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Chaucer and Oxford

There’s a stunning exhibition currently on in the Weston Library on 'Chaucer, Then and Now'. Among the books and other objects displayed are the oldest extant manuscript of 'The Canterbury Tales', some beautifully illuminated versions, one showing a man writing who may be Chaucer himself, and representations of the 'Tales' from different periods, different countries and even in different media.

Manuscripts on display at 'Chaucer, Then and Now', Weston Library, Oxford.

Chaucer is particularly famous for his ‘Canterbury Tales’, a collection of stories told by a band of pilgrims travelling to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury. They have set off from ‘The Tabard’ inn in Southwark – perhaps something like Oxford’s ‘New Inn’ built around the same time as Chaucer was writing about his pilgrims and perhaps also once accommodating pilgrims, these heading to the shrine of St Frideswide, patron saint of Oxford.

Chaucer’s pilgrims embark on a contest; each pilgrim tells a story as they journey to Canterbury. Some are familiar, though not always in ways we might imagine. The Pardoner’s tale of three ‘brothers’ who set out to destroy Death, only to fall victim to Death themselves, is the basis for the story J K Rowling tells in ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’, of the three brothers who acquire from Death the Elder Wand, the Resurrection Stone and a cloak of invisibility.

One of Chaucer's pilgrims is an Oxford student, the 'clerk of Oxenforde',
"Still a student though,
One who had taken logic long ago."
Chaucer describes him as a poverty-stricken and devoted to his books.
"He had a hollow look, a sober stare,
The thread upon his overcoat was bare…
Whatever money from his friends he took,
He spent on learning or another book."

The New Inn, Cornmarket Street, Oxford

This is the translation made by Nevill Coghill, a former Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford University and member of The Inklings discussion group.

Very different is another Oxford student who appears as one of the characters in ‘The Miller’s Tale’. In Chaucer’s time, most Oxford undergraduates lived in digs with local townspeople, and Nicholas, the young student in ‘The Miller’s Tale’ is one such, living with
“…a rich old codger … a carpenter by trade.”

He has some “astronomic textbooks” and “an astrolabe to match his art”, but it is in playing his harp and singing that
“this charming scholar spent
His time and money, which his friends had sent.”

Pretending to have seen another flood predicted by his astrological studies, he tricks the poor carpenter into leaving the house so that he and the carpenter’s young wife, Alisoun, can spend the night together. Unfortunately, there’s a jealous rival for Alisoun’s attentions, and some rather crude horseplay between the two of them culminates in Nicholas being branded with a red-hot iron somewhere rather intimate.

Although we think of Chaucer as a poet, he was something of a polymath. He also wrote an instruction manual on how to use an astrolabe, a medieval navigation and astronomical instrument. You can see an astrolabe similar to the one Chaucer described in the History of Science Museum in Oxford, among a wonderful collection of astrolabes from India, the Middle East and Europe, including one that belonged to Queen Elizabeth I - perfect for browsing after you've seen the Chaucer exhibition!

English astrolabe as described by Chaucer, on display at the History of Science Museum, Oxford

 

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