The canterbury tales, p.97
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.97

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  3993 maunciple: See n. to GP 567. The officer who ran the college household at King’s Hall (see n. to Rv 3990) was at this period called a ‘butler’ (pincerna), rather than a ‘manciple’ (manicip-ulus), which was in general an Oxford rather than a Cambridge title (Cobban, King’s Hall, p. 165, n. 5; Bennett, pp. 103–4). Similarly, ‘warden’ (3999) was a more usual title for the head of a college in Oxford than in Cambridge, although the head of the King’s Hall was referred to indiscriminately as ‘wardein’ (custos) or ‘master’ (magister) (Cobban, p. 75, n. 5). Either Chaucer’s information about Cambridge college life was less than perfect, or he was deliberately using inaccurate terminology to avoid identification of his fictional ‘Soler Hall’ with a real college.

  4014 Strother is a frequent place-name in the North (now found only north of the Tees: Bennett, p. 101), but the village (‘toun’) that Chaucer had in mind (if any) cannot be identified with certainty.

  4015 It is misleading to say, as Bennett does (pp. 99–100), that the King’s Hall had a specially high number of students from the North; the passage of Cobban (King’s Hall, pp. 157–61) that he cites actually points out that the King’s Hall had no particular regional bias (unlike other colleges), and had virtually no scholars from Durham and Northumberland, the area suggested by dialect and other indications as the home of the two scholars (see nn. to Rv 4014, 4022 ff. and 4127).

  4022 ff. True to their origins (4015), the two clerks speak in a distinctive northern dialect. This appears to be the first example in English literature of the imitation of dialectal speech, and Chaucer carries it out with striking accuracy and verve. The main differences from Chaucer’s Southern speech, as they are identified by J. R. R. Tolkien in an important article (Transactions of thePhilological Society (1934), 1–70), are the following (where both forms are given, the Northern one comes first):

  1. Sounds

  a for o: na, nan, swa, ham, ga, fra, banes, (at) anes, alswa, wat,

  ra, bathe, twa, wha, a [for o in a point, 4181], saule, awen

  ald for old: tald, halden

  ang for ong: sang, lang, wrang

  k for ch: whilk

  2. Grammatical forms

  (e)s for (e)th in 3 sg pres: e.g., has, boes, gas, wagges, falles,

  findes, bringes, tides, sayes

  es for e(n) in 3 pl pres: fares, werkes

  past participles: Northern forms have no y- prefix (optional in Southern speech), and retain the -n ending in participles of strong verbs (which may be dropped in Southern speech): e.g., stoln, shapen

  3. Forms of the verb ‘to be’

  is for am (1st sg pres); is for art (2 sg pres); ar for be(n) (1–3 pl pres)

  4. Forms of the pronoun: thair for hire

  5. Other distinctively Northern forms

  sal for shal; taa for take; boes for bihoves; pit for put; sek for sak [in draf-sek]; gif for if

  To these examples may be added the loss of the weak inflexion on adjectives; see the note on ‘This lang night’ in Rv 4175. Tolkien also cites as Northern the ‘inflexionless’ forms of the 2 sg past, ‘nad thow’ (4087), ‘herd thow’ (4170), but the loss of the -est ending in such inverted phrases is found elsewhere in Chaucer (e.g., Mk 2053).

  6. Vocabulary

  fonne, heithen (for henne), hething, hope (in the sense ‘think, expect’, rather than ‘wish for’), howgat, il(le), imel, slik (for swich), swain (in the sense ‘servant’), til (for to, before a consonant).

  These are only the most clearcut examples; other words which may contribute to the idiosyncratic flavour of the clerks’ speech are discussed by Tolkien, pp. 31–45.

