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The Canterbury Tales
By Geoffrey Chaucer
The original, squashed down to read in about 30 minutes

The Nun's Priest, from the 15thCent 'Ellesmere Chaucer'
(London, c1388)

Geoffrey Chaucer was a civil servant, sufficiently highly thought of that King Edward III granted him a gallon of wine daily for life. This unfinished 'frame narrative' was one of the first popular books ever printed by the pioneer English printer William Caxton, and Chaucer "the firste fyndere of our fair langage."

There are about 24 Canterbury tales, but, this being an abridgement, you only get a few of the most famous ones, based on the modernised versions by William Wordsworth

The Canterbury Tales

Original text:
WHEN that Aprilis, with his showers swoot,
The drought of March hath pierced to the root,
And bathed every vein in such licour,
Of which virtue engender'd is the flower... ...

Modernised version:
When droughty March is gone, and April showers
Freshen the earth and quicken all the flowers,
And little birds upon the budding trees
Wake in the night and sing their melodies,
Then moved by the sweet spring time, folks incline,
To go on pilgrimage to some great shrine;
And men of all degrees, from end to end
Of England, unto Canterbury wend,
To pray before the tomb of our great Saint,
For peace of soul, or cure of some complaint.
It happened in this season on a day,
In Southwark, at the Tabard, as I lay,
Ready to wend upon my pilgrim route
To Canterbury with a heart devout,
At night there came into that hostelry,
Full nine-and-twenty folk in company.
Good pilgrims were they all, I quickly found,
Who were, like me, to Canterbury bound;
And having spoken unto every one
Over the evening meal, I was anon
Admitted to their goodly company.
And then the keeper of our hostelry,
A merry, bright-eyed man, said he would ride
At his own cost with us. and be our guide;
Saying we were the merriest pilgrim band
That he had seen that year in all the land.
And now, I think, 'tis time to stay my verse,
And tell you of my fellow-travellers.

