Is Chaucer Relevant

The University of Leicester is planning to “decolonize” their English Literature Department by ending the study of Chaucer and other great poets of Medival English and replacing them with new and up-to-date modules on race and sexuality. According to this article in the Sydney Morning Herald:

The University of Leicester will stop teaching the great English medieval poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer in favour of modules on race and sexuality, according to new proposals.

Management told the English department that courses on canonical works would be dropped in favour of modules that “students expect” as part of plans now under consultation.

Foundational texts such as The Canterbury Tales and the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf would no longer be taught, under proposals to scrap medieval literature. Instead, the English faculty will be refocused to drop centuries of the literary canon and deliver a “decolonised” curriculum devoted to diversity.

Academics now facing redundancy were told via email: “The aim of our proposals [is] to offer a suite of undergraduate degrees that provide modules which students expect of an English degree.”

New modules described as “excitingly innovative” would cover: “A chronological literary history, a selection of modules on race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity, a decolonised curriculum, and new employability modules.”

Professors were told that, to facilitate change, management planned to stop all English language courses, cease medieval literature, and reduce early modern literature offerings.

Despite Chaucer’s position as “the father of English literature”, he will no longer be taught if plans currently under consultation go ahead.

They would end all teaching on texts central to the development of the English language, including the Dark Age epic poem Beowulf, as well as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

This brings up the question of whether we ought to continue to teach these Medieval and Early Modern literary works or whether we ought to eliminate them in favor of newer, more diverse selections. Are these texts still relevant to our modern age, or should they be forgotten as relics of a darker, less tolerant past? Is it more important to study our own history and heritage or a selection of modules on race, ethnicity and the rest of that woke crap? Who is Geoffrey Chaucer anyway, and why should we read him six hundred years after his death?

                                                                         Geoffrey Chaucer

If you remember Chaucer at all from your English classes, you know him as the author of the Canterbury Tales, the one that begins with

When April with its sweet smelling showers

Has pierced the drought of March to the root

and then tells the story of a diverse group of pilgrims to Canterbury who decide to tell each other stories to make the long journey pass by more quickly Chaucer wrote and did a lot more than the Canterbury Tales, however. He was quite an interesting man. Born sometime in the 1340s, we don’t know exactly when; Chaucer was a Member of Parliament and close personal friend of King EdwardIII’s son John of Gaunt. Chaucer held a number of government posts, under the patronage of the royal family, including comptroller of the customs for the port of London, and clerk of the King’s works. King Edward III and his grandson King Richard II entrusted Chaucer

                                               King Edward III

When Chaucer was captured by the French during the Hundred Year’s War, King Edward III paid his ransom out of his own pocket, a measure of how greatly the king valued Chaucer.

Today, Chaucer is known more for his literary endeavors than his services to the King of England. Most educated people know about The Canterbury Tales, but he wrote a whole lot more. Chaucer translated Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy from Latin and wrote a treatise on the astrolabe for his son. His works of poetry include the epic poem Troilus and Criseyde, and of course, the Canterbury Tales, a work he began late in life and never actually finished before his death in 1400.
So that is who Chaucer was. Why should we study him? Well, Geoffrey Chaucer lived and wrote during a pivotal moment in the history of the English Language and Literature. Before Chaucer’s time, English wasn’t considered to be a very prestigious language. Latin was the international language of the Church, scholarship, and diplomacy. If you had anything important to say, you said it in Latin. Since the Norman Conquest of 1066, the aristocrats and anyone of importance in England spoke Norman French. England was a sort of colony of Normandy and English was the language you spoke to the servants or to the peasants to remind them to pay their taxes. The Angevin kings of England were more concerned with their lands on the continent and seldom visited England except to get money to finance their wars and crusades.

The Kings of England spent more time in France than England

This situation began to change about a century before Chaucer’s time, when King John, of Magna Carta fame, managed to lose all of his territory in France. After that, the kings and aristocracy of England began to identify more and more as English rather than Norman and the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons became melded into one English people. English started to become the language of everyday life among the nobility. The process only accelerated with the coming of the Hundred Year’s War. Wars always encourage patriotism and this war was no exception.
English was still not a literary language, however. This had to wait until the later 1300s when Chaucer and other poets, under the patronage of the king, began to what in what is now called Middle English. These poets helped to establish the dialect spoken around London as the form of standard English and developed much of the vocabulary and devices used in English poetry. Geoffrey Chaucer was the greatest of these Middle English poets. His influence cannot be underestimated. Chaucer was, in many ways, the father of English literature, rescuing the English language from the negligence the language had endured after the Norman Conquest. The revival of English as a literary language would likely have occurred without Chaucer, but the history of English literature would be much poorer without him.
Needless to say, My answer to this question is an unambiguous yes. Chaucer is still relevant to the present day and we should still read and study his works. Chaucer’s works have endured for over six hundred years. I doubt very much if any of these modules “on race, ethnicity, sexuality, and diversity” will be read in six decades. If you want to understand the history and development of the English language and literature, you have to study the greatest masters of the English language, including Geoffrey Chaucer and the unknown writer of Beowulf. A university course that does not include these great writers is not teaching English literature. That university is defrauding its students, promising them an educated but delivering only woke fluff; politically correct nonsense that cannot stand the test of time. The woke universities that go this route ought to be shut down for academic fraud and the students’ tuition and other expenses should be paid back to them so they can get a real education.

