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Who was Chaucer?

Who was Chaucer?

Are you feeling popular or are you excluded from conversation? Do you have an appetite for your gravy – or do you need a recipe? Believe it or not, six of the words in the last two sentences were first used by Geoffrey Chaucer. *

So who was Chaucer anyway? The short answer is that he was one of England’s greatest poets – maybe even England’s first great poet. But as well as a poet, Chaucer was
a soldier, a traveller, a diplomat, a civil servant – and perhaps even a spy.

Chaucer was born around 1340, and died in 1400. In an age when most people stayed in their home town, Chaucer travelled across Europe on
the King’s business. He fought in the wars in France, was captured, and was ransomed by the King. But, wherever he travelled, Chaucer took the opportunity to gather books and read new poetry. He
also began to write his own poetry – in English.

Writing in English may not sound like a new idea, but for the nobility and gentry of Richard II’s court, when Chaucer began, English was seen as a language fit only for poor people: rich and educated people at court spoke to each other in French, and were used to reading and writing in Latin.
There wasn’t even one official sort of English – people throughout the country spoke dialects so different they seemed like different languages.
It was the English spoken in the South-East of England that became the language we speak today, and Chaucer was shaping it. Huge amounts of the words
we use today were first used in writing by Chaucer – whether he overheard them used by others, borrowed them from other languages, or
just invented them outright. Chaucer was the first person to use the following words in English: authority, constable, miracle, captain, appetite, gravy, button, conversation, calendar, porch, power, reason, horrible, sudden, homicide, legitimate, contradiction, comet, history, recipe, scripture, exclude and popular.

Chaucer wrote an incredible amount, including everything from comic (and rude!) stories to love poetry to a science textbook for his son. However, his best
known book is The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories written in verse. The Canterbury Tales tells the story of a group of 14th century pilgrims
to Canterbury, who decide to each tell a story on their journey. Chaucer writes a story for each pilgrim – and even writes himself into the story. But Chaucer had
a sense of humour, and in The Canterbury Tales Chaucer shows himself as a boring, nerdy wimp, whose story is so dull and badly told that the other pilgrims force him to stop talking!

The Rap Canterbury Tales is a retelling of Chaucer’s book in modern English. In the 14th century, people usually read out loud rather than to themselves, and there are medieval pictures of Chaucer performing to his audience – a bit like rappers do today. So The Rap Canterbury Tales gives a good idea of what it was like to listen to Chaucer himself performing his works.

* Well, Chaucer is the first person we know of who wrote them down. He might not have made them all up himself.

Wondering what The Rap Canterbury Tales are all about? Watch Baba perform The Pardoner’s Tale live.