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…
(The opening lines of The Canterbury Tales)
Welcome to April, dear readers!
Today, on this first day of April, we here at the HLC celebrate #WhanThatAprilleDay19, a day intended to celebrate all languages that has come before us or, as the creator of this lovely day says: “Ower mission ys to remynde folk of the beautye and grete lovelinesse of studyinge the wordes of the past.”
In honour of this mission, we have something special for you today: we have written a little something on one of our own favourite historical texts that may, for some reason, have been placed a bit in the shadows of history – so no Canterbury Tales for you today (though Sabina will tell you a bit about another Chaucerian work). Check out what makes us smile!
Aelfric’s Colloquoy of the Occupations
An Old English text which always makes me smile is Aelfric’s Colloquoy of the Occupations. This text is written as a conversation (or, colloquoy) between a teacher and his pupils, where the pupils take on the roles of workers and craftsmen of different professions, such as hunter, fisher, baker, tanner, etc., and answer questions from the teacher. It was written as a teaching aid for the pupils to learn Latin, but another, unknown, teacher kindly provided an Old English gloss for it (with Old English word order). Thanks to that teacher, this text is now often used to teach students Old English – how neat is that!
What makes me smile about this text is partly the actual content of it: it’s fun to read about these different Anglo-Saxon professions, what materials people used, what purpose they had, and all of that. I also love the idea of language teaching being so similar back in the Anglo-Saxon times: Aelfric needed an aid to make Latin teaching more fun, so he created a little dialogue/role play exercise!
I’ve attached an extract below, with an approximate translation, hoping that this will make you smile as well, from the conversation with the fisher:
[Teacher:] Forhwi ne fixast þu on sæ?
Why do you not fish at sea?
[Pupil:] Hwilum ic do, ac seldon, forþam micel rewyt me ys to sæ.
Sometimes I do, but rarely, because it’s very far from me to the sea.
[Teacher:] Hwæt fehst þu on sæ?
What do you catch at sea?
[Pupil:] Hærincgas ond leaxas, mereswyn ond stirian, ostran ond crabban, muslan, winewinclan, sæcoccas, fagc ond floc ond lopystran ond fela swylces.
Herring and salmon, dolphins and sturgeon, oysters and crabs, mussels, winkles, cockles, plaice, soles and lobsters, and the like.
[Teacher:] Wilt þu fon sumne hwæl?
Do you want to catch a whale?
[Pupil:] Forþam plyhtlic þingc hit ys gefon hwæl. Gebeorhlicre ys me faran to ea mid scype mynum, þænne faran mid manegum scypum on huntunge hranes.
Because catching whale is a dangerous thing. It is safer for me to go to the river with my spear, than to go whale hunting with many ships.
[Teacher:] Forhwi swa?
[Pupil:] Forþam leofre ys me gefon fisc þæne ic mæg ofslean, þonne fisc , þe na þæt an me ac eac swylce mine geferan mid anum slege he mæg besencean oþþe gecwylman.
Because it is better for me to catch fish that I can kill, than this fish [the whale], as it could drown and kill with one blow, not only me but my companions as well.
[Teacher:] Ond þeah mænige gefoþ hwælas, ond ætberstaþ frecnysse, ond micelne sceat þanon begytaþ.
But there are many who catch whales, and escape danger, and make great gain by it.
[Pupil:] Soþ þu segst, ac ic ne geþristge for modes mines nytenyssæ.
You speak the truth, but I don’t dare because of my mind’s ignorance.
Seven Books of History Against the Pagans (Ohthere)
In the extant corpus of Old English (that means the works we still have—I just wanted to sound fancy for a second), there’s a curious little excerpt that recounts the voyage of a man named Ohthere. It dates to Alfred the Great’s Wessex and appears in a text called Seven Books of History Against the Pagans (how’s that for a title?). The Old English version of the text is something of a world history.
In the excerpt about Ohthere, the Norwegian tells King Alfred about his journeys through Scandinavia. Some of it reads like a dry, medieval travelogue—a lot of sailing north for three days then east for two and that sort of thing. But he also talks about the Sami and Denmark and the geography of Norway and all sorts of things that are fascinating even on Wikipedia; go back to the quirky phrasing of a thousand-year-old document, and now you’ve really got some fun going on. In the part most beloved by my first Old English class, Ohthere talks about walrus teeth, and he describes himself as having “600 unsold tame reindeer” (including several decoys). Ultimately, it was one of our favorite reads that semester (we often joked about the reindeer). There are some interesting accounts hidden away in the old manuscripts of the world!
Legend of Good Women
Hey everyone and happy #WhanThatAprilleDay19! As you know by now, I work mostly with Middle English, which is of course the language in which “the father of English poetry” wrote in (for those who are unfamiliar with this honorary title, I’m talking about Geoffrey Chaucer).
In honour of that, I will tell you something about a Chaucerian text but not the one you are most likely to have heard about (that is, the Canterbury Tales). Instead, I will tell you a bit about one of my own favourite pieces of Chaucerian poetry: The Legend of Good Women.
The Legend is sometimes considered to be inferior to many of Chaucer’s other works, primarily perhaps because it rarely transcends the conventions of its time (which Chaucer is otherwise rather famous for doing). In fact, some even believe that Chaucer himself got bored with the task and left the tale unfinished as a result (which may or may not be true). Regardless, though, the Legend may potentially be the first significant work in English written in the iambic pentameter, so no matter what one thinks about the story, one can’t really exclude it from historical consideration.
Storywise, it is written in the form of a dream-vision, a literary device that was very common during the Middle Ages, and starts with a prologue in which, presumably, Chaucer himself falls asleep and finds himself in the company of the God and Goddess of Love. The goddess of Love, Alceste, soon berates him for his depiction of women in stories like Troilus and Criseyde. For those of you who are unfamiliar with that story, the point is that Criseyde is depicted as very inconstant in her love. Because of this, Alceste commands Chaucer to tell a tale of virtuous, good women and their deeds (supposedly, this demand was actually a poetic description of an actual request made by Anne of Bohemia, who became the Queen of England).
And so he does. The Legend tells the story of ten virtuous women and their unwavering loyalty and love to men that, ultimately, betray them. My personal favourite is the story of Dido, the queen of Libye and the founder of Carthage. Chaucer’s story is clearly based on Virgil’s Aenid and Ovid’s Heroides, telling the story of how Aeneas (or Eneas as Chaucer names him) comes to Carthage and how Dido falls in love with him. She soon takes him as a husband, but Eneas has no intention of staying. Instead, he sneaks away late at night, sailing to Italy as was always his plan. Dido, in a fit of despair, orders a sacrificial fire and, in the right moment, throws herself into the flames, driving the point of Eneas’ abandoned sword into her heart.
Most of the stories tend to work out like this, so perhaps Chaucer should have rethought the title of the story, changing it to, the more truthful, “Legend of false men”. Regardless, it is worth a read, if only to get the opportunity to read a typical dream-vision poem of the Middle Ages. And, if you’re like me, you’ll enjoy the stories too!
There you are, three of our favourite stories! Let us know what some of your favourite stories are in the comments or on Facebook or Twitter and don’t forget to read, recite, sing or listen to some historical stories today – enjoy the language, the style, the stories themselves… No matter, just enjoy!