Home » Essay » Rare Chaucer MS discovered

Rare Chaucer MS discovered

News flash!

Author's unauthorized spy photo of lost ms page.

Author’s unauthorized spy photo of lost ms page.

25 March. San Mateo, CA: Stunning results of the 2012 Bradford Expedition, once thought lost forever on the London underground (see map), shock Chaucer scholars: the discovery of an unknown manuscript by Chaucer, kept secret by a cabal of British scholars locked in a fierce debate about attribution!

Mr. Robert Bradford, under the guise of “visiting scholar,”  was unable to actually handle the document, but thanks to American (Japanese? Chinese? Korean? Finnish? Canadian?) ingenuity, using his tiny digital camera hidden in his Herbert Johnson designed hat,  Mr. Bradford was able to record the document, page by page, as he looked over the shoulders of the scholars. And now he shares his find with us,—that is, Coastline Journal and Dominican University of California, who proudly present….

Ah, but before we do…you should develop an ear for how to read Chaucer. Harvard can teach you.  And watch this video, watch and listen.

Chaucer’s Lost Canterbury Tale

A report by Robert Bradford, Dominican University of California.

Robert F. Bradford has won two Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards for Best Play in the Fringe of Marin Festival of One-Acts, and his plays have also been produced by Construct Theatre Company on W. 14th St. in New York, the Black Box Festival at College of Marin in Kentfield, CA, the Petaluma Arts Council (CA), Ross Valley Players (CA) and Café Amsterdam in Fairfax, CA, and published in Mused (Bella Online). His stories have been published in Bohème Magazine, SoMa Literary Review, Slow Trains Literary Journal and Long Story Short. He holds a Master of Arts in Humanities with a Writing Concentration (2006) from Dominican University of California, where he is now an Adjunct Instructor in the Literature & Languages and the Humanities & Cultural Studies Departments.

Download the document: ChaucerLostTale2

On the first of April, 2012, workmen repairing an interior wall of Westminster Abbey discovered an ancient manuscript, which they dutifully delivered to a conclave of scholars at the library of the British Museum, where its authenticity was hotly debated.

As a visiting scholar, I was kept very much on the edges of that debate; as a technophile with a palm-sized digital camera, I was able to surreptitiously photocopy the pages as they were carefully laid out on an old oaken table; as a democratic egalitarian American, I was strongly opposed to the scholars’ resolve to keep the manuscript from the public eye while it was interminably assayed.

Therefore, it behooves me to disseminate, for the world at large to relish and to judge, these lines of what I believe to be Chaucer’s Lost (or, more properly, Hidden) Canterbury Tale, with my own rough translation interlined.

— Robert F. Bradford

Nat al ywrit moot noght been for to rede

          Not everything written is meant to be read

Whyl yet on lyve, for kepen myn dere hede.

          While yet alive, to save my dear head.

Heere folweth the Prologe of the Webbes Tale of Londoun

          Here follows the prologue of the Tale of the Weaver of London

Whan but o furlong paste Gravesend toun

          When but one furlong past Gravesend Town

Myn bladdre liste for purgacioun,

          My bladder wanted to be drained,

So privily I fell bihynde the rowte,

          So privately I fell behind the crowd,

The gildsmen eek, a grete bushe about.

          The guildsmen as well, around a large bush.

Fro swinken and fro wyves wel aweye,

Well away from work and wives,

They al lyk coltish prentyses doon pleye.

They horsed around like young apprentices.

Hir janglerye doon myn eres assaylle.

Their chatter assailed my ears.

I heerde an olde nonnes jape the tayle —

I heard the tail end of an old nun’s joke:

Qoud I, But Sustre, a man been nat a mayde.

          “Said I, ‘But Sister, a man is not a maid.

A spayde to swich cherles is highte a spayde.

A spade, to such peasants, is called a spade.’

O no, quod she, they speke as fro an hovle.

‘Oh no,’ said she, ‘they speak as though from a hovel.

Alday they clepe it eft a fokkynge shovle!

All day they call it again “a fucking shovel!”’”

They me descouvred to hem by my laugh,

          They discovered me by my laugh,

And gadered murily whan they me saugh.

And gathered cheerfully when they saw me.

Oure litel courtman, quod oon, by Goddes ye!

