Peter Ackroyd’s Canterbury Tales: What the did he mean by that ‘fuck’?

On reading this book, I was struck among other things by the bad language used and wondered what it corresponded to in the original.   My conclusions appear below, more-or-less in order of appearance.

Fuck

‘Fuck’ in modern English can of course either be ‘have sex’ or ‘do harm’

Fuck sex

Sometimes ‘fuck’ is used for what I presume are the Chaucerian equivalents:  swyve and dighte (I think the latter is a past tense form).    so for instance on p 97, corresponding to the Miller’s Tale l.3850:  Thus swyved was this carpenteris wyf;  p107 Reeve’s Tale corresponding to l.4178: If that I may, yon wenche wil I swyve;  p429 Manciple’s Tale corresponding to l.256: For on thy bed thy wyf I saw him swyve.

It is also used as an equivalent for some more various ways of describing sex, for instance (one could say, euphemistically):  Miller’s Tale, l.3269:  For any lord to leggen in his bedde.; Reeve’s Tale, l. 4235 For he had swonken [toiled] all night long.; Miller’s Tale, l.3653/4 And thus lith Alison and Nicholas, In bisynesse of myrthe and of solas.    And there are some cases where the equivalent expression is hardly euphemistic:  Nun’s Priest’s Tale, l.3965 Al be it that I may not on yow ryde,[well, that’s how male hens do it to female hens].  And a special mention for ‘On Fucking’ as translation of De Coitu in the Merchant’ s Tale, l.1811.

Fuck harm

Chaucer doesn’t seem to regard sex this way anywhere, and the various uses in Ackroyd tend to refer to something quite different in the original:  ‘fuck off’ vs l.3708 Miller’s Tale ‘Go fro the wyndow, Jakke fool’; p247 ‘I don’t give a fuck for your Seneca’ v Merchant’s Tale l.1567 Straw for thy Senek; p 104 ‘oh fuck’ v Reeve’s Tale l.4072 And gan to crie ‘Harrow’ and Weylaway! [‘Harrow’ looks religious rather than sexual in connotation to me].

Cunt

May just be ‘queynte’, as in p84 vs l.3275 Miller’s Tale.

Arse

It looks like an arse is just an arse, for instance p96 v l.3810 Miller’s Tale And Nicholas amydde the ers he smoot; p189 v l.1690 Summoner’s Prologue Shewe forth thyne ers… Also on p99,  there is an explanation of why a medlar is like an open arse, while in Reeve’s Prologue l.3871 it just seems to be the usual name for the medlar:  But if I fare as dooth an open-ers,-

Medlars

Fart

And again a fart is a fart is a fart, multiply so in the case of the Summoner’s Tale, for instance p201 (first instance) v l.2149 Amydde his hand he leet the frere a fart.  The the Reeve’s Tale is more complex; we have ‘He had drunk so much ale that he haw gurgling and belching in his sleep like a horse; he kept on farting too,’ p 106 vs ll.4163-5 This millere hath so wisely bibbed ale/That as an hors he fnorteth in his sleep,/ Ne of his tayl bihynde he took no keep.

Piss

Piss is the same: p 107 Reeve’s Tale vs l.4215 And gan awake, and wente hire out to pisse; p 163 vs l.729 Wife of Bath’s Prologue How Xantippa caste pisse upon his heed.  But ‘piss off’ isn’t:  p184 Friar’s Tale ‘I’ll stay with you until you tell me to piss off.’ vs l.1522 Til it be so that thou forsake me.

Conclusions

Fart, piss and arse are largely unaltered.  Quite a variety of expressions for having sex are rendered by ‘fuck’; there seems to be no real equivalent in Chaucer for the use of obscenities to intensify general expressions of distaste or rejection.

Note

The page numbers for Ackroyd refer to the Penguin Classic hardback published in 2009, ISBN 9781846140587; the quotations from Chaucer come from the Eveyman Classics edition of 1975, reprinted 1982, ISBN 0460113070.


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