It’s Greek to Me

My favorite YouTube channel is, without question, the Langfocus  channel, created by Paul Jorgenson, a Canadian who teaches English in Japan. Paul is fascinated by language and he shares his knowledge and fascination in his videos. Paul makes videos about particular languages, language families and general concepts about language. Whatever the specific topic he covers, Paul’s videos are always interesting and informative.

Not too long ago, Paul made a video on the Greek language.

I have studied Koine or New Testament Greek a little bit and it is amazing to me just how little the language has actually changed over the centuries. I can tell there are some differences in grammar and vocabulary. Some of the verb inflections have changed a little and Modern Greek seems to have lost the dative case. I also notice that the middle and passive voices have combined into a mediopassive voice. The Greek word for speak has changed from λαλεω (laleo) to μιλεω (mileo) and dog from κυων (cuon) to σκυλος (skylos). I think that a speaker of Modern Greek could read the New Testament in its original Koine Greek without too much trouble and could even read Plato and Homer with varying degrees of difficulty. I suppose that the sounds or phonology of spoken Greek have changed quite a bit more than written Greek so a modern Greek transported back to Periclean Athens might have quite a bit of difficulty making himself understood in conversation, but perhaps not much more than speakers of related languages might have. Despite the changes, Modern Greek is recognizably the same language as the Greek spoken two thousand or more years ago.

Now look at this sample of English from about one thousand years ago.

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.
These are the first lines of Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon epic poem that was probably the first work of literature written in Old English. Here is a translation.
LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!
It doesn’t seem to be the same language at all. If you look closely, some of the words are recognizable, “god cyning”= good king, but the grammar is very different and there are even some strange letters not used in Modern English. The text looks more like a dialect of German than the English we are familiar with. This is not too surprising. German and English originated on the same branch of West Germanic in the Germanic language family. There would probably be a closer resemblance between Modern English and German if it weren’t for the infusion of so many words from French and Latin after the Norman conquest. As it is, English is less of a strictly Germanic language, at least in vocabulary, and more of a hybrid between Germanic and the Romance languages. (Paul has a couple of videos on this)
Besides the unfamiliar words, you might notice that Modern English has lost the inflections that Old English had. This may also be due to the Norman conquest, or perhaps the earlier Danish or Viking invasions. Britain seems to have been something of a magnet for settlers during the tenth and eleventh centuries and since the Danes, Normans, etc had to communicate with the Anglo-Saxons who already lived there, they used a simplified form of Old English that developed into the language we speak today.
Here are the first lines of Chaucer’s Canturbury tales, written in Middle English around 1300.
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
And the translation:
When April’s gentle rains have pierced the drought
Of March right to the root, and bathed each sprout
Through every vein with liquid of such power
It brings forth the engendering of the flower;
When Zephyrus too with his sweet breath has blown
 Through every field and forest, urging on
The tender shoots, and there’s a youthful sun,
His second half course through the Ram now run,
And little birds are making melody And sleep all night, eyes open as can be
So Nature pricks them in each little heart), On pilgrimage then folks desire to start.
The palmers long to travel foreign strands
To distant shrines renowned in sundry lands;
And specially, from every shire’s end
This is recognizably English even if the spelling looks strange. There are some unfamiliar words and some differences in grammar. Chaucer can be read by an English speaker, but it is not easy. Shakespeare and the King James Bible are the most familiar examples of Early Modern English. They are essentially the same language spoken today, but even after a mere four hundred years they already seem quaint and old-fashioned, requiring a glossary to fully understand the text.
How is it that a language like Greek has changed slowly enough over the centuries that the Greeks can read the classics of Ancient Greek literature without too much difficulty while anything written in English more than about five hundred years ago is incomprehensible to the modern reader? Has Greek been unusually conservative or has English changed faster than most languages. Maybe it is both. Latin has changed quite a bit in the transition to the Romance Languages, particularly in the loss of the noun case system, loss of the neuter gender and changes in verb tenses. The vocabulary of the Romance Languages is still largely based on Latin and I think that a modern speaker of Italian or Spanish could still get the basic meaning of a Latin text.
Part of the reason might be because Greek has a much longer written history than English. Writing does tend to make a language more conservative, at least in its written form, particularly when the older version of the language is seen as somehow more pure while innovations are viewed as corruptions. This has long been the case in Greek where until recently it was common for Greek writers to use a formal and archaic version of Greek that resembled Ancient Greek more than the Greek actually spoken. (This is actually a common phenomenon found on many languages with a long literary history.) It seems the greatest changes in English came in the centuries after the Norman Conquest when French was the official language at court and English was mostly a language of illiterate peasants. Another possible reason for the continuity of Greek as opposed to the development of the Romance Languages from Latin might be that the Greek speaking Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire survived as a nation until 1453 while the Latin speaking Western Roman Empire broke up causing regional dialects to become separate languages.
Whatever the reasons, the relatively rapid development of English from its Germanic, Anglo-Saxon origins to the useful language we speak today with its large vocabulary and relatively simple grammar has helped to make English the lingua franca of the modern world. I’m sure I’d rather speak Modern English than Anglo-Saxon, but I wish there had been a greater continuity over the centuries.
  • The Anglish Moot-They want to restore English to its native roots. The result of writing English without any Latin, Greek, or other words is truly weird and helps to demonstrate just how much English has borrowed from other languages.
  • Day of the Dead Languages (feedproxy.google.com)