“Our little courtier,” said one, “by God’s eye!”

Smilynge, I hem profred myn malvesye,

Smiling, I offered them my sweet wine,

Regretynge that I hadde nat a coppe.

Regreting that I didn’t have a cup.

Myn crouke they dreynt, and yaf bak nat oon droppe.

They drained my jug, and gave back not a drop.

Than laughynge al they at my dismal chere,

Then, all laughing at my dismal expression,

A botel drew of ypocras mo dere.

They pulled out a bottle of more expensive spice wine.

Quod they, Thart of oure citee, by the feend!

They said, “You are from our city, by the devil!”

Whan hadde we dronk, I was hir grete freend.

When we had drunk, I was their great friend.

Namely the webbe spak warmlich unto me —

Especially the weaver spoke warmly to me:

Joyne us, and stonde nat on your degree.

“Join us, and don’t stand on your rank.

Lat spede the rowte, and we bihynde fal,

Let the crowd rush ahead, and we’ll fall behind,

And I a tale forsooth wil telle, withal,

And I will truly tell a tale, besides,

Nat gentil nyfles, ne som cherlish geste,

Not gentile trifles, nor some churlish history,

But siker verray trouthe, by my biheste.

But certain truthful truth, by my promise.”

So ryden we a paas, and in this wyse,

So we rode at a slow pace, and in this manner,

The webbe spake, as I now devyse.

The weaver spoke, as I now describe.

Heere bigynneth the Tale of the Webbe of Londoun

          Here begins the Tale of the Weaver of London


Nat lange agoon, aboute som ten yeere,

          Not long ago, about some ten years,

Prentysed to me was myn nevew deere,

My dear nephew was apprenticed to me,

My sustres sone, hende and wel farynge.

My sister’s son, clever and handsome.

Yong Jakke colde wel both swink and synge.

Young Jack could both work and sing well.

Merchant his fader was, and alderman.

His father was a merchant and an alderman.

His faderes fader was a greet riche man,

His father’s father was a great rich man,

Clept Wiliam Walworth, Mayour of Londoun,

Named William Walworth, Mayor of London,

Of heigh reknowne and discrecioun.

Of high reknowne and discretion.

Though lange hadde we been of the citee,

Although we had long lived in the city,

Yet hadde we muchel kyn of the contree.

We still had many relatives in the country.

Whan in the scales the sonne was to weigh,

When the sun was weighed in the scales [1]

Than cam they with hir wayne pyled heigh

Then they came with their wagon piled high

With vitaille from hir lite ferme in Kente,

With foodstuffs from their little farm in Kent,

For purchas al, with ful murye entente.

 All for sale, with very cheerful intentions.

Bifel oon yeer that yonge cosin Gwene

 It happened one year that young cousin Gwen

Hadde grewn fro short and stoute to talle and lene.

Had grown from short and stout to tall and lean.

A toute lowe hadde she, and tetes hye,

She had a low rump and high breasts,

Heer blak, lippes reed, and likerous ye.

Black hair, red lips and a flirtatious eye.

My nevewes herte felle in subjeccioun.

My nephew’s heart fell in subjection.

Anon he loste alle his discrecioun.

Immediately he lost all his discretion.

Hyr fader dronken slepte, and al the nighte,

Her father fell asleep drunk, and all the night,

Bihynd the loomis, ful lustily they dighte.

Behind the looms, very lustily they did it.

A ferme wench kan everich wey to tuppe,

A farm girl knows every way to have sex,

Bihynde, biforn and eek fro dounsyde-uppe.

Behind, in front, and also from downside-up.

To swinke and swyve is al a mannes lyf;

To work and make love is all that a man’s life is;

For hym to helpen bothe, beste tak a wyf.

          To help him with both, it’s best to take a wife.

Forthy Jakke and Gwen list for spoussaille,

Therefore, Jack and Gwen wished for marriage,

Yet love agayn destyne moot nat availle.

But love must not avail against destiny.

For yet was Jakke bond to his prentyshood;

Because Jack was still bound to his apprenticeship;

Six monthes mo under myn yerde he stood.

          For six more months he was under my discipline.

And Gwenis fader leven hir so dere

          And Gwen’s father loved her so dearly

He nolde bere hir goon in no manere.

          He would not bear her leaving in any manner.


