Friday, 17 April 2020

Meaning of "There is no newe guise, but it was old" in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

The phrase "There is no newe guise, but it was old" is from the Wife of Bath's tale in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

It's more common rewording in modern English is "There's never a new fashion but it's old".

The phrase itself appears in the following section of the tale where the Wife of Bath describes how "every lusty knight" would dress "T' fight for a lady":

Some will be armed on their legges weel;
Some have an axe, and some a mace of steel.
There is no newe guise, but it was old.
Armed they weren, as I have you told,
Evereach after his opinion.

The meaning is that nearly all ideas come around again and there are few ideas that are genuinely new and fashion, as with ideas, is cyclical. Some are forgotten, some reinvented and some simply recycled over time.

Wife of Bath's Tale, Ellesmere manuscript, c. 1405–1410

Friday, 21 February 2020

Meaning of 'Ful wys is he that kan himselven knowe' in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

The well-known phrase 'Ful wys is he that kan himselven knowe' was written by Geoffrey Chaucer in his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales.

It appears in 'The Monk's Tale' in the following passage:

Thus starf this worthy myghty Hercules.
Lo, who may truste on Fortune any throwe?
For hym that folweth al this world of prees,
Er he be war, is ofte yleyd ful lowe.
Ful wys is he that kan hymselven knowe.
Beth war, for whan that Fortune list to glose,
Thanne wayteth she her man to overthrowe,
By swich a wey, as he wolde leest suppose.

In modern English, the words translate to what sounds clumsy to our ear 'Full wise is he that can himself know' and might be better phrased as 'He who knows himself is very wise'.

The Monk is describing the death of Hercules who put on a poisoned shirt given to him by an enemy. He then muses on the role of luck and how it can humble even the mightiest warrior. 

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Meaning of 'With empty hand men may no hawkes lure' in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

The phrase 'With empty hand men may no hawkes lure' is from the Prologue to The Wife of Bath's tale in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. You can read the prologue to her tale in full here.

The context is as follows:

I would no longer in the bed abide,
If that I felt his arm over my side,
Till he had made his ransom unto me,
Then would I suffer him do his nicety.
And therefore every man this tale I tell,
Win whoso may, for all is for to sell;
With empty hand men may no hawkes lure;
For winning would I all his will endure,
And make me a feigned appetite,

It's one of the more delicate phrases to explain, but essentially the wider context is that The Wife of Bath is describing how she uses her body for pleasure and power and to become one her many husbands it requires wealth.

The simple analogy is how a hawk can be lured back to one's hand with some food, so she can be attracted with material things. Some read it more crudely that she accepts money for sex, but equally it can be read as a more nuanced statement of the balance between the sexes in relationships in Chaucer's times.

Monday, 30 December 2019

Meaning of 'Amor vincit omnia' in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

The phrase 'Amor vincit omnia' appears in Geoffrey Chaucer's most famous work The Canterbury Tales and concerns the Prioress whose tale you can read here.

She is named as Madame Eglantine and wears a golden brooch inscribed with the letter 'A' and the phrase itself as appears in line 162 of The General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales:

Of smal coral aboute hir arm she bar
A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene,
An theron heng a brooch of gold ful sheene,
On which ther was first write a crowned A,
And after Amor vincit omnia.

The Prioress's Tale from a painting
by Edward Coley Burne-Jones
It is of course from the Latin and best translates as 'Love conquers all'.

Love = amor (noun)
Vincit = conquers (verb)
Omnia = all (adverb)

The full phrase comes from Virgil's Eclogues: 'Omnia vincit amor: et nos cedamus amori' and translates as 'Love conquers all: let us too surrender to love'.

It's significance is an insight into the character of the Prioress who is portrayed as a social climber with outward signs that are at odds with the simple piety of her tale and position, such as her (incorrect) French accent, jewellery and the ambiguity of meaning of this phrase which more commonly relates to courtly than God's love.