Tuesday, 1 April 2014
The first of April. Here in Gloucestershire soft sunlight and birdsong. Nothing summons up for me this sense of early spring so beautifully as the start of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – eighteen lines, one seamless sentence – that links humans to the stirring of the natural world. Written at the end of the Fourteenth Century the opening of the prologue catches this moment of the year – the tender crops and the young sun, the singing of birds and the inevitable awakening in people to be out there, to see the world, to travel. If we feel this in our modern centrally heated houses, how much more powerful must it have been for medieval people, sewn into their clothes all winter, eating whatever starveling rations they could get, trying to keep warm – and then the astonishment of new life, the vivid colours of flowers, the softer breeze and the sun on their faces – and the more material comfort of food crops growing again.
‘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 Zephyrus eek with his sweet breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tender 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 priken 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 blissful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.’
Pilgrimage was both a powerful spiritual surge, as it still is today, but it was also travel, adventure, the chance ‘to seken straunge strondes and sondry londes’ – of course with its attendant risks: the pilgrims in Chaucer’s tales ride together for mutual security. Some of the Christian pilgrim narratives of the middle ages, particularly those to the Holy Land, stand as the first European travel literature.
I really like the sound of Middle English; it has an authentic music. You can hear this passage – the opening of the prologue – read here, with some variation in text and spelling.