The Tale of the Hungarian Time Traveller

(Geoffrey Chaucer &) Nikolaus Ritt

Foreword and introductory remarks

The history of the English language and of English literature counts, with obvious justification, as one of the best documented histories of any language or literature on this planet. Thus, new discoveries of truly important textual witnesses have naturally become rare events – events as rare, one might wish to say, as the occasion celebrated in this Webschrift: the seventieth birthday of Ádám Nádasdy, an outstanding and truly unique linguist, scholar, artist, renaissance man, and, above all, human being.

Nothing could therefore be more appropriate as to mark this very special event with the first publication of a hitherto unknown fragment of one of the most important pieces of English Literature, namely Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The truly improbable discovery was made, under circumstances that are not fully reconstructible, in a wine cellar in the Viennese suburb of Grinzing, whose history goes back to the middle of the fourteenth century and which was apparently frequented regularly by clerical scribes of all nations on evenings that they wanted to spend away from the vigilant eyes of their superiors at the nearby monastery of Klosterneuburg in lower Austria.

The text below is therefore dedicated to Ádám Nádasdy, to whom the editor is indebted for both the friendship and the scholarly advice and inspiration he has received from him. It represents the first more or less diplomatic and only slightly normalised edition of a truly remarkable finding. Needless to say, the work from which it stems is a work of fiction, so that any similarities to actual persons, historical or not, are purely coincidental.

Ad multos annos, Ádám! It is a pleasure and an honour to count as your friend and colleague.


Fragment, ms. Nylon Attila. Folios 7–9, ll. 1–124. Canterbury Tales, General Prologue.

A clerk there was in oure companie,
who saide that he was from Hungarie.
It was ful wondrous that he with us rode,
He spaak of thinges straunge and, sum said, wode.
5 Yf I most tellen of the words he spake
I know for certaine that ye shall me take
for gossip and for foole for that I selle
for truth what every sane wight can telle
can never been but false phantasie,
10 and that I clepe a tale what is a lie.
For whan I asked him how fer he had
travailled to been with us he grew all sad
and answered six hundred yeers and more.
I laughed and said I knew nat any shore
15 that can nat reached been within a yeere
or in twa yeeres at the verray most
and only if ones path hath oft been lost,
and also after three score yeers and ten
to everichoon the time arriveth when
20 our sawles muste nedes passen from this world
if bald we been or weren our haires curled.
For short, I told him that it can nat be
that he hath been six hundred yeers at sea.
His answer was – it maad ne sense nor rime –
25 that he hadde ridden nat through space but time,
and that in yeares can be mesured space,
for in a yeer the light we seen doth race
both to the moon and back and to the sunne
so that before a yeares time is runne
30 the light hath past a verray long distaunce
and that for diverse causes then perchaunce
this meant that time and space been all the same
and that he from another time came.
His professioun he said was historie,
35 and he must alway seen with his own ye
what happened hath in times longe paste
wherefore he seeks them out, if his health laste.
His creed was that he was empiricall,
he gave no heed to Eve nor to the fall
40 of mannes kin from Goddes paradise.
His raison was he used his expertise
to gathren and to taken with him hence
Such thinges as which he cleped evidence,
Which – so he spaak – must been observed well,
45 and he hath never yet seen either hell
or paradis in all his pilgrimages
thurgh time to the first of all our ages.
I can nat tellen well all that I thoughte
abute the stories that this clerk had wroughte.
50 I held them all for fantasies or dremes
for they were different from any memes
that stayen fast in sounde mannes minde,
but natheless it liked me to finde
what thinges else this clerk me tellen could
55 if that I lat him speke and if he would.
Especially, I hoped he would of dere
that we no longer seen but erest were
me tellen or of monstres strong and straunge,
or else of hoardes hidden deep in erthe
60 by olde kinges long bifor our berthe
so that they may been found and dug all out
and we can spend those riches all about
on newe clothes, wine and also food,
or on what elles groweth in our mood.
65 But to all this he payede no hede,
he said he travailled time foremost to rede
in olde bookes and to here olde speech,
he was a true philologist, so theech.
He luved old wordes and what they had ment
70 er that their soundes to his time were sent.
Conversely, he liked to know what sound
in older shapes of spoken words was found
whose sense had chaunged lyttel or not much
in their usage in later ages. Such
75 were the thinges he worked hard to lerne
and that were his most serious concerne.
And thus was his responsibilitee
to travail back in time and to see
what was the vraie usage of olde tunge
80 how that it spoken was or also sunge.
He did all this for verrai trewthes sake
and liked nought histories that were fake,
and maad right up for politick raisouns
to maken folk believe in naciouns
85 discrete one of that other in hir race
eche with hir owne tunge and hir own place,
religioun and separate culture
and stubburn prid of which there is no cure.
Such false histories, that clerke felte,
90 made peple act as sheep, whose white pelte
maketh hem think that they are all the same,
and maketh eche of hem both dull and tame,
and maketh eche thinken as that other doth,
before they are all shoren for hir cloth,
95 or slaughtred to been eaten as moutons.
That maketh false bileef in naciouns.
And swich misfortune wolde he prevente
and therefore on his pilgrimages wente
to bringen home with him the righte lore
100 of how that lede spaken long bifore,
and what hir verrai thoughtes were like,
and what hir wordes tellen of hir psyche.
And all he found he went to teche in schole,
and was revered for that and cleped coole.
105 Also he used his knowledge to that ende,
that olde playes wordes he could wende
into his owne tongue and of his lede,
so that hir sense could trewely be rede
and rendred trewely on sundry stage,
110 and been well liked in his owne age.
All this he told us as we rode our waye,
and made me wonder what I shoulde saye
and if that I should ask him for a tale,
and in what sense that tale would be reale,
115 and cam to be confused in mine thought
through what his clerk hadde in mine minde wrought,
as soudainlie he vanished in aire
with flash of lightning that maad all min haire
stand all upright – I knew nat how that came,
120 nor what my gender was nor what my name.
That clerk was gone and namoore to be seen,
and noon of us could say what he had been,
or if he was a ghost or phantasie,
or if his name was trewely Nadasdie.

Vienna, October 2016