Illustrated English Social History - Vol. 1

By G. M. Trevelyan | Go to book overview

Chapter One
CHAUCER'S ENGLAND (1340-1400)

1. Field, Village and Manor House

IN Chaucer's England we see for the first time the modern mingling with the mediaeval, and England herself beginning to emerge as a distinct nation, no longer a mere oversea extension of Franco-Latin Europe. The poet's own works register the greatest modern fact of all, the birth and general acceptance of our language, the Saxon and French words happily blended at last into 'English tongue' which 'all understanden,' and which is therefore coming into use as the vehicle of school teaching and of legal proceedings. There were indeed various provincial dialects of English, besides the totally distinct Welsh and Cornish. And some classes of society had a second language: the more learned of the clergy had Latin, and the courtiers and well-born had French, no longer indeed their childhood's tongue but a foreign speech to be learnt

'after the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe.'1

Chaucer, who spent long hours of his busy day in Court circles, had the culture of mediaeval France at his fingers' ends: when therefore he set the pattern of modern English poetry for centuries to come, he set it in forms and metres derived from France and Italy, in both of which countries he had travelled several times on business of State. None the less he struck a new English note. It was he who, in the Canterbury Tales, gave the first full expression of 'the English sense of humour,' one quarter cynical and three

1

____________________
1

'Some can French and no Latin
That have used courts and dwelled therein:
And some can of Latin a party
That can French full febelly:
And some understandeth English
That neither can Latin nor French:
But lerid and lewid [learned and ignorant], old and young
All understanden English tongue.'

So, in Chaucer's day, wrote William Nassyngton.

-1-

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