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The Best Canterbury Tales Everyone Should Read

Ten of Chaucer’s greatest tales

Geoffrey Chaucer left his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, unfinished when he died in 1400, having completed only one-fifth of the projected undertaking. Nevertheless, he left 20-odd tales finished, some of which are somewhat longer than others. What are the ten best Canterbury Tales? Below are what we consider the greatest of the tales told by Chaucer’s pilgrims. If you want to read Chaucer’s vast classic but don’t know the best place to start, these are our recommendations. We’ve been unsure as to whether to link to handy online translations of the Canterbury Tales into modern English, or to link to original Middle English versions. So, we’ve compromised. The interlinear translations offered by Harvard contain a line-by-line translation below the original Middle English.

The Miller’s Tale. Perhaps the most famous – and best-loved – of all of the tales in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘The Miller’s Tale’ is told as a comic corrective following the sonorous seriousness of the Knight’s tale. The tale is an example of the fabliau or comic skit, and concerns a lecherous young student at the University of Oxford, Nicholas, and his adulterous relationship with Alison, the young wife of an old carpenter. Flood warnings, farting, and frantic ark-building all ensue, in one of the great jewels in the comic crown of medieval literature. Read the rest of this entry

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A Short Analysis of the Medieval Poem ‘Westron Wynde’

A summary of a miniature medieval classic

The anonymous song or poem simply known as ‘Westron Wynde’ (sometimes modernised as ‘Western Wind’) dates from the early sixteenth century, and the tune to which it was sung influenced a raft of English composers such as the Tudor John Taverner (not to be confused with the more recent composer, John Tavener). However, the words to the song may be from even earlier than the sixteenth century, perhaps the fourteenth or fifteenth century. How should we interpret ‘Westron Wynde’? It turns out its meaning is not exactly straightforward.

This four-line poem, in its original spelling, runs:

Westron wynde, when wyll thow blow
The smalle rayne downe can rayne? Read the rest of this entry

Five Fascinating Facts about Francois Villon

Fun facts about the French medieval poet

1. François Villon was a murderer, thief, and member of a criminal brotherhood. Villon was born in Paris in 1431; in 1449 he went to study at the University there, and was made a master of arts three years later. However, three years after that, he was involved in a fracas that ended with him killing a priest with his sword. He was quitted a year later on the grounds that he had acted in self-defence, but Villon’s brush with the law doesn’t seem to have deterred him from a life of crime. The same year he was involved in a robbery at the College of Navarre, and, fearing arrest, fled. He somehow ended up being taken under the wing of Duke Charles d’Orléans, a gifted poet (in English as well as French). It may have been the Duke who turned Villon onto poetry: he wrote his masterpiece, Le Testament, during this period, as well as the (sadly lost) poem ‘The Romance of the Devil’s Fart’. Read the rest of this entry