A knight came first, a very worthy man.
Who, from the earliest time when he began
To ride, had vowed himself to chivalry,
Honour and truth, freedom and courtesy.
And nobly had he fought in Holy Land
In fifteen battles, and had held command
To him a seat of honour all men gave;
For he was very wise as well as brave,
Yet in his port as meek as is a maid.
He never a discourteous word had said
In all his life to any living wight.
He was a very perfect, gentle knight.
Beside him rode his son, a handsome Squire
Of twenty years, in glittering attire.
At night his songs of love rang down the dale;
One servant only by his side was seen,
A Yeoman, in a coat and hood of green.
A Prioress rode behind this gallant boy;
A smiling, simple nun was she, and coy.
Her face was pleasant, and her voice was sweet,
And French she spoke right gracefully and neat
So tender was her heart, that she was stirred
To tears by a dead mouse or wounded bird.
A Monk behind this kind, sweet Prioress came
Who loved right well to ride and hunt for game.
A manly man he was, and strong and able,
And many a good horse had he in his stable.
The saintly rules of Maur and Benedict
He held were over-old and over-strict;
He cared not for that text a moulting hen,
Which says that hunters are not holy men;
I hold that his opinion was not bad.
Why should he study till he was half-mad,
Great joy he had in hunting down the hare.
And fat he was, and well he loved rich fare.
And next there came a Friar, in worsted gown,
Who knew right well each tavern in each town.
Familiar and well-beloved was he
With all the farming men and yeomanry;
Well could he sing, and play upon the harp,
And turn a merry saying or a sharp;
His eyes, they twinkled in his head as bright
As stars do on a clear and frosty night.
Beside a Franklin, jolly, plump and ruddy,
Who made good food and drink his only study,
There rode a Clerk from Oxford-one who took
No pleasure save in reading in a book.
Lean was his horse, as lean as is a rake;
And he, too, was not fat, I undertake.
No benefice had he obtained as yet,
And on no worldly place his mind was set;
For he would rather have at his bed's head
A score of volumes, bound in black or red,
On Aristotle and philosophy,
Than splendid robes, fiddle and psaltery.
A Sergeant of the Law came next- a man
Who seemed to know all that a lawyer can.
Right well could he advise, and judge, and plead,
And draw up wisely every sort of deed.
A Good-wife who had come from Bath rode next-
A witty woman, but with deafness vexed.
Bold was her face, and red and very fair.
And so much glittering finery did she wear
That she was rather vulgarly overdressed,
Though everything she wore was of the best.
But still, as women go, she was not bad;
And though in turn five husbands she had had,
And worried them to death, she was full fain
To find a sixth and go to church again.
Close to the good-wife a Physician rode,
Whose rich habiliments of crimson showed
What profit he had made in those two years
When the great plague filled all men's minds with fears.
Some say gold is a sovran remedy,
And this physician loved it certainly.
But by him came a Parson, poor in dress,
But rich in learning and in holiness.
Wide was his parish, scattered was his flock,
But neither rain, nor snow, nor thunder shock
Prevented him from going to relieve
The sick, the poor, and all who mourn and grieve.
Some way behind this poor and godly priest,
A Pardoner rode upon an ambling beast,
Singing, 'Come hither, love, to me.' From Rome
Loaded with red-hot pardons, had he come.
His equal was not to be found, I swear,
For trickery, from Berwick unto Ware.
Among the relics which he had for sale
There was a fragment of Our Lady's veil,
A cross of common metal set with stones,
And a glass case containing a pig's bones.
These he would sell to some poor, foolish priest
As something worth their weight in gold at least.
Such was the rubbish that he trafficked in:
A greater rogue than he was never seen.
A Steward and a Miller too. were there,
A Haberdasher and a Carpenter,
A Weaver, and a Dyer, and a Cook
Who, on our pilgrimage, great trouble took
To roast our meat and make and bake our pies;
A right good cook he was for savouries.
With us to Canterbury now he came,
To cure his leg, for he had fallen lame.
The Miller was a man of brawn and might,
As ready for a frolic as a fight.
When to his mill the farmer's corn was sent,
It came back ground much smaller than it went.
No wheat he bought, no fields he ever tilled,
But all the year his corn bins were well filled.
And yet he was a jolly soul, I trow,
And honest in his way-as millers go.
Riding in front of all our company,
And blowing on a bagpipe merrily,
With puffing cheeks, and bagpipe strongly blown,
Gaily he played us out of Southwark town.
"Now," said the keeper of the Tabard Inn,
"I think, Sir Knight, you kindly might begin
A round of tales, to keep us blithe and merry
As we go riding on to Canterbury.
Let each of us now tell a tale in turn,
And then, when we to Southwark town return,
The teller of the tale that pleases most
Shall have a supper at the others' cost."
To this we all agreed with much delight.
And being wise and courteous, the old knight,
Sitting upon his horse, erect and bold,
Began to tell the tale that here is told.

