After muddling through the Middle English of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at school, it was with a measure of trepidation that I embarked on Matthew Kneale’s Pilgrims, which also follows a group of medieval penitents. Mercifully, aware that “people can flee when you mention Chaucer”, Kneale has spared us the medieval vernacular.
“An attempt to write a whole novel in 13th-century English . . . is likely to appeal to a very small readership indeed,” he admits. Instead, he has compromised by using modern spelling while avoiding contemporary slang. The handful of Middle English words thrown in for kicks are self-evident — lovesome, putain, quarantaine — or delightful enough to merit the page-flip to the book’s handy glossary — gogmagog, popelot and slutterbug (meaning, respectively, “a misshapen giant”, “darling”, and “dirty person”).
It’s a motley crew we meet en route to the Eternal City in 1289, in search of penance or papal favours…
Read the full article online in the Financial Times