Henry of Lancaster and Geoffrey Chaucer: Anglo-French and Middle English in Fourteenth-Century England

By Rothwell, W. | The Modern Language Review, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Henry of Lancaster and Geoffrey Chaucer: Anglo-French and Middle English in Fourteenth-Century England


Rothwell, W., The Modern Language Review


The study of Middle English and that of medieval English history need to take account of the trilingual character of the civilization of medieval England, especially the pervading influence of Anglo-French between 1066 and about 1450. Specialists in medieval French have failed to offer their colleagues dealing with English a coherent and comprehensible picture of this Anglo-French element, on account of their traditional concentration on the questionable phonological aspect of its limited early literary legacy to the detriment of the lexis and semantics of the much greater mass of non-literary texts from the later period. The lives and works of Lancaster and Chaucer embody the need to redress this imbalance.

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Traditionally, these two famous historical characters from the middle and later fourteenth century belong to different and separate spheres, Henry of Lancaster to medieval English history and Geoffrey Chaucer to medieval English literature. They are near-contemporaries, Lancaster being about thirty years older than Chaucer, so their periods of activity overlap to a certain degree, but this is as far as the comparisons between them usually go. The medieval historian will know about the chivalrous exploits of Lancaster on the battlefields of France in the Hundred Years War and the medieval English scholar will not be unaware that Chaucer's English has a French content, but both are accustomed to stay within the confines of their respective disciplines, in which French is regarded as no more than a marginal and often troublesome extraneous element, rather than as an integral component of the intellectual fabric of the medieval England in which their speciality is located. Yet, in fact, French played a major role in the lives of both Lancaster and Chaucer, at once linking and separating them. In a sense they are two sides of the same French coin. That this situation has not been explored up to the present time is to be attributed in large measure to a third group of scholars, those dealing with medieval French. Like the historians and the Anglicists, these too remain within the confines of their speciality, where for many decades the Anglo-French of later medieval England has been regarded as so degenerate as to be unworthy of serious study. In fact, however, the volume of writings in this form of French, made up of thousands of pages of official documents of a broadly administrative nature stemming from governmental and municipal bodies, covering the reigns of several kings, together with a mass of legal reports from the royal courts of justice extending over many decades and an abundance of records dealing with trade and commerce, not to mention a wide range of medical and other technical works, vastly outweighs the relatively small number of earlier insular texts, largely of fiction, judged to be more linguistically 'correct'. The lack of consideration shown to all this later material by scholars dealing with medieval French leaves an important linguistic gap between medieval English history and medieval English literature, a gap which conceals the links between Lancaster and Chaucer.

This failure on the part of their colleagues specializing in medieval French to provide historians and Anglicists with any broad understanding of the nature, role, and influence of later Anglo-French has resulted in the conventional assessments of these prominent figures, in which Lancaster is enshrined as the English epitome of the dashing medieval knight and Chaucer as the 'father' of English literature, being less than complete in one important regard. They fail to take account of the French civilization that formed the cultural background of all the principal groups who wielded power and influence in the English society of the fourteenth century. In all the literate sections of the community French played a major role, being used right down to the level of personal communications among native English speakers. …

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