The Knight's Tale

When Theseus, the Athenian monarch
To Thebes, and put the town to sword and flame,
Two brave young Thebans of the royal blood,
Arcite and Palamon, his power withstood.
Kinsmen they were and friends, and side by side
They fought, but could not turn the battle's tide;
And so they fell at last, still combating,
Into the hands of the Athenian king.
And Theseus, fearing that the brave young knights
Would struggle to regain their royal rights,
Resolved to make them prisoners for life,
And keep the Thebans from renewing strife.
So, in a tower beside his palace wall
Arcite and Palamon were put, and all
The doors were bolted; and a year went by
And still in prison they were forced to lie.
And then as Palamon, upon a day,
At morning in the pleasant month of May,
Was gazing from the window of the tower,
He saw a maiden, fairer than a flower,
Walking in beauty in the garden ground
Below the tower, and singing as she bound
A garland of sweet roses white and red,
To place upon her shining golden head.
"Ye gods!" cried Palamon, "captivity
Is in itself a bitter thing to dree!
Now love, now hopeless love, has come to fill
My heart with greater grief and misery still!"
Hearing his cries. Arcite ran up in haste
To comfort him, but as his arms embraced
His friend he saw the maiden like a flower
Walking in beauty underneath the tower.
There was a silence. And Arcite then said,
"Unless she love me I shall soon be dead!"
"I saw and loved her first," cried Palamon.
"I swear she shall be mine, and mine alone!
And you, Arcite, my kinsman and my friend,
Are you not sworn to serve me to the end,
As I am sworn to serve you all my life?
Then help me win this maiden for my wife."
"That will I not," Arcite replied; "above
All power of friendship is the power of love.
Stronger than yours my passion is, and I
Must win her for myself, or fail and die.
And I am very like to die," said he,
"For there's no hope that our captivity
Will ever end." But by strange hap, Arcite
Was set at liberty that very night.
A friend this favour from the king obtained,
Upon condition that Arcite remained
Away from Athens. "If Arcite is found,''
Said Theseus sternly, "on Athenian ground
He shall at once be killed." At this Arcite
Cried unto Palamon, "Oh, bitter spile!
Why was I born to such a cruel fate?
Happier are you, my friend, in your sad state.
Liberty only doubles all my pain;
For I shall never see her face again.
While you can sit and watch her from the tower.
And may, by change of fortune, get the power
Of winning her. Farewell, Oh, Palamon.
Think kindly on me now that I am gone!"
The god of love, the god of love! ah me!
How mighty, and how great a lord is he!
There is no power on earth that can withstand
The miracles men work at his command.
Seven years went by, and Palamon still strove
To free himself, and follow his sweet love.
Though now he knew that she was Emily,
The sister of King Theseus-enemy
Of him and all his race-he loved her more
Each time he chanced to see her than before.
Finding at last a friend in his distress,
He broke out of the tower, and donned the dress
And armour of a man of his degree,
And waited in the fields where Emily
Was riding with her maids at break of day.
To pluck green boughs and flowers, for it was May.
As he was hiding in the grass, a knight
Came singing down the road. It was Arcite!
Exile from Emily to him had seemed
Far worse than death, and now at length he deemed
That he had won her heart; for he had come
In strange disguise, bold and adventuresome,
And won renown at the Athenian court.
Sweetly he sang of Emily; but short
His song was. Springing fiercely to his side,
Palamon seized his bridle rein and cried,
"Down, traitor, down! And if you are a man
Fight for your life, and then sing if you can!"
Arcite got down, and drew his sword, and then
They fought more like to tigers than to men.
