This fine recording includes two versions of the same story from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and each is equally intriguing. Richard Bebb provides the voice for the Middle English presentation. Bebb reads the "Prologue" and "The Physician's Tale" with such sincerity and skill that the unfamiliar pronunciations soon becomes lyrical to the modern ear. The early version is a fascinating contrast to the modern version, read by Philip Madoc and Michael Maloney. Madoc and Maloney are both gifted with mellifluous voices, making the modern presentation of the two works equally engaging.
The Canterbury Tales, written near the end of Chaucer's life and hence towards the close of the 14th century, is perhaps the greatest English literary work of the Middle Ages: Yet it speaks to us today with almost undimmed clarity and relevance.
How do we know what Chaucer's English sounded like? The simplest way for the present reader to learn what Chaucer's pronunciation sounded like is to listen to Richard Bebb's superb reading of the current recording of The General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales. The knowledge it represents has been built up by the work of many scholars over centuries, which is now available in many competent studies and editions of Chaucer's poems.
The Physician's Tale is in origin a primitive folk tale about an "honor killing" that Chaucer found in Livy and elsewhere and enhanced. The wicked judge Apius wishes to abduct and rape the beautiful and virtuous Virginia, aged 14. Her father cannot save her. Rather than be dishonored, she allows him, to his utter grief, to behead her. But the people rise up against the cruel and wicked judge so that he is banished and his subordinates hanged. The rather strange moral drawn is that your sin will always find you out.
Presented in Middle English and in modern verse translation.
(P)2005 Naxos Audiobooks, Ltd.
The General Prologue is read rather slowly and clearly, making it pretty easy for a modern English speaker to understand (especially if you have a written version to follow along with), but not making it an especially enjoyable dramatic performance. The Tale of the Physician is faster and more exciting. Both readings in the original Middle English are followed by a reading in a modern English translation. If you ever doubted how much better Chaucer is in the original, hearing him back-to-back in Middle English and then in modern English makes the point. If you will forgive the comment and just to prevent anybody else being confused, Beowulf is an Old English (Anglo-Saxon) chant or song about Norse heroes and dragons, nothing remotely like this 14th century poem of English pilgrims telling a mix of folk stories and bawdy jokes.
I studied Middle English while completing my graduate degree in English, and looked forward to hearing these in that version. While it is good to hear them, I was disappointed at the comparative monotone. The speaker does not seem to get into the spirit of the narration. I realize he is reading a "foreign language" and sympathize, but still it is disappointing. Part of the disappointment reflects on a live performance of Beowulf by Ben Bagley, which I still remember after a few years.
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