  My text of the relevant passages does not incorporate as many northernisms as the one Tolkien prints in his article, since I have restricted myselfto those recorded in either El or Hg or both (with the exception of ‘howgat’ at 4042, which, as Tolkien pointed out (pp. 21–2), would have been very easily corrupted into El/Hg’s ‘how pat’); Tolkien not only included all northernisms found in any of the manuscript transcripts available to him (on the grounds that a scribe was unlikely to have invented them), but also ‘normalized’ the text by extending single instances of Northern features to all other possible cases, even when no manuscript offered support for this. Tolkien probably went too far; on the other hand, N. F. Blake’s view (Lore and Language, 3 (1979), 1–8) that many of the northernisms in El and other manuscripts are due to the enthusiastic initiative of their scribes (or that of an ‘editorial committee’) is unconvincing and inadequately documented. According to C. Elliott, NQ, 209 (1964), 167–70, Hg has more distinctively Northern forms than El. Blake has also argued that the El/Hg reading ‘By god hert(e)’ at 4087, and the El reading ‘By god sale’ at 4187 are examples of a ‘Northern uninflected genitive’ and so should be adopted in the text (NQ, 222 (1977), 400–401), but the inflected form ‘Goddes’ fits the metre better in both cases. For discussion of other manuscript spellings which might be an attempt to represent Northern forms, see S. C. P. Horobin, NQ, 245 (2000), 16–18.

  Thorough as the imitation of Northern speech is, some southernisms persist (and are attested as correct readings by rhyme), and the northernisms seem to fade away somewhat at the end of the tale (see n. to Rv 4237).

  4026–7 The two sayings in these lines sound proverbial but are not recorded elsewhere in medieval English literature.

  4036–43 The hopper is the cone-shaped funnel through which the grain is directed into the ‘eye’ of the millstone; it shakes from side to side (‘wagges til and fra’) to stimulate the movement of the grain. Having passed through the millstones, the ground flour falls into a sack beneath. The clerks set themselves to watch the beginning and end of this process, so that the miller can steal neither from the grain going into the hopper, nor from the flour coming through the millstones.

  4055 The reference is to a fable, surviving in several different forms, in which a horse or mule persuades another animal that a desired piece of information is written on its hoof; when the other animal bends down to read it, the horse kicks it in the head. Of the surviving versions that Chaucer might have known, that in Renart le Contrefait is the only one that tells the story of a wolf and mare, but its moral (‘Or voi ge bien tout an apert | Que clergie bien sa saison pert’; ‘Now I see clearly that learning is a waste of time’: ed. Raynaud and Lemaitre, p. 243) is not so close to Chaucer’s as that which closes the story of the fox and the ass included in Odo of Cheriton’s fables: ‘Qui clerici probantur periciores, non sunt in opere cauciores’ (‘Those who are the most learned clerks are not the most prudent in action’: Hervieux, Les fabulistes latins, IV, 365–6), or the story of wolf and mule in the Novellino (no. 94, ed. Consoli, pp. 118–19): ‘Ongni uomo kessa lettera non èa quarter of which savio’ (‘not every man who knows his letters is wise’); see P. F. Baum, MLN, 37 (1922), 350–53.

  4065 The fenland of modern Cambridgeshire has been largely drained and cultivated as arable land, flat and open in appearance. In the fourteenth century, before large-scale draining, it would have been more like a watery meadow, offering excellent pasture. ‘At least as early as the twelfth century, the grazing of animals had become one of the most important fenland occupations’ (H. C. Darby, The Medieval Fenland (Cambridge, 1940; repr. Newton Abbot, 1974), p. 66). The local villagers held common grazing rights on the fens; the ‘wilde mares’ will not have been truly wild, but animals turned out for summer pasture. Bennett (p. 113) points out that a piece of land still known as Lingay Fen adjoined the (putative) site of Trumpington Mill.

  4101 Jossa, warderere!: These calls for controlling horses (cf. modern English ‘Whoa!’) are obscure in origin and meaning, and are not otherwise recorded in ME.

  4117 Although Trumpington was only three miles from Cambridge, the clerks could not return home because the town gates would have been closed at nightfall, as was customary in the Middle Ages; ‘no one travelled after sunset’ (Bennett, p. 109). In addition, the gate of their college would have been locked.

/>   4123–4 The miller is mocking the philosophical sophistry practised in the university schools, which could provide verbal ‘proofs’ of apparently absurd or impossible propositions. Gerald of Wales (1146–1223) tells a story of a student returning home from Paris who ‘proved’ that six eggs were in fact twelve; his father then ate the six and left him with the hypothetical remainder (S. Wenzel, SP, 73 (1976), 138–61, at p. 144).

