questions about religion they tell of love, betrayal and greed and most haven’t lost their actuality in more than 600 years.
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