As I explained, Wishbone is a dog who reenacts literary works. “Bitch” is used by dog breeders as the proper term for female dogs. Dogs like Wishbone, the character in the picture. Having a dog say, “I steal from the riches and give to my bitches” does not imply anything any worse than that Wishbone doesn't give to the poor the money he steals from the rich (which I suppose is pretty bad), but instead gives it to his female companions, also dogs like he. Stealing is a crime, and it is offensive, but my page is literary, and Robin Hood robs from the rich in books and redistributes his loot to the less fortunate. People coming to my page should realize that in posting literary humor, there’s bound to be a cuss word in there somewhere, as most adult literature (and some YA) contains swearing. There’s even swearing in classic literature, such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written in the middle ages.
That got me thinking about the research paper I chose to write in my Chaucer class in the spring of 2011. Our teacher was a cool guy. He talked about his bad habits (including drinking and bumming cigarettes from some of his students outside in the designated smoking areas), made crude pop culture references, and, yes, he even swore (mildly) in class. In other words, I loved him. The best thing about him was that he knew how to make Middle English (practically a foreign language by today’s standards) understandable and, most of all, FUN. Our first couple weeks were torture because he made us learn how to read and pronounce Middle English. The textbooks were not translated into modern English, so we had to learn that cryptic text. In reading books about translating Middle English into modern English, I learned that, as Chaucer wrote to appeal to the common folk, many colloquialisms such as swearing appeared in his works. Some of those words, like “dicke” and “queynte,” have evolved into the slang curse words “dick” (only dropping the then-pronounced “E”) and “cunt.” It’s pretty graphic, but so were the stories. Don’t believe me? Go to the library and read it, but odds are you’ll get an edited, translated version that tries to hold back some of Chaucer’s more colorful tales. Below is the complete text of my research paper, which I titled (much to the delight of the teacher), “Dicks, Cunts, And Asses in The Canterbury Tales.”
You may have a hard time deciphering Chaucer’s words as plucked from my Middle English textbooks. I’m sure the internet can translate it, though. Here it is:
Dicks, Cunts and Asses in The Canterbury Tales
During the Middle Ages, the majority of literature was recited before an audience; Geoffrey Chaucer was one well-known poet who practiced this means of storytelling as well. In England during this period, there was a large number of languages from which the author could have chosen. There has been much debate as to why Chaucer chose to write The Canterbury Tales in English, as he could have chosen from French, Latin, or Italian (Horobin 13-16). Rather than appeal to the French-speaking aristocracy, Chaucer shared his unfinished masterpiece in the language of the peasants and the middle class, the latter being that class to which Chaucer himself belonged. It is argued that perhaps Chaucer composed his most famous works in English as a way of showing support to King Richard II, whom at the time was working toward making English the national language (Horobin 19), though this is unknown even to Chaucerian scholars. As he wrote this work in the language of the commoners, many of his Tales are told using Middle English (ME) slang, especially the fabliaux told by The Miller, The Reeve, The Manciple, The Merchant, and The Summoner. An examination of Chaucerian works on the author's language reveals that some of these slang words were the roots for Present Day English (PDE) examples of adult language, suggesting that through the popularity of the lower class pilgrims of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, their language has been passed down through the centuries, evolving into current obscenities so that modern readers can still understand some ME terms today.
The collection of Tales opens with The General Prologue, in which the reader is introduced to numerous characters on a religious pilgrimage to Canterbury. The pilgrims are a mixed crowd, featuring nobility, clergy, peasants, and the rising middle class of Chaucer’s time. These pilgrims stop at The Tabard Inn, where the Host proposes a storytelling contest to see who can present the best tale. As the work was unfinished, the reader never learns which one of these Tales was the winner, but that is just a plot device that ties the stories within a story together.
Immediately following The General Prologue, the stories told by the pilgrims begin with the Knight’s Tale. The Knight’s is a tale of courtly love, told only as a knight could relate it. There are some severe descriptions of violence, but no particularly vulgar language. This is a clue that perhaps the rest of The Canterbury Tales were to be similar in style to Boccaccio’s Decameron; or rather, that the Tales would have all been of nobility had the pilgrims accompanying the Knight not been of mixed social ranks. Rather, the first pilgrim to respond to The Knight’s Tale is the Miller, who interrupts the Host’s perceived order of how the Tales should progress. The Host believes that the Tales should continue in order of social status and as such that the nobility should go first, with the clergy following, and finally the peasants. The Miller, however, does not fit within these estates as he is a member of what was commonly referred to as “bastard feudalism.” As the name implies, the Miller is a perfect example of a typical person labeled a bastard; in The General Prologue, he is described as a drunkard, a thief, and a brute. He inserts his own Miller’s Tale as a way of “quitting” or repaying the Knight, or at the very least bringing him down from his pedestal. The result is the first of the fabliaux, The Miller’s Tale, which would be seen as nothing more than a fart joke by today’s readers.
