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Chaucer: Still popular after 600 years
Whilom ther was a scoler dwllynge at London,
Which, loosely translated, means there was once a poet called Geoffrey Chaucer whose Canterbury Tales are still widely considered one of the greatest works in the history of the English language.
Chaucer died 600 years ago this week, on October 25, 1400. Despite the age of his work, however, and the fact that it was written in Middle English -- an idiom peppered with unfamiliar words and phrases -- it remains as popular now as it has ever been.
"Chaucer is incredibly present," says James Simpson, Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University. "He has an extraordinary capacity to remain modern and contemporary. The language is different, but it only takes a bit of work to be able to read it."
Chaucer remains a staple of the English syllabus in schools and universities across Britain.
Nor is his popularity confined to his native country. Universities throughout Europe and the U.S. offer courses in Chaucer, while two of the world's most respected Chaucerian scholars, Dieter Mehl and Piero Boitani, are, respectively, German and Italian.
"His appeal is international," says Mehl, a professor at the University of Bonn, Germany. "Particularly his humour, which is very modern. I still laugh each time I read him."
Boitani agrees. "Provided you get a good translation you can enjoy him whatever your nationality. Nor do you have to be an academic. The things he's writing about are the things of everyday life, and those are the same for everyone."
The first true English poet
Chaucer was born in London sometime around 1342 or 1343, the son of a wealthy wine merchant.
As a young man he served as a pageboy in the household of the Duke of Clarence, and fought in the Hundred Years War against the French, where he was captured and subsequently ransomed.
He travelled around Europe as a diplomat for Edward III (1327-77), and continued in royal service under both Richard II (1377-99) and Henry IV (1399-1413), occupying such exalted posts as Comptroller of Customs on Firs, Skins and Hides for the Port of London, and Clerk of the King's Works.
At the same time he was producing a whole variety of poetical works -- the Book of the Duchess, the Legend of Good Women, the Parliament of Fowls, Troilus and Cressida -- which were not only brought him fame and royal patronage, but also pushed back the boundaries of the English language.
"In a sense you could say it all started with Chaucer," says Nigel Frith of the Centre for Renaissance and Medieval Studies in Oxford. "The language he was using was the language that later became modern English. It's with Chaucer that English literature as we now know it really begins."
His masterwork, written from 1387 onwards, was The Canterbury Tales, the story of a group of 29 pilgrims who, while travelling from London to Canterbury Cathedral, each tell a separate tale to wile away the journey.
Full of colourful characters -- the bawdy miller, the noble knight, the proto-feminist Wife of Bath -- it was an instant hit, and has remained so ever since.
A whole series of Chaucer-related events are planned to mark the anniversary of his death, including conferences, exhibitions, Chaucer-readings and reprintings of many of his works.
"We were going to have a special Chaucer display," said Sir Robert Sherston-Baker, proprietor of the Chaucer Bookshop in Canterbury. "Unfortunately his works are so popular they sell as soon as they come in, so we haven't got any in stock at the moment."
One of the more high-tech Chaucer memorials comes in the form of a CD-ROM of one of the earliest surviving manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, the so-called Hengwrt manuscript housed in the National Library of Wales.
Produced by the Canterbury Tales Project, based in Leicester, England, this provides computer images of the manuscript, allowing readers to experience Chaucer's work as it would have appeared in his own day.
Intriguingly, while compiling the CD-ROM, researchers discovered that for 600 years we have actually been using the wrong title for the poem. Chaucer himself titled it The Book of the Tales of Canterbury, rather than just the Canterbury Tales.
It would also appear that he had intended the story to be much longer. Although the existing version is 17,000 lines long, it seems Chaucer's original plan was to have each character telling four tales rather than one, thereby effectively quadrupuling the poem's length. Unfortunately, however, he died before he was able to finish the work.
He was buried in London's Westminster Cathedral, where visitors still flock to see his tomb.
(*Once upon a time there was a writer who lived in London,
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The Canterbury Tales Project
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