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On this day in history in 1397, Geoffrey Chaucer first recounted The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer was a civil servant who introduced English as the language of the court, by writing literature in the vernacular.
Geoffrey Chaucer was born in 1342 or 1343, at London, the son of a vintner to the king. The family had been in royal service for four generations. The original Chaucers were French, their name was Chaussier, shoemaker, and they continued to speak French, even after a century of residence in England. In those days, French was the language of the ruling class, aristocrats being descended from the Normans who had conquered England in 1066. English was spoken by the peasantry and the working people, while the middle class usually spoke both languages. Anyone who wanted to make social advancement had to speak French, and the English language was dying out. The young Chaucer, born to a French speaking royal attendant, was to reverse the decline of English, and work such changes that would lead to the expunging of the French language from English society.
Records show that in 1357, Chaucer was employed at court, in the service of one of Edward IIIís sons, Prince Lionel. By 1359, he was employed in the kingís army in Rheims, taking part in the Hundred Years War, and in 1360, he became involved in protracted peace negotiations, on behalf of the king, with the French army. We know that he was involved in diplomatic missions to European cities. When at Florence, he read the works of the Italian author Boccaccio, who wrote simple but poignant stories, and preferred to use the Italian language, the speech of the country people, rather than Latin, the language of choice for the gentry.
Influenced by Boccaccio, Chaucer started to write in English. He first wrote The Parlement of Foules, an allegorical tale, in which various species of birds, representative of a variety of human characters, voice their respective opinions and vent their anger on one another. He also began work on The Canterbury Tales, a series of concise yarns, narrated by a variety of individuals from different walks of life. The Tales are down to earth stories about the lives of the aristocracy, the gentry, the middle class and the working class. The stories are about England and they stress the unity of the English state and people. They are written in English, the language of the peasants, and certain words, including the word Ďarseí, occur more often than would be expected for a polite language.
Chaucer seems to have written The Tales in the hope of having English accepted as a courtly language. On 17th April 1397, he was given the privilege of reciting his own works before the ladies and gentlemen of the court. In those days, public entertainment consisted of a reader, reciting works from a book. Although readers were scarce and books scarcer still, the king could always afford to pay for a narrator to read at his court.
From the moment that Chaucer read out his works, the use of English expanded and continued to grow. Court papers were written in English, and gentlemen at court began to use English amongst themselves and in communications with the king. Lawyers and judges dispensed with Norman French, the usual language of law, and started writing their judgements in English. Much of the increase in the use of English was fuelled by anti-French sentiment. England was theoretically at war with France, fighting the Hundred Years War, although there was not a great deal of fighting taking place. The French king, Charles VI, had ordered all English nobles who had estates in France, to surrender their land in England and return to France, or to forfeit their French holdings. Any noble who had given up his French lands, for the sake of his English possessions, would naturally now consider himself to be English.
By the time Henry IV came to the throne in 1399, English had become so customary that no-one was surprised when he became the first king to take his Coronation Oath in English. In so doing, he settled the fate of French in England. The French language withered and died and English became the norm.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Penguin Classics.
Boitani, Piero. The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer. Paperback.
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