The Miller’s Tale tells of lust and a sort of lower class man’s revenge, which is what the Miller believes himself to be doing to the Knight, though without literally farting in the Knight’s face or scalding his rump. Some of the language is dirty in a juvenile sense without being extremely perverse; “fart” is the type of word that the lower classes say from childhood on to describe the sound of releasing intestinal gas and was in no way forbidden from speech. “Pisse” is another juvenile term for a bodily function that the Miller uses, as Nicholas arises to urinate. He mentions Nicholas’s “ers,” or ass, and Alison’s “nether- yë,” bringing attention to certain private regions of the human anatomy. It is no surprise that the Miller, given his description in The General Prologue, would find this language funny enough that he would build his entire Tale around its inclusion. However, other words could be seen as a bit more vulgar, such as “swyved” (PDE “had sex with”) (Chaucer 88.3850), and “queynte” (PDE “cunt”) (Chaucer 75.3276), to be further illustrated below.
Following The Miller’s Tale is his quitting by the Reeve. In The Reeve’s Tale, a brutish miller named Sympkin, who takes great pride in robbing corn from prospective customers much as the Miller is described as doing in the General Prologue, is foiled in his attempt to rob two Northern clerks when they have sexual intercourse with the miller’s unsuspecting wife and daughter while Sympkin is passed out drunk. Sympkin’s grateful wife tells the clerks that her husband had stolen some of their grain, which leads them to seek revenge beyond their seduction of his family. When Sympkin awakens, the clerks taunt him by claiming to have “swyven” his wife and daughter, which causes a fight that the Miller ultimately loses thanks to his confused wife in the darkness. A Chaucer Glossary defines “swyve” as a slang term for “copulated with” (Davis 149), a word that has fallen out of favor with modern English-speaking cultures. It is possible that this word was not considered particularly vulgar on its own; the clerks in The Reeve’s Tale are taunting Sympkin with their sexual conquest of the miller’s wife and daughter, which was very much like rape, and as such it could be considered obscene. On the other hand, it seems that there were very few slang terms for intercourse during the Middle Ages and so it is unknown whether or not Chaucer’s audiences would receive the crude meaning from the word in this instance.
Although the Reeve’s use of the term “swyve” may not have been considered obscene, the word appears again in The Merchant’s Tale, another fabliau, along with vivid sexual detail that may have been considered vulgar even in the Middle Ages. The old knight Januarie takes young May as his wife, only to be struck blind and have May cheat on him with his servant Damian. In the climax, underworld god Pluto returns Januarie’s sight to him while May and Damian are engaging in sexual activity directly in front of Januarie. The action is introduced by an apology to the female pilgrims:
“Ladies, I prey yow that ye be nat wroth;
I can nat glose; I am a rude man--
And sodeynly anon this Damian
Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng” (Chaucer 210.2352-53).
When Januarie witnesses this, he exclaims:
“‘Struggle?’ quod he. ‘Ye, algate in it wente!
God yeve yow both on shames deeth to dyen!
He swyved thee! I saugh it with myne yën
And ells be I hanged by the hals!” (Chaucer 210.2376-2379).
Perhaps as the act is of planned adultery and is obscenely described with Damian thrusting inside of May, here the word could be considered vulgar, implying that its status as a foul term could be conditional based on context.
In The Manciple’s Tale, a different term for sexual intercourse is used that has evolved into a crude term in PDE. The man who has sex with Phebus’s wife in The Manciple’s Tale is said to have “dight his wyf” (Chaucer 292.312). As they are even pronounced the same, the word “dight” presumably has become “dicked.” Although “swyve” was probably not always considered vulgar in the Middle Ages as it is derived from the Old English (OE) term “swifan,” which means “move” (Davis 149), it is possible that this alternate term was actually believed obscene, as “dick” is in PDE. In The General Prologue, the Manciple is said to have been employed at an inn of court where law is studied, therefore it is reasonable to assume that he knew the slang of criminals and would be known to curse in the language used by the dregs of society.
Keeping with the theme of sexual terms, in her Prologue and Tale, the Wife of Bath goes into detail of her love life, and makes a sly reference to her genitals as “queynte” (perhaps PDE “quaint”) which, in this sexual context, A Chaucer Glossary is listed as being alternately spelled as “cunte” in the Middle Ages (Davis 115). This word, which most likely originated during Chaucer’s lifetime, is still in use, minus the “e.” The Wife of Bath’s use of this reference is a double-entendre, which according to Beryl Rowland is one of seven types of Chaucerian irony (Birney, xx). It is likely that Chaucer used the double-entendre “quaint” not only for the Wife to not be seen as vulgar by her contemporaries, but also to remain in keeping with rhyme scheme and meter. In The Miller’s Tale, the previous line before Nicholas grabs his wife by her “queynte” ends with the same word as it pertains to “strange,” if only for the sake of rhyme. Though the Wife of Bath is the most honest female pilgrim and is not afraid to make her fellow pilgrims uncomfortable, it is possible that Chaucer did not want her to actually seem vulgar in speech. Later in the Tales, other characters such as the Clerk and the Pardoner make references to the Wife of Bath and her Prologue and Tale, perhaps as a way for those characters to voice approval of or distaste in her lifestyle in a fictional avenue rather than tell her outright.