Neither gave way, but still warred where he stood;
And then, when all their armour streamed with blood.
Emily came riding by, arrayed in green,
And by her side was Theseus with his queen.
"Down with your swords!" the king cried. "If you give
Another stroke, neither of you shall live.
Are you both mad?" "May be," said Palamon,
"Seeing the thing that we are set upon.
We are your mortal foes. He is Arcite,
The Theban lord you vowed that you would smite
Dead if you ever found him in your lands.
And I deserve no pity at your hands,
For I am Palamon, your prisoner,
Broke out of prison, and now fighting here
With my dear friend and kinsman, as you see,
Instead of flying from captivity."
"Why do you fight?" the king said, with a frown.
"Love," Palamon replied, "has broken down
And utterly destroyed all friendly ties
Between us. Emily, since we were brought
Prisoners to Athens, love for you has wrought
Such rapture, misery, gladness, and despair
In our sad hearts, that we have ceased to care
Whether we lived or died. And now that I
Can never hope to win you, I would die."
Struck by his passion and sincerity,
Theseus said, turning unto Emily-
Who, with the queen, was kneeling at his feet,
And crying, "Pardon! Pardon them!" "My sweet,
I pardon them right willingly, and now
It lies with you to reconcile them. How
Will you decide, fair sister, which to take
Of these two knights? For both you cannot make
Blest with your love in happy married life.
But hold! There is a way to end this strife
According to the rules of courtesy.
Arcite and Palamon must come to me,
Each with a hundred lords at his command,
And joust in knightly wise for Emily's hand."
At this, bold Palamon and brave Arcite
Were filled with hope and ardour and delight.
Great joy was there in Greece. Who would not ride
The lists, and help to win so fair a bride?
Crowds of great kings and conquerors were bent
On fighting in the famous tournament.
So when the knights their bannerets unfurled
The flower of all the chivalry of the world
Rode at their side; and the earth seemed to rock
When the two hosts met in terrific shock.
Too close it grew for spears; and swords then flashed,
And down on helm and armour maces crashed.
Oh, what a havoc Palamon then made
To reach Arcite! But as he drove his blade
Clean at his foe, full twenty hostile lords
Closed in on him, and lashed him with their swords
And struck him to the earth. "Have done! have done!"
Cried Theseus, seeing the fall of Palamon.
"Arcite of Thebes has got the victory;
Arcite of Thebes shall now have Emily!"
But as Arcite rode up, with shining eyes
Fixed upon Emily, his lovely prize.
Holding his battered helmet in his hand,
His war-horse swerved close to the royal stand,
And down he fell on his uncovered head;
And where he fell he lay like one stone dead.
"What is this world?" he then began to moan.
When Emily came to him, and Palamon,
"What is this world? What joy in it men have?
Now with their love, and now in the cold grave
Alone, and with no kindly company.
Farewell, my life, my love, my Emily!
Now take me gently in your arms, I pray,
For love of God, and list to what I say.
Here is my friend and kinsman, Palamon;
And now I say, there is not any one-
Though I have fought with him in jealousy-
More worthy to be loved by you than he.
If you will be his true and loving wife,
Loyally will he serve you all his life,
In honour, knighthood, wisdom, truth and worth.
Noble he is by nature and by birth."
Then darkness fell upon him, and the breath
Of life went from his body; but in death
Still on his lady did he fix his eye;
His last word was, "Ah, mercy, Emily!"
Some time, both Emily and Palamon
Mourned for Arcite, but when a year had gone,
King Theseus in solemnity and state
United them in marriage. And thus fate
Gave, in the end, the bride Arcite had won
Unto his friend and kinsman Palamon.