Unfortunately, one of the scholar’s cats was present at the museum.

No moder hadde she to plee hyr cas,

She had no mother to plead her case.

And so hyr fader took hyr home, allas.

And so her father took her home, unfortunately.

Yet Jakke with ful corage been nat afeere.

But Jack, with strong heart, was not afraid.

He swooned nat, ne shadde no saltis teere.

          He did not swoon, nor shed a salty tear.

He swinkt and wonne as on myn loom he wroght,

          He worked and earned as he produced on my loom,

To sprynge tyme, and than his papires boght.

Till springtime, and then he completed his apprenticeship.

Than goon he on his wey, with my blessynge,

          Then he went on his way, with my blessing,

To helle or Kent, to meet the dawenynge.

          To hell or Kent, to meet the dawning.

Whan at hir throp he came to hir cotage,

When, in their little village, he came to their cottage,

Mistydynges grimme unnethe shente his corage.

Grim bad news scarcely injured his heart.

His lemmanes fader deed — Deus lo volt —

His sweetheart’s father dead — God wills it —

And Gwen hadde joynt the Cherles Greet Revolt.

And Gwen had joined the Peasant’s Great Revolt.

Ye alle wel kanne that disputisoun.

You all know that dispute well.

I nolde devyse that altercacioun,

I will not describe that altercation,

How that the poll tax raysed swich a pleyne

How the head tax raised such a complaint

That Engelonde moot al endure the peyne.

That all England must endure the pain.

At Maydstone Jakke conjoyned with the route,

Jack joined up with the crowd at Maidstone,

And seked for his Gwene al aboute.

And looked all around for Gwen.

And whan the communes saugh his fyn array,

And when the commoners saw his fancy clothes,

They liste to girden of his heed that day.

They wanted to cut off his head that day.

And at the feet of hir new governour

And at the feet of their new governor

Set al keen-yed his verray paramour.

Sat his true love, all cow-eyed.

Watt Tyghler was hir cheef, and now quod he,

Wat Tyler was their chief, and now he said,

I trowe thow comst to espye fro the citee.

          “I believe you come from the city to spy.”

Quod Jakke, Myn bredren liste yow to be free,

Said Jack, “My brothers wish you to be free,

And sente me heere to treet of libertee.

And sent me here to negotiate for liberty.

I am to preve yowr condicioun,

I am to test your condition,

And open wyde the gates of Londoun.

And open wide the gates of London.”

Than Watt ful blyve made Jakke welcome,

Then Wat quickly made Jack welcome,

And than they were his bredren, alle and somme.

And then they were his brothers, one and all.

Whan colde he to Gwen spaken privilee,

When he could speak privately to Gwen,

He preyed hyr than, for hir felicitee,

He then requested of her, for their happiness,

That anon she moote with him flee,

That immediately she must flee with him,

And wedden him fer fro this wood meynee.

And marry him far from this crazy gang.

Ah Jakke, quod she, now moot ye understonde,

“Ah Jack,” she said, “now you must understand,

Our werkis been for alle of Engelonde,

Our work is for all of England,

And al mankynde, to set the caitif free,

And all mankind, to set the captive free,

Endynge thise lordynges greet crueltee.

Ending these nobles’ great cruelty.

Our lyves smal ber no comparisoun

Our little lives bear no comparison

To doughty deeds of revolucioun.

To brave deeds of revolution.”

By love yblent, he trowed hyr werdes wer sooth,

          Blinded by love, he believed her words were true,

And to hir enterprise swar he an ooth.

And he swore an oath to their enterprise.

Than, just as we, to Caunterbury they wente,

Then, just like us, they went to Canterbury,

Al be it with ful different entente,

Albeit with very different intentions,

The archbishop to sley, but hadde he fledde,

To kill the archbishop, unless he had fled,

So toteren they his prisoun gates instedde,

So they tore up his prison gates instead,

The rebel preest John Ball to maken free,

To free the rebel priest John Ball,

Who hadde been yshente for this decree:

Who had been seized for this declaration:

Whan Adam delved and Eve span, quod he,

“When Adam dug and Eve spun,” said he,

Who than was the gentilman, pardee?

Who, then, was the gentleman,” by God?

And now his everich werd was nat but galle.