Returning to the Merchant, he also uses the term “queynte” in his Tale. In the context of The Merchant’s Tale, a woman's ability to poison a man figuratively through her body is described as the storyteller compares her to a deadly scorpion, and the term is obviously not taken to mean “strange” in this instance. Again, the use of the term is presumably for the sake of rhyme, as the following line ends with, “O monster, that so subtilly canst peynte/The yiftes under hewe o stedfastnesse,/That thou deceyvest bothe more and lesse!” (Chaucer 203.2062-64). The General Prologue describes the Merchant with the following passage:
“This worthy man ful wel his wit bisette:
There wiste no wight that he was in dette,
So estatly was he of his governaunce,
With his bargaynes and with his chevisaunce.
For sothe he was a worthy man with alle,
But sooth to seyn, I noot how men him calle” (Chaucer 9.278-284).
The Norton Critical Edition’s note on the term “chevisaunce” implies “possibly illegal lending” (Chaucer, p. 9, ll. 278-284). This description leads the reader to derive that the Merchant’s dealings are possibly illegal, making him a lesser moral character than the Wife of Bath despite her position on remarrying. As such, it is more fitting that the Merchant uses the term “queynte” in a more vulgar sense than if the Wife of Bath had used it in such a way.
It is interesting that in some instances the Merchant makes apologies in order to use vividly obscene terms such as “throng” and “queynte,” yet when he describes how May waited until she had gone to the privy to read Damian’s note, he simply says, “She feyned hir as that she moste gon/There as ye woot that every wight mot nede.” Describing the privy as that place where everyone must go leaves more vivid terms unsaid, though the implications are perhaps just as effective as the Merchant’s description of May and Damian’s sexual indiscretion.
In reference to vulgar terms for private body parts, The Summoner’s Prologue goes to great lengths to describe Satan’s “ers,” or “ass.” In his quitting of the Friar, who had just told a tale of a wicked summoner that supposedly represents all of his position, the Summoner among Chaucer’s pilgrims describes a dream in which an angel tells one friar about Hell by saying:
“‘And now hath Sathanas,’ seith he, ‘a tayl
Brodder than of a carrik is the sayl.
Hold up thy tayl, thou Sathanas,’ quod he.
‘Shewe forth thyn ers, and lat the frère see
Where is the nest of frères in this place.’
And er that half a furlong wey of space,
Right so as bees out swarmen from an hyve,
Out of the develes ers ther gonne dryve
Twenty thousand frères in a route,
And thurghout helle swarmeden aboute,
And comen again as faste as they may gon
And in his ers they crepten everichon.
He clapte his tayl again, and lay ful stille’” (Chaucer.140-41.1687-1699).
His anger at the friar for his awful representation of summoners brought the pilgrim Summoner to this graphic detail of twenty thousand friars being held captive inside Satan’s rectum like bees in a hive. Whether the use of “ers” was generally a vulgar term in the Middle Ages is unknown; it is derived from the OE term ærs, slang for one’s behind (Davis 48). In modern times, the PDE slang term “ass” has become less of a taboo even in cinema and television, therefore presenting the question as to whether its previous form was taboo during Chaucer’s lifetime.
A subject heretofore unmentioned is that of excrement. There are vulgar references to this in The Canterbury Tales, though not in terms a modern reader might think. The word “shiten” (PDE “shit”) is used in The General Prologue, but in references to a dirty shepherd rather than excrement itself. Ironically, the vulgar term in regards to excrement, according to Horobin, the vulgar term would have been “tord,” to which the Host compares the pilgrim Chaucer’s storytelling ability in The Prologue of Melibee (Chaucer 261.930).
In short, it is worth noting that though many of his characters in The Canterbury Tales use obscene terms, Chaucer’s narrator states no foul language of his own construct, but rather maintains that he is recording the other pilgrims’ Tales exactly as they were told using their own phrases. The narrator even warns the reader not to pay attention to some of the fabliaux, so as to further illustrate that whether he is a decent storyteller or not has no bearing on his moral character. Chaucer’s inclusion of the Host’s insults show a humility that his audiences found amusing. An author who is able to laugh at himself is more relatable to the people around him, and whether that was his intention or not, Chaucer gained social stature with this philosophy. Today, Chaucerian scholars marvel over the poet’s ability to insert humility into his works and use it to his advantage, which is what makes works written in the 14th Century seem relevant even in the 21st..
I got a B+ on that paper, which isn't that bad, considering that he doesn't like giving out As. As for today's comment, I willfully changed my Facebook page's restriction settings to 17+, which would have dropped any of my followers younger than 17. My number did not fall, so... take that as you will.