T.F. Tout (1855-1929), educated at Balliol College, Oxford, was Professor of History at Manchester University, 1890-1925. His main professional concern was the history of medieval English administration, which enabled him to focus on Chaucer’s professional career with an historian’s appropriate scepticism. Chaucer’s position as a courtier in a relatively mobile society is emphasised. Reprinted from ‘Speculum’ IV (1929), pp. 368-71, 379-88, by permission of the Editor.
(p. 368) My chief thesis to-day is that an appreciable proportion of fourteenth-century English literature came from the civil servants of the state. By English literature I mean books written by Englishmen, in whatever tongue they were written, it being understood that most books made in England were then written in Latin, some in French, and some in English. To write good books in any tongue involves a good education, and I may perhaps begin with a few words about the education of the civil servant of the Middle Ages. That he was a fairly well educated man is clear from his works. He had, for example, to have a reading and writing knowledge of three languages. Assuming English to be his mother tongue (an assumption not always warranted in the fourteenth century), his official vernacular was certainly French until the very end of the period, and his official communications, so far as they were formal, were generally made in Latin, though again, as the century grew older, the official language became to an increasing extent French. To this we must add a wide acquaintance with official forms and precedents, the traditions of his office, the corresponding formalities and traditions of foreign courts and offices, skill in the art of dictamen or literary composition and form, and a good knowledge of law, municipal, civil, and ecclesiastical. How was all this knowledge obtained? Mainly, I feel convinced, by apprenticeship under a master, the method in which all knowledge was acquired in the Middle Ages. The junior official copied forms under direction, until he was skillful enough to write them on his own responsibility. Ultimately he became in his turn, the master, that is, the instructor and