And now his every word was nothing but gall.

Lyk fyre brent this ilke daun John Balle.

This same don John Ball burned like fire.

Uppe al the hynes! Lordynges al bring doun!

“Up all the workers! Nobles all bring down!”

And Blood! was alle his predicacioun.

And “Blood!” was his entire sermon.

Than uppe rose the cherles of Essex,

 Then the peasants of Essex rose up,

Of Kent and Bedeford and eek Sussex,

Of Kent and Bedford and also Sussex,

To alle investe Londoun as it lay,

          To all besiege London as they found it,

Conjoynynge ther on Corpus Cristi day.

Joining together there on Corpus Cristi day [2]

Along the wey brent they many manoures,

Along the way they burned many manors,

Whyl smootynge of the hedes of vavasoures,

          While striking off the heads of wealthy landowners,

And eek of everich kynges man they hente,

And also of every king’s man they seized,

With hedes on pykes and bodyes al torente.

With heads on pikes and bodies all torn to pieces.

Than cherles ever mo fro everich throp

          Then more and more peasants from each little village

In Lambeth sought agayn the archbishop,

          Again sought the archbishop in Lambeth,

Yclept Simon of Sudbury, he was

Called Simon of Sudbury, he was

Eek Chancelour of Engelonde, allas.

Also Chancellor of England, unfortunately.

Er hadde he blyve fledde to Londoun Tour,

Before, he had quickly fled to the Tower of London,

So totare they atones his greet manour,

So they tore up at once his great manor,

And to the fyr they made deliveraunce

And threw into the fire

Of registeres and rolles of remembraunce.

Censuses, debt records and tax rolls.

Than Jakke, biforn the rowte entred Londoun,

Then Jack, before the crowd entered London,

With gildsmen made negociacioun.

Negotiated with the guildsmen.

Whan thre score thousand came upon the toun,

When sixty thousand came upon the town,

They found the gates and brigges alle adoun.

They found the gates and bridges all down.

Than with the helpe of many citee menne,

Then, with the help of many city men,

Ful many palaises they doun wolde brenne,

They would burn down very many palaces,

Namely the greet palais that highte Savoy,

Especially the great palace that was called Savoy,

Of Lancaster, that ye so wel employe.

Belonging to Lancaster, who uses you so well. [3]

Why sterte ye, sithe yowr name is nat secree?

Why are you startled, since your name is not a secret?

Yknowne is al the court by the citee.

          All the court is known by the city people.

Whilom my fader yowres bisyde did wone,

Formerly, my father dwelt beside yours,

And dronke yowr faderes wyn al by the tone.

 And drank your father’s wine by the cask. [4]

Ye wolde han koude myn wolle ful wel, pardee,

You would have known my wool very well, by God,

Wer nat yowr werk wroght by a deputee.

If your work hadn’t been done by an underling. [5]

Alway the verray sooth wol make oon smerte,

Always the true truth will make one suffer,

That to yowr rank attayne ye clamb a skerte.

That to attain your rank you climbed a skirt.

Wel kan we yowr annuitee for lyf

We know very well that your lifetime annuity

Thurgh yowr wyfes sustre cam, Prince Johnes wyf,

Came through your wife’s sister, Prince John’s wife,

That whilom was yclept Lancasteres hoore.

Who formerly was called Lancaster’s whore.

And som sey eek yowr wyf. I sey namoore.

And some say, also your wife. I say no more.

Yet whyle ye hidde al on that bloody day,

But while you hid on that bloody day,

Lancaster and his armee wer away.

Lancaster and his army were away.

Whan al the communes into Londoun swepte,

When all the commoners swept into London,

Fer north Lancaster and his armee kepte.

Lancaster and his army stayed in the far north.

He liste the cherles his nevew kynge to spille,

          He wanted the peasants to kill his nephew king,

And lete the croun of Engelonde at his wille.

And leave the crown of England at his will.

He rekned nat the yonge kynges heigh corage.

He didn’t calculate the young king’s great courage.

Though Richard was but fourteen yeere of age,

Although Richard was only fourteen years old,

Kynge Dick nas nat aferd his lyf to lesen.

King Dick was not afraid to lose his life.

The cherles thoght that God the kynge had chesen.

The peasants thought that God had chosen the king.

