Secrets of the Ancients: Why Chaucer Couldn’t Spell

What thought, dear reader, flits first across the surface of your mind when you find yourself in the presence of such words as these:

Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground;
I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound
That on a Sonday weren upon hir heed.
Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,
Ful streite yteyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe.

That’s right! The first mental question appearing in your imagination is “What was the matter with his spell-check?” In fact, this very point is a conundrum which has puzzled scholars and historians for centuries.

But just last week, in a monumental article in the renowned International Journal of Old and Ancient Things, Theodore Dreisenbecker and Yolanda Eigenzustand made a disquieting revelation: Geoffrey Chaucer didn’t have spell-check! Your mind staggers from surprise. But it is definitely true. What’s more, he wasn’t some prescient devotee of Ned Ludd. In fact, Chaucer was using state of the art technology, and his software and firmware were up-to-date.

The astounding truth is that there simply was no such thing as spell-check in his time!

And if your psyche hasn’t been teetering at the reception of this bit of news, Dreisenbecker and Eigenzustand argue convincingly that, not only did Chaucer not have spell-check, he didn’t even have spelling. Imagine!

What did those old-time people do with all the countless hours they saved by not worrying about spelling? We don’t know for sure. We do, however, know a little about one pastime called jousting, which involved sitting on a horse and trying to knock your opponent off of his steed with a long, sharp piece of wood. At the very least, you have to admit that replacing spelling with jousting is a tantalizing idea. If schools adopted this practice, they might become a bit cooler. Think about it: “Kids, this year there won’t be any spelling. Instead we’ll have jousting!”

“The Manciple,” by Arthur Szyk (1894-1951). CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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