The Wife of Bath's Tale

In ancient times, in good King Arthur's days,
Our merry England was a faerie place.
The elf-queen with her jolly company-
Then danced at night on manv a flowery lea,
And rings of darker grass at morn were found
In every field where she had led a round.
But now the begging friars have chased away
Each pretty sprite and each delightful fay;
In every spot haunted of old by elves,
You now will find the begging friars themselves.
But in King Arthur's reign this was not so.
One of his knights was riding, sad and slow,
At evening through a meadow, and he spied
Some fairies dancing by a forest side.
Boldly he galloped up to them, to ask
Their help; for he was troubled with a task
Beyond the power of man; but all the fays
Vanished before he reached their dancing-place.
Only a woman, ugly, old and grim,
He found there. And she rose, and said to him,
"No path is here, Sir Knight. But can I be
Of help to you?" "Yes, Granny," then said he,
"And I must perish if you cannot aid.
For my unknightly conduct to a maid
I have been sentenced by Queen Guinevere
To come before her throne within a year.
And tell her and her angry damoiselles
What thing a woman wants above all else.
Long has this question set the court at strife,
And if I solve it not, I lose my life.
The year has now gone by; and I have laid
The case before each mother, bride, and maid
Whom I have met in my long wandering.
But none of them agrees upon the thing
They most desire. For some want flattery,
Some love, some marriage, and some jollity;
And others honour, wealth or rich array-
What is their secret wish I cannot say.
Reveal it, granny, and you shall not want
Aught that I have it in my power to grant."
"Sir Knight," she answered, "will you swear to do
Anything in the world I ask of you
If now I rede the riddle to you aright?"
"Yes, on my honour, granny!" said the knight.
"Take me to court," she said, "and on the way
I then will tell you what you have to say."
When they to court were come. Queen Guinevere
Summoned the knight that evening to appear
And tell her, at the peril of his life,
What thing it was that widow, maid and wife
Desired most in the world. "Great Queen," said he,
"What women most desire is- sovereignty.
Fain would each wife obtain complete command
Over her husband, house, and wealth and land.
Single or wed, your sex aspire to sway;
They to rule all, while men, like slaves, obey."
At this there was no widow, wife or maid,
Who disagreed with what the knight had said.
Even the queen, with blushing cheeks, confessed
That he had found what women love the best.
And then, as still before the throne he stood,
The beldam he had met beside the wood
Said to the queen, " 'Twas I who taught this knight
In what it is we women most delight.
W^hen he had sworn that I should never want
Aught that he had it in his power to grant.
And now I ask him, as I saved his life,
To keep his word, and take me for his wife."
In vain the knight endeavoured to escape,
And tried to treat the matter as a jape;
In vain he offered gold, and land beside,
To free himself from such a withered bride.
The beldam firmly held him to his oath.
And even though Queen Guinevere was loath
To see a young knight in King Arthur's court
Married unto a woman of this sort,
Rather than let him tarnish his fair name
She ordered him to wed the wretched dame.
I cannot tell the mirth and rich array,
And joy and feasting of their marriage day.
And all the splendour of the festival.
In sober truth, there was no feast at all.
II was the saddest moment in his life
When the young knight took home his aged wife.
"Never was knight," he said, "in such disgrace.
Medea's magic could not mend your face.
Not only are you ugly, old and lean;
But, in your birth, a creature poor and mean.
Were you but nobly born, at least I might
Bear my misfortune bravely like a knight."
"Is that," said she, "what vexes you so sore?
Nobility of blood is nothing more
Than ancient wealthiness. Your pride of birth.
I hold it for a thing of little worth.
If your ancestors by their virtues won
High honour, this belongs to them alone.
Nothing of price do you derive from them
But rank and wealth, on which to base your claim
To greatness and nobility of soul;
Which things no wealth can purchase or control.
Low-born and poor and old I am, and yet
I do not think myself the worse for it.
Christ is our pattern of nobility,
And where was there a poorer man than He?
He only is a true-born gentleman
Who always does what gentle deeds he can.
As for my ugliness and my old age,
Choose now, if you would have me old and sage,
Or young and inexperienced in life."
"Nay, choose yourself," he said. "my wise, old wife."
"Then have I got the mastery of you."
She'said, "since you permit me now to do
What I desire. Look, look, my love!" said she,
"And grieve and wonder at the change in me!"
The knight turned, and discovered at his side
The sweetest, loveliest and tenderest bride
That ever. since the race of men began.
Brought love and happiness unto a man.