Hir vengeaunce was for everich avysour.

Their vengance was for each advisor.

With al boldnesse he sallyed fro the Tour,

With all boldness he sallied out from the Tower,

Sans bokeler, armoure, swerd, ne drede,

Without shield, armor, sword nor fear,

Agaynes the mobbe the kynge aloonly rede.

Towards the mob the king rode all alone.

His trouthe he swar to everich grevaunce,

He swore his pledge to each grievance,

And yaf unto hem alle hir suffisaunce.

And gave to them all that would content them.

Threty clerkes writ the kynges tretee

Thirty clerks wrote the king’s treaty

For everich toun, vilage and ech countee.

For every town, village and each county.

Thise cartas, at Kynge Richardes own biheste,

These charters, at King Richard’s own promise,

Did of hir verray libertee atteste.

Attested to their true liberty.

Assuaged he so parfitly hir wo,

He assuaged their sorrows so perfectly,

That homward wente half of hem or mo.

          That half of them, or more, headed home.

Yet whyle he was withouten of the Tour,

But while he was outside of the Tower,

A greet rowte ther hadde fit a starke stour,

A great crowd had fought a harsh battle there,

And braste the gate, his governours to hente.

And burst the gate, to seize his governors.

The communes than the kynges men torente.

The commoners then tore the king’s men to pieces.

The archbishop, that was the Chancellour,

The archbishop, who was the Chancellor,

And Robert Hales, that was the Tresorour,

And Robert Hales, who was the Treasurer,

So blyve bifell to hem the bloody nedes,

So quickly the bloody violence happened to them,

On pykes on Londoun Brigge wer hir hedes.

Their heads were on pikes on London Bridge.


Whyl in the citee, yonge Jakke and Gwen

While in the city, young Jack and Gwen

Wer chaunged in hir hertes, I can nat wene.

Were changed in their hearts, I cannot doubt.

Namely by the mordre of the Flemynges,

Especially by the murder of the Flemings,

By swerd, by staf, by brende, and by hengynges,

By sword, by staff, by firebrands, and by hangings,

That webbes wer, of verray peesfulnesse,

Who were weavers, of true peacefulness,

Al smyten doun, but for hir foreinesse.

All struck down, only for their foreignness.

The nexte day, eftsoone the kynge outryde,

The next day, again the king rode out,

With Mayour William Walworth at his syde.

With Mayor William Walworth at his side.

Than Watt Tyghler moot seye what he mene,

          Then Wat Tyler must say what he intended,

And with him his conseyl, and Jakke and Gwene.

And with him his counselors, and Jack and Gwen.

Kepe watch, quod Watt. Whan ye myn signal see,

“Keep watch,” said Wat. “When you see my signal,

Atones cherge and rallye unto me.

Charge at once and rally to me.

Moot ye anon the kynges men al spille.

You must immediately kill all the king’s men.

The yonge kynge than wol do myn wille.

The young king will then do my will.”

Than boldly cam biforn the kynges face

          Then boldly came before the king’s face

This cherl, essayinge the kynges disgrace.

          This villain, trying to disgrace the king.

He lewedly spak, with heigh presumpcioun,

           He spoke rudely, with high presumption,

And at the kynges feet he spat adoun.

          And spat down at the king’s feet.

He waffed a daggere as he wer at borde,

          He waved a dagger as though he were at the dinner table,

And quod, ‘Yowr puissance been nat worth a torde.’

And said, “Your power isnt worth a turd.”

Whan dronkenly he hente the kynges arme,

When he drunkenly grabbed the king’s arm,

The mayour was aferd he moot him harme.

The mayor was afraid he must harm him.

He wolde stonde this insolence namo,

He would stand this insolence no more,

And at a sterte he was betwix hem two.

And suddenly he was between the two of them.

Than stabt Watt in the wombe oure mayour,

Then Wat stabbed our mayor in the belly,

That undernethe his clook bor his armour,

Who underneath his cloak carried his armor,

So that our goode Sir William was nat shente.

So that our good Sir William was not injured.

Yet Jakke, enraged, Wattes armes hente.

But Jack, enraged, grabbed Wat’s arms.

Base homicyde, quod he, and losengeour!

          “Base murderer,” said he, “and liar!

Avauntour, fals flatour and eek traitour!

