If you are first setting out to read Geoffrey Chaucer’s works or you’re already an avid medieval reader, take a look at my tips below for how to read Chaucer.
1) Review Your Mythology and be Aware of Chaucer’s Influences
Chaucer has many influences that have propelled his poems forward and he is not very shy about it. In his poems Chaucer will often mention Plato, pagan gods and goddesses, the bible, and various political figures in history.
These name-drops not only give us a clue to Chaucer’s influences, but they also add layers to his work. Take for example, the imagery of Diana (the roman counterpart to Artemis) and her followers in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowles. The women are painted on the walls of Venus’ temple with Diana’s broken bow.
“That, in dispit of Dyane the chaste,
Ful many a bowe ibroke heng on the wal
Of maydenes swiche as gonne here tymes waste
In hyre servyse; and peynted overall”
Chaucer, “Parliament of Fowles”, 281-7 (Riverside edition)
The imagery of the broken bow of “Dyane the chaste” alone gives you the idea of rape or a broken vow, but knowing Diana is a mythological goddess, a deeper story unfolds.
Mentioning Diana, the goddess of hunting, in the poem makes us think of the stories that make up her character and her Greek counterpart, Artemis, in the mythological realm. Weaving a mythological figure into a story means weaving together the tales that trail behind them.
Some popular myths that may come to mind are:
- Diana and Actaeon – Diana catches Actaeon, a mortal hunter, starring at her as she bathes at a spring. Outraged, Diana turns him into a stag and his hounds, unknowing of his transformation, kill him.
- Diana (Artemis), Orion, and Apollo – Apollo, intent to intervene Diana and Orion’s budding relationship, tricks Orion into swimming far out into a lake and then tricks Diana into shooting his obscure figure. Depressed, she turns him into a constellation, along with his dogs Canis Minor and Canis Major.
- Apollo and Daphne (Diana’s follower) – When Cupid is enraged by Apollo’s insult, he shoots Apollo with a gold-tipped arrow and Daphne with a lead-tipped arrow. Apollo becomes infatuated with Daphne, but Daphne is averse to his affections and begs her father, Peneus, to save her. Daphne is turned into a tree and Apollo continues to haunt her in her new form.
In just two lines Chaucer paints a vast picture of choice and force, of free will and destiny, of instinctual love and courtly love.
Pay attention to Chaucer’s use of mythological gods and goddesses as they are iconic figures: they represent grand concepts like love, hunting, death, or nature which trigger the reader’s mind to relating stories.
2) The Typical Medieval Dream Vision and How Chaucer Changed It
The French influence of the dream vision entails that the dreamer is troubled by matters of the heart, called lovesickness and treated as an actual medical condition.
The typical dream vision has the dreamer falling asleep, finding a guide figure in the dream, the dream hints at a solution but the dreamer does not understand it.
Chaucer steers away from the typical medieval dream vision by parting away from lovesickness and focusing on questions of the mind.
In the Book of the Duchess the dreamer searches for a cure to lovesickness and enters a dream where a lover’s pain for the loss of their loved one becomes materialized into the immortal god of sleep and the Black Knight hints that the process of healing comes with an immersion into your memories with your loved one.
In the Parliament of the Fowles the dreamer searches for an answer to what love is and enters a dream where courtly love and instinctual love (through the fowls’ argument to mate with the female eagle) are questioned.
3) Use a Medieval English Dictionary (MED)
Reading late middle English can be a little troubling, but if you read it aloud you will find it sounds similar to our modern English today.
But I also strongly urge you to use a medieval dictionary, even if you believe you understand the meaning of a middle English word. More often than not, a middle English word will have multiple and layered meanings.
Chaucer often plays with the significance and phonics of words, so his true intention is ambiguous.
For instance, in the end of the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales, the narrator argues that a good storyteller tells the tale as close to the original character’s words as possible.
In particular, the narrator says that:
“The wordes moote be cosyn to the dede”
Chaucer, “General Prologue”, The Canterbury Tales. Line 742 (Riverside edition)
Now, the MED states that “cosyn” means “cousin, or something akin to, close to”, but it can also mean “trickery”.
Recognizing that at the end of the General Prologue Chaucer uses an “affected modesty”, where a narrator is modest about their writing skills, the narrator’s following comparison to Plato and the bible shows that he is not shy to trick his reader about his intent.
For more on Chaucer, check out my post on “My Top 3 Medieval Tales” where I talk about why you should read Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.