What are the Canterbury Tales, what's with this website?

Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales some seven hundred years ago. Considered a literary masterpiece, Geoffrey Chaucer's work weaves the tales of pilgrims (on pilgrimage to Canterbury, sometimes spelled Caunterbury by Chaucer) into a larger narrative. Most of it is poetry, but there are some prose sections. In many ways, it represents the first attempt to standardize the English language and to use it as an established medium for longer works of literature.

Many high school and college students are urged to read at least part of the tales. Many students also memorize the beginning of the general prologue. However, websites on the subject are pretty academic. This Middle English learning website is an attempt to provide quick, usable information.

The Prologue

Click on the link next to the line to hear the audio file (sound file), reading the entire line out loud to you. The sound files are *.wav audio files.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote | (Line 1)
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, | (Line 2)
And bathed every veyne in swich licour | (Line 3)
Of which vertu engendred is the flour; | (Line 4)
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth | (Line 5)
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth | (Line 6)
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne | (Line 7)
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne, | (Line 8)
And smale foweles maken melodye, | (Line 9)
That slepen al the nyght with open ye | (Line 10)
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages); | (Line 11)
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, | (Line 12)
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, | (Line 13)
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes; | (Line 14)
And specially from every shires ende | (Line 15)
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende, | (Line 16)
The hooly blisful martir for to seke, | (Line 17)
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke. | (Line 18)
Bifil that in that seson on a day, | (Line 19)
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay | (Line 20)
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage | (Line 21)
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage, | (Line 22)
At nyght was come into that hostelrye | (Line 23)
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye, | (Line 24)
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle | (Line 25)
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle, | (Line 26)
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde,
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste.
So hadde I spoken with hem everichon
That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take oure wey ther as I yow devyse.

Who are you? & Middle / Old English Resources

I use an old (1933) edition of The Poetical Works of Chaucer, edited by Robinson and published by Houghton Mifflin. More to date, the Norton Critical and Riverside editions have the original text with commentary, whereas many popular versions are actually translations of Chaucer. Penguin does offer a version with the original spelling, however.

Good Middle English course books are hard to find. A Book of Middle English teaches basic grammar & pronunciation, and has plenty of reading exercises from 1100-1400 AD. If you're somewhat of a linguist at heart, try An Introduction to Middle English.

Teach Yourself Old English is one of the few self-study courses for beginners looking to read even older material like Beowulf.

The Germanic Languages, edited by König and Van Der Auerwa, has a detailed article on Old and Middle English, as well as one on the modern language, with overviews on phonology, morphology, lexis, syntax and historical comparative info. If all that means nothing to you, best to move on.