Key Stage 3: English

Middle English

The Canterbury Tales”: The Knight’s Tale

“Canterbury Tales Mural” by Ezra Winder. 1939. Wikimedia Commons

“The Canterbury Tales” were written by Geoffrey Chaucer, a royal servant in the fourteenth century. Some of the tales were based on earlier stories. Chaucer linked them together in an overarching story of a group of Christian pilgrims who told the tales to pass the time as they travelled from London to Canterbury to pray at the shrine of St. Thomas Becket.

Twenty four Tales survive, and each is named after the storyteller. ‘The Knight’s Tale’ is the first one in the book.  Chaucer wrote in a language we call Middle English. To him it was simply English, but it was very different from the English spoken before the Norman Conquest – Old English – as well as from our own Modern English. For three centuries after the Norman Conquest, almost all writing was in Norman-French (the language of the Normans) or in Latin which was the language of the Church and of international diplomacy. Chaucer’s decision to use English for his literary work was part of a new tradition that would eventually shape the language that we use today.

Middle English is pretty difficult to understand but here is a spoken sample which is an extract from line 2604 to 2618 shown here in both Middle and modern English.

Here is an animated summary of the Knight’s Tale.

Books in the early 15th century were not like books today. Instead of using paper, they were written on dried animal skins (parchments) and instead of printing they were written by hand by individuals called scribes. Books were very expensive because they were rare and involved huge amounts of time to produce one copy.

Printing was introduced to London by William Caxton in the last quarter of the 15th Century. Just imagine how that affected the number of books that could be produced and the effect on the spread of knowledge.

Your task

Choose a page from an original copy of “The Canterbury Tales”. Here is one that was written in the first half of the 15th century and is now in Corpus Christi College, Oxford. The whole book has been digitized by the Bodleian Library which owes its origin to Duke Humfrey, a brother of King Henry V, in the 15th century.

Make a copy of at least half a page (18 lines) from The Knight’s Tale, keeping as closely as you can to the original scribe’s handwriting. This Tale begins on page 25 with the large letter “W”.

Illuminate one of the capital letters at the beginning of a sentence: you can see plenty of examples on other pages.

Try reading your extract in Middle English.