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HITHERTO Such English writers as we have met with since the Conquest have generally appeared in the humble guise of translators or imitators. In the period before us we at last meet with original invention applied on a large scale: this, therefore, is the point at which English literature takes its true commencement.

The Latin and French compositions, which engaged so much of our attention in the previous period, may in this be disposed of in a few words. That Englishmen still continued to write French poetry, we have the proof in many unprinted poems by Gower, and might also infer from a passage, often quoted, in the prologue to Chaucer's Testament of Love. But few such pieces are of sufficient merit to bear printing. In French prose scarcely anything can be mentioned besides the despatches, treaties, &c., contained in Rymer's Fodera and similar compilations, and the original draft of Sir John Mandevile's Travels in the Holy Land. Froissart's famous Chronicle may, indeed, almost be considered as belonging to us, since it treats principally of English feats of arms, and its author held a post in the court of Edward III. Of Latin poetry we have hardly a single specimen. In Latin prose, we have a version, made by himself, of Mandevile's Travels, and the chroniclers, Robert de Avesbury, William Knyghton, Ralph Higden, and John Fordun. In theology and philosophy, original speculation appeared no more; comments on the Liber Sententiarum and the Summa of St. Thomas, besides a number of theological tracts, chiefly devotional, were all that this period produced.


The obvious cause of the decline of French and Latin composition in England was the growing prevalence, social and literary, of the native speech. To this many circumstances contributed. The gradual consolidation of nationalities, which had long been making steady progress throughout Europe, had been constantly drawing the Norman barons and the English commonalty closer together, and separating both from the rival nationality of France. Nor had the nation at any time lost, so to speak, its personal identity it was England for which the Norman Richard fought at Acre; and even William of Malmesbury, writing not a hundred years after the Conquest, speaks of that event rather as a change of dynasty occurring in English history, than as of a complete social revolution. The influence of the Church must have pressed powerfully in the same direction. Though the Conqueror filled nearly all the sees with Normans, it was not long before native Englishmen, through that noble respect for and recognition of human equality which were maintained in the midst of feudalism by the Church of the Middle Ages, obtained a fair proportion of them. The political and official power of bishops in those days was great, and the native tongue of an English Archbishop of Canterbury could not, even by the proud Norman barons, his compeers in Parliament, be treated with disrespect. Again, since 1340, England and France had been constantly at war: in this war the English-speaking archers, not the Frenchspeaking barons, had won the chief laurels; and the tongue of a humbled beaten enemy was likely to be less attractive to the mass of Englishmen than ever. The well-known law of Edward III., passed in 1362, directing the English language to be used thenceforward in judicial pleadings, was merely an effect of the slow but resistless. operation of these and other cognate causes. Again, it must not be lost sight of, that a sort of tacit compromise passed between the English and French-speaking por

tions of the population: the former were to retain the entire grammar so much, at least, as was left of itof the native speech; all the conjunctions, prepositions, and pronouns, the osseous structure, so to speak, of the language, were to be English; while, in return, the Normans were to be at liberty to import French nouns, adjectives, and verbs at discretion, without troubling themselves to hunt for the corresponding terms in the old literary Anglo-Saxon. Finally, this English language, so re-cast, became in the fourteenth century the chosen instrument of thought and expression for a great poet; and, after Chaucer, no Englishman could feel ashamed of his native tongue, nor doubt of its boundless capabilities.

Of the parentage of Geoffrey Chaucer nothing is known, but we have his own word for it* that London was the

place of his birth. The year seems to have been 1328†, that in which Edward III. married Philippa of Hainault. Leland, writing in the time of Henry VIII., says that he was "nobili loco natus," but he gives no authority for the statement. Godwin's supposition, founded upon a number of minute allusions scattered through his works, that his father was a merchant, or burgess of London, seems to be much more probable.

That he was educated at a university is certain, but whether at Oxford or Cambridge is not so clear. There is a passage in the Court of Love, line 912,

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which seems to tell in favour of Cambridge. On the other hand, it is known that his most intimate friends and disciples, Gower, Strode, and Occleve, were Oxford men. In

* In the Testament of Love.

†This, however, is merely a conjecture of Speght (writing in 1597) coupling the date-1400-on the tombstone with Leland's assertion that he lived to the "period of grey hairs."

1359 he served in the great army of invasion which Edward III. led over into France. In the course of this bootless expedition Chaucer was taken prisoner, but seems to have been released at the peace of Bretigny, in 1360. His marriage with Philippa Rouet is thought to have taken place in the same year. This lady was a native of Hainault, and maid of honour to Queen Philippa. Her sister Catherine was the third wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. These circumstances readily explain Chaucer's long and close connection with the court, commencing with the year 1367, when the king granted him a pension of twenty marks for life, under the designation of "dilectus valettus noster." His prudence and practical wisdom seem to have been as conspicuous as his more brilliant gifts, since he was at various times employed by the king on important diplomatic missions. One of these took him to Italy in 1373, in which year he is thought with the highest probability to have become acquainted with Petrarch, who was then living at Arqua, near Padua. What other sense can be attached to the famous passage in the prologue to the Clerk's Tale?

"I wil you telle a tale, which that I
Lerned at Padowe of a worthy clerk,
As proved by his wordes and his werk;
He is now dead, and nayled in his chest,
Now God give his soule wel good rest!

Fraunces Petrark, the laureat poete,

Highte this clerk, whose rhetorike swete
Enlumynd all Ytail of poetrie,

As Linian did of philosophie."

Petrarch died in 1374, so that the acquaintance could. not have been formed at the time of Chaucer's second visit to Italy, in 1378.

In 1374 Chaucer was appointed to the lucrative office of Comptroller of the Customs in the port of London. About the time of the king's death, in 1377, he was employed on

more than one secret and delicate mission, of one of which the object was to negotiate the marriage of Richard II. with a French princess. The new king granted him a second pension of the same amount as the first. In 1386 he sat as a burgess for the county of Kent in the parliament which met at Westminster. John of Gaunt, his friend and patron, was at this time absent upon an expedition to Portugal; and the Duke of Gloucester, another of the king's uncles, a man of cruel and violent character, succeeded in this parliament in driving the king's friends out of office, and engrossing all political power in the hands of himself and his party. In November of the same year a commission was appointed, through the Duke's influence, armed with general and highly inquisitorial powers extending over the royal household and all the public departments. In December we find that Chaucer was dismissed from his office as comptroller. It is evident that these two circumstances stand to each other in the relation of cause and effect. The commission may perhaps have seized upon the pretext of some official irregularities (for Chaucer received the appointment under stringent conditions), but it is clear that he suffered in common with the rest of the king's friends and favourites, not on account of his "connection with the Duke of Lancaster," but simply as a courtier.* This view of the matter is confirmed by the fact that in 1389, in which year Richard broke loose from his uncle's tutelage and dismissed him and his satellites, we find that Chaucer was appointed to the office of Clerk of the King's Works. In the interval he had been reduced to such distress as to be compelled to dispose of his pensions. From some unascertained cause he ceased to hold this new situation some time in the year 1391. Three years afterwards the king conferred on him a fresh pension of twenty pounds a year for life, to which

* Mr. Bell, in the Life prefixed to his excellent edition of Chaucer, seems to have misapprehended this transaction.


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