How to Read Chaucer

The best way to learn to read Chaucer's Middle English is to enroll in a course with a good and enthusiastic teacher (as most teachers of Chaucer are). Though students enrolled in Chaucer courses may find some parts of this page useful, it is intended primarily for those who, for a variety of reasons, cannot take such a course but nevertheless want to increase their enjoyment of Chaucer's works.

The aim of this page is to provide the user with the means to learn to pronounce Chaucer's English and to acquire an elementary knowledge of Chaucer's grammar and vocabulary. It does not offer much on matters of style and versification and has almost nothing on the literary qualities of Chaucer's work. The users who work conscientiously through these materials should be ready to study such matters on their own (beginning with the materials on the Geoffrey Chaucer Website, and exploring other sources both on and off the Web).

It is assumed that the user of the page has a printed text of The Canterbury Tales. There are texts on line, but none with the quality one finds in print (a printed edition, with a good glossary and notes, remains the most effective form of hypertext). The exercises on this page assume that the user has a copy of either the Riverside Chaucer or The Canterbury Tales Complete, based on the Riverside. Other well glossed editions may be used, though problems will arise in the self-tests provided, since they are co-ordinated with the glosses and Explanatory Notes in the recommended texts.

The lessons begin with Chaucer's pronunciation, often illustrated with sound.In the early sections on Chaucer's language links are frequently provided to more detailed discussions of particular matters; it is not necessary to follow up every link. The user should be guided by his or her own interests.

Beginning with The Shipman's Tale, the texts used are interlinear translations, provided with quizzes -- self-tests for the users to check on their progress in learning Chaucer's language. The assumption is that the quizzes will encourage very close attention to the language; the goal is not to encourage the users to translate literally but rather to enable them to make Chaucer's language part of their own. For example, the word "hende," used so frequently in The Miller's Tale, has a great variety of meanings -- clever, tricky, courteous, handy -- all of which are implied in any single usage, lending these usages a richness in reference that is lost in any translation. The reader who has carefully considered the word in its various contexts can enjoy some of that richness.

The lessons take up the tales in this order: The Shipman's Tale, The General Prologue, The Knight's Tale, The Miller's Tale, The Reeve's Tale, and The Cook's Tale. This is the recommended order, but users are of course free to study the tales in whatever order they wish. Other tales are provided with interlinear translations and quizzes on their vocabularies, and users may, if they wish, construct their own course of instruction -- though they are strongly urged to follow the course as it is set out on these pages.