If you are like me, your introduction to Chaucer didn’t exactly warm you up to the guy. We read the Prologue and probably a couple of the tales (whatever was clean enough for the textbook), but my teacher took no pains to engage us in the material, nor did he bother to make it interesting. And what a shame! Chaucer is easily one of the most entertaining poets in British literature!
When I took a sophomore-level survey of British literature (up to 1700) at UGA, I had an instructor who made this literature I didn’t think I liked — not only the Chaucer, but also Beowulf — finally come alive. We read Chaucer in the Middle English in a text with the original and side-by-side modern tranlation by A. Kent Hieatt and Constance Hieatt that I still like: The Bantam Classics edition of The Canterbury Tales. I had the translation to fall back on if I just couldn’t figure it out, but otherwise the strategy I used then (which still works for me now when I read Middle English) was to read the piece with the notion that the writer can’t spell a lick. As with anything, with practice, Middle English can become easier to read.
One thing that has always bothered me, however, is that in a survey British literature course in high school, it can be fairly hard for my students to enjoy Chaucer because they have difficulty reading even the translations when they are in verse. I do have my students experiment with reading Middle English, but I think for the levels I teach, it would be a disservice to ask my students to read it all in Middle English. I feel differently about Shakespeare, but let’s face it — Middle English is just that much more difficult than Shakespeare that I think with high school students (with few exceptions), reading it might be more of an exercise in frustration than pleasure. And I don’t want my students to hate Chaucer the way I did.
I was very excited to find Gerard NeCastro’s Web site eChaucer: Chaucer in the Twenty-First Century. NeCastro provides his own prose translations of each tale in several formats (and other works by Chaucer), along with a cheat sheet for common Middle English words, and a concordance for each tale and the book as a whole. It’s an amazing resource, and if you plan to teach any part of The Canterbury Tales this year, I urge you to check it out. NeCastro’s translations are readable and enjoyable, and most importantly, accessible.
You can give students NeCastro’s cheat sheet and assign them to read a post in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Blogge. I recommend the posts listed under Favourite Posts to start, but if your students are familiar with the Heath Ledger film A Knight’s Tale, they might also like “Lament for Sir William.“ If you want students to try their hand at Middle English by using Chaucer’s blog, I have a handout you might find useful. You may also be interested in my UbD unit plan for The Canterbury Tales. My performance task was altered based on an idea of Joe Scotese’s.
Portrait of Chaucer obtained from Gerard NeCastro’s eChaucer: Chaucer in the Twenty-First Century; from Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes.