When I think of Middle English I think of three things: slightly mispronounced words, the 14th century, and Geoffrey Chaucer. The last item, Chaucer, being very significant for the English language as well as for our understanding of the time period itself. This is mainly because of his most well known work of literature, The Canterbury Tales.

The Canterbury Tales is a somewhat satirical frame narrative of English Society at the time of its creation. Chaucer is believed to have taken inspiration from The Decameron, a medieval allegorical piece of literature, however, an important distinction is that Chaucer uses the depiction of “sondry folk,” or everyday people, rather than more respected nobles. He outlines a day in the life of many professions such as The Knight, The Monk, The Merchant, The Shipman and many others (23 in total). Although much of his work is considered unfinished, these descriptions give us a much better understanding of what each profession entailed as well as how they were looked upon by the other people of the day. The collection acts as our window into that time period.

Another important aspect of the story is that it was written in Middle English. This is significant because during this time English was looked down upon. Society was diglossic, French being reserved for the high code of the Nobility. English was viewed an incapable language that lacked beauty and flow and as such was suitable only for the insignificant. However, Chaucer’s writing was elegant, it was poetic, and it demonstrated just what English was capable of. It showed the people, at a time when French and Latin were the only languages used for ‘art’ that English had significant power as well.

 

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