I can handle ME fairly well, but that’s largely because I am fairly fluent in German. I also took a course in ME grammar as an undergraduate. The -en endings on plural verbs, the y- prefixes on past participles sound much less strange when you know another Germanic language. Knowledge of sound shifts is also helpful; ME -lwe --> NE llow, so I suspect that ferne halwes probably means hallows, i.e. “distant sacred places”. Ferne I know from German fern, meaning far.
And eek? What is that? I don’t see anything about mice here, nor women standing on chairs in 1960s sitcoms. Well, of course, I know what eek means, but only as part of something I learned during years at the university, when I ought to have been majoring in business or computer scienced, or some other practical endeavor.
No, I’d say absent extensive preparation, the average reader can get only the vaguest notion of what’s happening here. Yes, it’s springtime, and folks are down with the pilgrimage thing, but most of the details in this passage would escape such a reader.
In learning German, I noticed that German, like ME retains the use of reflexive pronouns. In modern english, this is quaint and old-fashioned and used only to prevent confusion. In German: Ich badete mich. [I bathed myself.] In Modern English: I bathed.
Which is probably why he wasn’t involved in the composition of the KJV (which was published in 1611, at the tail end of Shakespeare’s career). Shakespeare, after all (though he’d certainly done some “respectable” narrative poetry) was a playwright and actor, and this wasn’t really a highly-regarded field at the turn of the seventeenth century. Granted, actors (and other theater people) were by this point an upwardly mobile class, and during the Stuart period the ties between court and theater became fairly strong, but it would have been highly unusual to include a playwright in the group you’ve got translating the Bible.
In re Middle English pronunciation, I’ve heard that listening to it actually makes it easier to understand (and I heard a conference paper this weekend making the same point). To that end, here’s what the bit of Chaucer posted by John Mace (plus a bit more) sounds like: Canterbury Tales opening lines
Obviously this is just approximated pronunciation, but it’s how they teach you to do it if you study ME.
There certainly were many words that were like standard German today. Even Shakespeare still wrote nim (steal or take, like Ger. nehmen). Chaucer has a shipman woning fer by weste; ME woning (living [in a place]) is much like Ger. wohnen. Presumably it was distinguished from live meaning “to be alive”.
Interestingly, both these ME words were supplanted not by French expressions, but by other words of Germanic origin; Scandinavian in the case of take, and another AS word in the case of live.
Two of the Tales – Chaucer’s own tale of Melibee, and the Parson’s Tale (which is really more of a sermon). These are the ones that nobody ever reads – my undergrad Chaucer course was unusual in that we had to read Melibee in its entirety, an experience which made it clear to me why it’s not taught much. Chaucer also did a translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, which is likewise in prose.