  4127 Cutberd: John’s appeal to Cuthbert, the most famous saint of the North, is in keeping with his Northern origins. Cuthbert (7th c.) was bishop of Lindisfarne; his remains are the treasured possession of Durham Cathedral.

  4129–30 The proverb is not otherwise recorded in medieval English literature.

  4134 Proverbial; see Whiting H89 and Singer, I, 115, and cf. WB 415 and n.

  4175 This lang night Hg] This lange night El. The El reading represents Chaucer’s normal use of an -e ending on weak adjectives, but this usage had disappeared in the North of England; the Hg reading thus better fits Alein’s Northern dialect (J. J. Smith, Studies in Middle English Linguistics, ed. J. Fisiak (Berlin, 1997), pp. 557–8). Compare Alein’s ‘thin awen clerk’ at line 4239 with Malin’s ‘thin owene mele’ at line 4245.

  4181–2 Since the y- prefix in past participles was not used in Nothern dialect, Hg’s ‘agreved’ is more likely than El’s ‘ygreved’; see Smith (as cited in the preceding n.).

  Two manuscripts of CT give a Latin version of this maxim in the margin: ‘Qui in uno gravatur in alio debet relevari’ (Manly and Rickert III, 492).

  4210 A variant of the more familiar proverbs ‘Nothing venture, nothing win’ (cf. Whiting N146 and TC II.807–8), and ‘Fortune favours the brave’ (cf. Whiting F519 and TC IV.600–602).

  4236–7 Alein’s farewell to Malin is a low-life version of the aubade, the conventional lament of romantic lovers at the parting enforced on them by dawn; cf. TC III.1415–70.

  4237 The Northern character of Alein’s speech begins to fade rather noticeably at this point. The following forms are ‘incorrect’: no (for na), everemo (for everema), wherso (for whersa), go (for ga). This tendency continues in Alein’s subsequent speeches, which contain the following southernisms: crepen (for crepe), misgon (for misgan; attested as original by the rhyme with anon, which is not part of Alein’s speech and so cannot be emended to Northern anan), maketh (for makes), go (for ga), woot (for wat), misgo (as before, with the additional, incorrect, loss of final -n), also (for alswa), lith (for lis). Some (but not all) of these could be eliminated by emendation, but in view of the sporadic occurrence of southernisms earlier (e.g., slepest for slepes at 4169, hem for thaim at 4171) it is probable that Chaucer was less interested in perfect accuracy than in the general impression of Northern speech.

  4264 St James was one of Christ’s disciples, and the first to be martyred for his faith. According to a ninth-century legend, his relics are preserved in Santiago de Compostela in Spain (see n. to GP 463–6).

  4286 The Priory of St Andrew at Bromholm in Norfolk claimed possession of a fragment of the Cross, which reportedly worked miracles and was an object of pilgrimage (F. Wormald, Journal of the Warburg Institute, 1 (1937–8), 31–45). It is mentioned by Langland at PPl V.227.

  4287 Christ’s last words on the cross, ‘Pater, in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum’ (‘Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit’: Luke 23:46), were used to invoke divine protection when going to sleep, or on the point of death. The wife melodramatically implies that she is threatened with loss of life and limb.

  4300 This is somewhat inconsistent, in view of the wife’s assumption that her husband is in bed with her and that the two combatants are Alein and John (4288, 4291); it should not, in that case, matter which of them she hits. But Chaucer seemstohave worried less about the inconsistency than about providing a reason why her blow is not aimed at Alein.

  4320 Proverbial; see Whiting E185.

  4321 Proverbial; see Whiting G491.


  4331 Ecclesiasticus 11:31: ‘Bring not every man into thy house: for many are the snares of the deceitful.’ On this apocryphal book of the Bible, and its association with Solomon, see n. to Mil 3530.

  4336 ‘Hogge’ is a nickname for Roger, and a Roger Knight de Ware of London, Cook, appears in historical records, so that Chaucer may have had a real person in mind (Bowden, pp. 187–8).

  4346 The Cook has drained off the gravy to prolong the pasty’s ‘shelf-life’.

  4347 A ‘Jack of Dover’ seems to have been some kind of pie, which the Cook is accused of reheating day after day until it is sold.