The Prioress's Tale

There was in Asia. in a mighty town
Of Christian folk, a street for Jews to be.
Which had been given to them for their own
By a great lord, for gain and usury.
Hateful to Christ and to His company;
And through this street all men might walk or ride;
Free was it, and unbarred at either side.
A little school of Christian people stood
Down at the farther end, in which there were
Some little children come of Christian blood,
Who studied in the school, from year to year,
The simple learning which was given there;
That is to say, reading and singing too,
As little children in their childhood do.
Among these children was a widow's son,
A little scholar scarcely seven years old,
Who through the street of Jewry used to run
Daily to school, with lightsome heart and bold;
And having by his mother oft been told
To pray unto Our Lady, he would say,
'Hail, Mary!' as he went upon his way.
Great joy this little child in singing took,
And though he was too young to join the choir,
When older children from their anthem book
Sang Alma Redemptoris, nigh and nigher
He used to creep, his little heart on fire,
Listening to every word and every note,
Until he got the anthem all by rote.
'0 Alma Redemptoris,' then he sang,
As home he went, with childish voice and sweet.
'0 Alma Redemptoris,' loud it rang
And echoed down the darksome Jewish street.
Day after day he sang it. and his feet
Moved lightly to each clear and liquid note
That sounded from his little tender throat.
Meeting this little child upon his path,
A Jew was filled with bitterness. "Oh, woe!
Woe upon Israel!" cried he in his wrath,
"That we should suffer this thing to be so!
What! shall this boy along our own street go
Singing, day after day, his hymns and saws,
Clean against our religion and our laws?"
With evil thoughts his fellows he inspired,
And filled their hearts with wickedness and hate;
Until at last a murderer they hired,
Who in a lonely alley lay in wait;
And as the child one evening, dark and late,
Came singing down the street, the villain slit
His throat, and threw his body in a pit.
The widowed mother waited all that night
After her little child, and he came not.
Then, at the earliest glimpse of morning light,
With face made pale by fear and anxious thought,
For her sweet child through all the town she sought,
Till in the end she learnt that he had been
In the Jews' street, and there he was last seen.
With woe and pity moving in her breast,
And working like to madness in her mind,
She wandered down the street, like one possessed.
Hoping in vain her little child to find:
And ever on Christ's Mother, meek and kind,
She cried for help; and then at last she prayed
The Jews to come in pity to her aid.
Yet piteously and sadly did she pray
To every Jew and Jewess in that place
To tell her if her child had passed that
"No!" said they all. But Jesu of His grace
Guided her wandering steps, in little space,
Close to the pit in which her child was thrown;
And as she called on him with many a moan-
Oh, Thou great God that dost reveal Thy power
And wisdom by the mouth of Innocence!-
This jewel of chastity, this glorious flower
Of martyrdom, this child of excellence.
Raised from the pit his mangled throat, and thence
'0 Alma Redemptoris,' loudly sang.
Till with the sound the street of Jewry rang.
Full soon all Christian folk from far and near
Came to the pit to wonder at this thing.
They placed the murdered child upon a bier;
And all the time he never ceased to sing.
When to the church the body they did bring,
And blessed and sprinkled it with holy water,
It still sang, 'Alma Redemptoris Mater.'
All wonder-stricken at this miracle,
The priest, cried, "By the Holy Trinity,
I summon you, 0 little child, to tell
The reason of this wondrous mystery!
How can you still keep singing, clear and free,
The Alma Redemptoris with your head
Nigh severed from your body? Are you dead?''
"My throat is cut unto the bone, I trow,"
Said the young child, "Yea, right unto the bone.
And by the law of nature, long ago
I should have died. But Jesus now has shown
His power, and made in me His glory known;
Letting me sing, 0 Alma Redemptoris,
In praise and worship of His Mother's glories.
"This was the hymn I sang when I was slain.
Then in the pit to me there did appear
Sweet Jesu's Mother, and she put a grain
Upon my tongue, and said, 'Have thou no fear,
My child, but sing my praises loud and clear,
Till from thy tongue the grain is taken, then
In Heaven thou shalt sing to me again.' "
Then, in the silence of the wondering host,
From off his tongue the priest removed the grain;
And peacefully the child gave up the ghost,
While down his widowed mother's face like rain
The salt tears fell, and with a cry of pain
She dropped upon her face flat on the ground,
And lay as still as if she had been bound.
Then, having praised the Lord with solemn cheer,
For the great miracle that He had wrought,
The people knelt beside the little bier,
On which the child still lay; and having bought
A tomb for him of precious marble wrought.
His sweet and uncorrupted body, they
Enclosed therein, and then began to pray.
"0 Martyr wedded to virginity!
Before the white-milk Lamb of Paradise,
Thou goest singing now eternally;
The light of innocence in thy young eyes.
And in thy heart the fire of sacrifice!
Pray, pray, that unto us it may be given
To hear thee singing by the Throne in heaven."

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