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  • Chaucer as a Philologist:The Reeve's Tale
  • J.R.R. Tolkien

[Read at a meeting of the Philological Society in Oxford on Saturday, 16th May, 1931.]

[The delay in publishing this paper is principally due to hesitation in putting forward a study, for which closer investigation of words, and more still a much fuller array of readings from MSS. of the Reeve's Tale, were so plainly needed. But for neither have I had opportunity, and dust has merely accumulated on the pages. The paper is therefore presented with apologies, practically as it was read, though with the addition of a "critical text", and accompanying textual notes, as well as of various footnotes, appendices, and comments naturally omitted in reading. It may at least indicate that this tale has a special interest and importance for Chaucerian criticism, even if it shows also that it requires more expert handling.

Line references without any prefix are to the actual lines of the Reeve's Tale. Numbers prefixed A or B refer to these groups of the Canterbury Tales in the Six-Text numbering.]

Chaucer as a Philologist.

One may suspect that Chaucer, surveying from the Galaxye our literary and philological antics upon the litel erthe that heer is . . . so ful of torment and of harde grace, would prefer the Philological Society to the Royal Society of Literature, and an editor of the English Dictionary to a poet laureate. Not that Chaucer redivivus would be a phonologist or a lexicographer rather than a popular writer—the lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne! But certainly, as far as treatment of himself goes (and he had a well-formed opinion of the value of his own work), of all the words and ink posterity has spent or spilt over his entertaining writings, he would chiefly esteem the efforts to recover the detail of what he wrote, even (indeed particularly) down to forms and spellings, to recapture an idea of what it sounded like, to make certain what it meant. Let the source-hunter have his swink to him reserved. For Chaucer was interested in "language", and in the forms of his own tongue. As we gather from the envoy to Troilus and Criseyde, he [End Page 109] chose his forms and probably his spellings with care, by selection among divergencies of which he was critically aware; and he wished to have his choice handed on accurately.

Alas! if the curse he pronounced on scribe Adam produced any effect, many a fifteenth-century penman must early have gone bald. We know the detail of Chaucer's work now only through a fifteenth-century blur (at best). His holographs, or the copies impatiently rubbed and scraped by him, would doubtless be something of a shock to us, though a shock we shall unfortunately be spared. In our unhappy case, he would be the first to applaud any efforts to undo the damage as far as possible; and the acquiring of as good a knowledge as is available of the language of his day would certainly have seemed to him a preliminary necessity, not a needless luxury. One can imagine the brief burning words, like those with which he scorched Adam, that he would address to those who profess to admire him while disdaining "philology", who adventure, it may be, on textual criticism undeterred by ignorance of Middle English.

Of course, Chaucer was the last man himself to annotate his jests, while they were fresh. But he would recognize the need, at our distance of time, for the careful exhuming of ancient jokes buried under years, before we shape our faces to a conventional grin at his too often mentioned "humour". Chaucer was no enemy of learning, and there is no need to apologize to him for the annotating of one of his jests, for digging it up and examining it without laughing. He will not suspect us of being incapable of laughter. From his position of advantage he will be able to observe that most philologists possess a sense of the ridiculous, one that even prevents them from taking "literary studies" too seriously.

Of all the jokes that Chaucer ever perpetrated the...


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