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Thomas à Becket Shrine

From the Tabard Inn to Canterbury

Melvyn Bragg travels to the great mediaeval cathedral of Canterbury, with its shrine to the martyr, St Thomas à Becket. It inspired the pilgrims described by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1395 in The Canterbury Tales, as they set out from the Tabard Inn in Southwark. Chaucer decided to write in English, which was beginning to take over from the Norman French of court and government and the Latin of church and learning.

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Chaucer - the champion of English
The fact that Chaucer wrote in English (now referred to as Middle English), rather than French or Latin like many of his fellow writers, meant that ordinary folk could enjoy the Canterbury Tales and their vivid characters - among them the sexy Wife of Bath with her five husbands, the snobbish Prioress and the cynical Pardoner. Chaucer captured the vividness, humour, bawdiness and poetry of spoken English. That is what makes his Tales so irresistible, according to Terry Jones, ex Python and children's writer. Sound

The Canterbury Tales
The late fourteenth century world was still very much one of the spoken word. Books were copied out by hand and were a rare luxury till the advent of the printing press 70 years later. The educated elite could read, but they preferred to hear texts read out loud for entertainment. The Canterbury Tales, with their earthy humour and and vivid dialogue, were a runaway success. Although they sound just like ordinary people talking, the Tales are in fact a complex work of literature - a long poem with rhymes as Dr Ruth Evans of Cardiff University emphasised Sound

Chaucer's dialects
In Chaucer's time, English still had marked regional differences. He wrote in the East Midlands dialect (covering London, Oxford and Cambridge), the most influential in forming Modern English. But he knew the Northern dialect too and it is spoken by the two northern clerks in the Reeve's Tale. Martin Starkie, of the Chaucer Centre in Canterbury, illustrates this with a reading from Neville Coghill's translation of the Canterbury Tales into modern English. Sound


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