          Boaster, false flatterer and also traitor!”

They foughten breme, and carft was Jakkes knowe.

They fought fiercely, and Jack’s knee was cut.

Than Walworth drew a swerd, and with oon blowe,

Then Walworth drew a sword, and with one blow,

This Wattes heed was breste half in two.

This Wat’s head was burst half in two.

Than drew a gard a privee swerd also,

Then a guard also drew a hidden sword,

And swapen of this Wattes heed so blyve,

And struck off this Wat’s head so quickly,

Whan scarce oon hertebeet er, he was on lyve.

When scarcly a heartbeat before, he was alive.

Anker Smith and James Northcote: Sir William Walworth, Lord Mayor of London, Killing Wat Tyler in Smithfield, 1381

Anker Smith and James Northcote: Sir William Walworth, Lord Mayor of London, Killing Wat Tyler in Smithfield, 1381

Up on a pyke they raysed this ilke heed,

They raised this same head up on a pike,

That alle and somme moot see that he was deed.

That one and all must see that he was dead.

Than everich wight for drede gan to flee

          Then every person began to flee for fear

Lyk Cristes bredren fro Gethsemanee.

          Like Christ’s brothers from Gethsemane.

His bille now King Dick rente al to clouthe

          King Dick now tore his declaration all to bits

And for the folk na yaf no more no routhe.

          And for the people gave no more pity.

In everich citee and at al the gates,

          In each city and at all the gates,

Yhenged wer the bicched renegates,

The cursed renegades were hanged,

And namely Jakke Straw and daun John Balle,

And especially Jack Straw and don John Ball,

Hir conseyloures and other lederes alle,

All their counselors and other leaders,

Hir bloody hedes, seven score and ten,

Their bloody heads, one hundred fifty,

Replaced on Londoun Brigge the kynges men.

          Replaced the king’s men on London Bridge.

Yet Jakke and Gwen wer yefen fulle pardoun.

But Jack and Gwen were given full pardon.

In murye wedlok wone they in Londoun.

In cheerful marriage they dwell in London.

With kynder thre, they han a hous in Chepe,

With three children, they have a house in Cheapside,

And now, this ilke day, myn shoppe they kepe,

And now, this same day, they are keeping my shop,

Whyl I, for al myn synnes to make amende,

While I, to make amends for all my sins,

With ye, my freend, to Caunterbury wende.

Wend my way to Canterbury with you, my friend.

Heere endeth the Webbes Tale of Londoun


Chaucer’s Lost Tale – an Afterword

When struck by any piece of literature, music, painting – indeed, any art – my first impulse is not to write an essay, but to think, “How is this done? I want to do this!” Thus, when studying Chaucer under the redoubtable and beloved Sister Aaron Winkelman, last of the great teaching nuns at Dominican University of California, I resolved to avoid a standard “lit crit” essay by crafting this faux “Lost Tale.”

Writing iambic pentameter is easy enough – it’s still the standard rhythm of our everyday speech. To get a handle on Middle English, I made notes, as I studied, of useful words and, more importantly, created my own Middle English rhyming dictionary, starting with the conventional rhymes that Chaucer uses over and over, and adding all the quirky bits that might come in handy.

As for the story itself, I always find myself wishing to see more of Chaucer himself as a character in the prologues, and more historical context, such as his close ties with the royal family, and the turmoil of the recent Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, which was all I needed to get me started.

When Sister Aaron said she read it TWICE – and that I had Chaucer inventing the historical novel — and gave me what was, from her, a very rare “A” for the course, it was the highlight of my career as a scholar.

— Robert F. Bradford



[1]  In the sign of Libra, the Scales, i.e., end of September and first three weeks of October.

[2]  The Feast Day of the Body of Christ, Thursday, June 13, 1381.

[3]  Prince John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was the third son of King Edward III, the uncle of King Richard II, and the father of the usurper King Henry IV. He was Chaucer’s great patron. Chaucer’s wife’s sister was first Lancaster’s mistress, then his wife. Some scholars speculate that Chaucer’s wife was also Lancaster’s mistress.

[4]  Chaucer’s father was a London wine merchant, well-connected enough to place young Geoffrey in the royal household as a page.

[5]  Chaucer was for twelve years appointed Controller of the Wool Custom by the king.

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