In case any of Ganching’s readers wonder where I get the authority to pronounce on dirty words in Chaucer, I have taught 47 classes titled “Chaucer,” at undergraduate, master’s, and Ph.D. seminar levels, plus two independent studies on his works. I have read everything Chaucer ever wrote, usually more than once, usually more than four times (it’s true that once was enough for the Treatise on the Astrolabe). Although I consider myself a scholar of medieval romance, I have published on Chaucer pedagogy.
When I counted up the 47 sections, in the process of compiling my promotion application, I was so horrified that work stopped on the application for several days while I processed the realization. There was even one year when all I taught was Chaucer: five courses. I had repressed that. Possibly the powers that be were trying to minimize my preps at that point, because I was applying for tenure? Except I think that I had just applied . . . maybe it was supposed to be a reward after getting the application in? I don’t actually like teaching multiple sections of anything. I’d rather have all different classes, so I don’t have to keep sections in sync, or try to remember whether I’ve done the medieval demographics lecture in this class or not, or whether I’m repeating myself in one section and never saying something important to the other one. So that was a vile, vile year.
Despite the existence of books like Chaucer’s Bawdy and people like Carissa Harris who study rude drawings in Chaucer manuscripts, Chaucer is far more given to innuendo than to open obscenity. His rudest word is probably swyve, a word I’m fond of, but whose register seems to be roughly like that of screw in modern English. He does use shete (shit) on occasion, as well. When it comes to female genitalia, he prefers French belle chose, pretty thing, and queynte, with all its available puns (quenched, quaint). I recall (but am too lazy to look up) a discussion by some august critic (Larry Benson? John Fleming?) that considered translating the famous phrase from the Miller’s Tale as “he caught her by the elegant.” I believe this possibility was then dismissed, but I quite like it, and think it goes nicely with “belle chose,” the Wife of Bath’s choice for what it is men want of her.
Traybake’s assertions, however, make me wonder if there is a translation into modern English that uses ruder words than Chaucer did, or if it’s just that some students are so shocked to see any non-latinate reference to genitalia in Great Literature that they remember such references as cruder than they are. Students can be funny critters. They sometimes try to shock me by asking questions about words like queynte, and then they get the full philological lecture, with dictionary displays and etymology, which ought to bore them into quiescence. But usually it makes them decide I’m unexpectedly cool.