  4357 ‘A true joke is a bad joke’ (because it is too hurtful). Proverbial; see Whiting P257. J. Grauls and J. F. Vanderheijden (Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, 13 (1934), 745–9) say there is nothing Flemish about the proverb except the word ‘quaad’ (modern Dutch ‘kwaad’), which means ‘bad’. There were large numbers of Flemish merchants and craftsmen living in London in Chaucer’s day (A. R. Myers, London in the Age of Chaucer (Norman, OK, 1972), pp. 145–6). Edward III’s queen, Philippa of Hainault, came from the Low Countries; Chaucer’s wife, also called Philippa, served as a lady of her household and probably was herself Flemish (see Pearsall, Life, pp. 35–8, 49–50).

  4358 Herry Bailly: A Harry Bailly of Southwark who was an innkeeper appears in late fourteenth-century historical records (Manly, New Light, pp. 77–81); whether his inn was the Tabard is not known.


  The source of the Cook’s Tale (if it had one) is unidentifiable; the tale breaks off unfinished, and there is no way of knowing how it would have turned out. Some possibilities are discussed by V. A. Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative: The First Five Canterbury Tales (Stanford, CA, 1984), pp. 275–9). Later on, in the Manciple’s Prologue, the Cook is called upon to tell a tale as if he had not already made a contribution, suggesting that Chaucer meant to cancel the Cook’s Tale (though it is also possible that he was working on it when he died).

  4365–6 Apprentices practised their trade under a master, who was a member of the trade guild, and in whose house the apprentice would normally live (Robertson, Chaucer’s London, p. 79). The victualling guilds of London were especially powerful in the late fourteenth century.

  4368 The comparison is proverbial; cf. GP 207 and n.

  4377 Chepe: Cheapside, a busy London street with many shops, formed the central part of the street running between Newgate, on the west side of the city, and Aldgate, on the east (see Lobel, ed., The City of London, Map 3). It was frequently the scene of festive processions (see Robertson, Chaucer’s London, pp. 75–7).

  4402 Because of the thickness of the city walls, there was ample room for accommodation above and to the sides of the city gates; in the case of Newgate and Ludgate this living-space was used as a prison (see Robertson, Chaucer’s London, p. 23).

  4406–7 Proverbial; see Whiting A167.

  4415 The idea is proverbial; see Whiting M69 and T73.

  4422 The scribe of Hg, having originally left part of a leaf free so as to be able to continue the Cook’s Tale if more of the text became available, later wrote in the left-hand margin ‘Of this cokes tale maked Chaucer na moore’. This suggests that he was given reliable information that Chaucer had left the tale incomplete (rather than that the final part of it was lost).


  1–4 Measuring the time by the length of shadows or the height of the sun in the sky was a normal practice in Chaucer’s time; Nicholas of Lynn’s Calendar (see n. to GP 417–18) made the task easier by including tables showing shadow lengths, and the angular distance of the sun above the celestial equator, according to the day of the year and the time of day (during daylight hours). The figures Chaucer gives here correspond exactly with those Nicholas of Lynn gives for 10 a.m. on 18 April (and are unusual in that both are round numbers). In contrast, the information given in lines 2–3 is inaccurate: the ‘artificial day’ (the time between sunrise and
sunset) would on 18 April have lasted 14 hours 26 minutes, a quarter of which is 3 hours minutes, whereas the period from sunrise to 10 a.m. on that day would have been far longer (5 hours 13 minutes), even when ‘half an houre and moore’ is added on. It is unlikely that Chaucer would have expected his readers to recognize that he was making fun of the Host’s ignorance (Eisner, Kalendarium, p. 30), and more probable that he himself simply made a mistake (see North, Chaucer’s Universe, pp. 124–5). On different methods of telling the time, see L. Mooney, SAC, 15 (1993), 91–109.

  20–24 These lines resemble RR 361–74 (tr. Horgan, p. 8); a comparison of passing time with flowing water is also found in Ovid, Art of Love III.62–4, and Metamorphoses XV.179–85.

  25–8 Senec: The first of Seneca’s Moral Epistles warns against wasting time, and contrasts the loss of material possessions, which can be replaced, with the loss of time, which cannot (I.3). Cf. also Gower, CA IV.1485–7.

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