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Chaucer's Puzzle


Chaucer himself accompanied the pilgrims. Being a mathematician and a man of a thoughtful habit, the Host made fun of him, he tells us, saying, "Thou lookest as thou wouldst find a hare, For ever on the ground I see thee stare." The poet replied to the request for a tale by launching into a long-spun-out and ridiculous poem, intended to ridicule the popular romances of the day, after twenty-two stanzas of which the company refused to hear any more, and induced him to start another tale in prose. It is an interesting fact that in the "Parson's Prologue" Chaucer actually introduces a little astronomical problem. In modern English this reads somewhat as follows:—

"The sun from the south line was descended so low that it was not to my sight more than twenty-nine degrees. I calculate that it was four o'clock, for, assuming my height to be six feet, my shadow was eleven feet, a little more or less. At the same moment the moon's altitude (she being in mid-Libra) was steadily increasing as we entered at the west end of the village." A correspondent has taken the trouble to work this out, and finds that the local time was 3.58 p.m., correct to a minute, and that the day of the year was the 22nd or 23rd of April, modern style. This speaks well for Chaucer's accuracy, for the first line of the Tales tells us that the pilgrimage was in April—they are supposed to have set out on 17th April 1387, as stated in No. 23.

Though Chaucer made this little puzzle and recorded it for the interest of his readers, he did not venture to propound it to his fellow-pilgrims. The puzzle that he gave them was of a simpler kind altogether: it may be called a geographical one. "When, in the year 1372, I did go into Italy as the envoy of our sovereign lord King Edward the Third, and while there did visit Francesco Petrarch, that learned poet did take me to the top of a certain mountain in his country. Of a truth, as he did show me, a mug will hold less liquor at the top of this mountain than in the valley beneath. Prythee tell me what mountain this may be that has so strange a property withal." A very elementary knowledge of geography will suffice for arriving at the correct answer.

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