It may come as a surprise to learn that 14th-century labourers digging ditches in London whiled away the long hours by singing in French. This at least is the claim of the contemporary poet William Langland in his Piers Plowman. Along with the cries of cooks shouting “Hote pies, hote!” and of inn-keepers talking up their white and red wines, Langland describes:


“…dykeres and delveres that doon hire dedes ille
And dryveth forth the longe day with
‘Dieu vous save Dame Emme!’”
[Ditchers and diggers that did their work poorly
passed the long day with
‘God save you Dame Emma!’]

If a medieval workman were to sing, would he not sing in English? Langland’s casual reference here to a French refrain in the mouths of some not very industrious workmen is an indication of how entangled the linguistic situation in England was in the later medieval period.

It also points to ways in which the traditional narrative about English and Englishness needs revising. In this account, the ‘triumph of English’ takes place in the late 14th century, largely through the brilliant poetic efforts of Geoffrey Chaucer and helped on by thunderous English defeats of the French in the Hundred Years’ War under Henry V. Latin was important in the Middle Ages, and the Norman conquest brought an influx of French aristocrats, soldiers and words over the Channel, but the English fought through both forms of linguistic oppression and refound an English national and linguistic identity that flowered fully in the time of the Tudors and Shakespeare.

New research is offering a different perspective. The extraordinary dominance of English now as a world language has made it hard to appreciate that its status in the medieval period was very low. Not only was English just one of three languages used in England before the 15th century, it was not the major one. For although it was of course the most widely used spoken language, English fell far short of Latin and French as a written language.

Before the 15th century, the overwhelming majority of books in England (among the small elite who owned them) were in Latin and French. Being taught to read and write in England meant being taught to read and write Latin, not English. French came second to Latin in importance and prestige. As for English, it did not appear in dictionaries and grammars of English before the c17th century – though the highly educated and nobly-born probably began to learn Latin and to a lesser extent French through the medium of English from the later 14th century. English was widely used but little valued.

At first sight, this makes it all the more likely that Langland’s labourers would use English. That their song is French suggests that French (at least in London) was neither as defunct nor as confined to the upper ranks of society as we might think. Perhaps more significantly, Langland makes us realise that the speech world even of an uneducated medieval urban worker was not straightforwardly or narrowly English. English was far from the only vernacular in the urban linguistic mix, and was used in a soundscape that rang with many other vernaculars. Much other evidence, non-fictional as well as fictional, confirms that London was richly, even confusingly, multilingual (as it is today).

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There were many reasons for this, of which the most important were trade, ecclesiastical networks, and war. Situated on a major river, and at the heart of a road system developed by the Romans, London boasted good links to Devon, Norwich, York and well beyond. Internationally, traders travelled to and from the Low Countries, France, Italy and Spain and also much further afield to Bavaria, Constantinople, the Baltic ports and even Africa.

Mercantile circles in London were thus a mêlée of languages: varieties of French from all over the French-speaking regions of the continent including the Savoy and the southern Mediterranean; Italian dialects, especially Genoese, Milanese and Tuscan; plus varieties of German or Dutch, Castilian, Czech and Norwegian.

We get glimpses of this wide range of trading cultures from a variety of sources: customs accounts, individual and company accounting records, guild returns, law claims and petitions.

Ecclesiastical networks also generated cross-lingual communication, especially lower down the church hierarchy. Langland’s Piers Plowman is a prime example of this, switching, as it does, between English and Latin with occasional French. Several of Chaucer’s characters in The Canterbury Tales, such as the Summoner, the Pardoner, and the Wife of Bath, drop in snatches of Latin or French with an ease that speaks loudly of their loosely plurilingual social and professional environment.

Linguistic variety

War, like trade, was instrumental in creating a great deal of movement between professional individuals who formed cross-Channel diplomatic, military and legal networks that were dominated again by Latin and French but also coloured by local linguistic variety.

Formal written records, especially legal documents, may have been written in Latin and French, yet as recent research has shown, the language of business survives in intriguingly inter-lingual forms, where Latin grammar provides a kind of framework for a slippery mixture of Latin, French and English. This teaches us that medieval language, especially in the fast-moving environment of a large city, did not fall neatly into discrete categories. Pressures to communicate meant that people used whatever linguistic means were effective to conduct their business.

We are familiar with such a situation in many modern cities: the bias towards Latin in medieval education gave vernacular mixing particular freedom since in a pre-dictionary age the notion that one was speaking ‘French’ or ‘English’ was much less systematically defined. In Langland’s poems, is the word ‘save’ written in English or French (sauve)?

This linguistic situation had important consequences for an individual’s sense of identity. Language is not, of course, the only marker of national identity, but it is widely recognised to be a crucial factor. The presence of French as England’s high-status vernacular since the Norman conquest strongly affected relationships between England and France in subsequent centuries. It encompassed familial, political and landed ties – from the highest aristocratic levels to much humbler clerical, mercantile and mercenary circles. And, just as significantly, the sharing of French between the social and educated elite prevented any simple sense of social or political opposition from developing.

Evidence abounds of individuals whose identities and sympathies straddled both cultures. Simon Pouillet, a rich burgess of Compiègne then living in Paris, was brutally executed in July 1346 for declaring that “the right to the kingdom belonged more to Edward, king of England, than to Philippe de Valois”. The property of a French woman and her son was confiscated by the French crown when she went to live in England with her second husband, the English knight Hugh Scot. Maud, the Comtesse de St-Pol, was born to Joan of Kent and Thomas Holand. Maud de Holand married first an English knight, Hugh de Courtenay. But then, after his death, she fell in love with a French soldier who had fought bitterly and with great gallantry against the English – just as her own father had fought against the French. So where does Geoffrey Chaucer fit into this picture?

As a Londoner (he was born c1340 with both sides of his family prosperous London vintners), he would have experienced this cultural and linguistic blend at first hand. He entered courtly service as a pageboy, and married a French-speaking lady-in-waiting from Hainaut. As a result, his personal and linguistic alliances were extensive and cut across courtly and business worlds.

Chaucer spent around five years in the household of Prince Lionel (King Edward III’s second surviving son), and then moved up to the king’s household, where he received his first life annuity instalment in 1367. With Lionel he saw his first bout of military service in the Hundred Years’ War, and also began a subsidiary role as envoy and diplomat which he was to continue first under Edward’s, and later Richard II’s patronage.

From 1374 Chaucer returned to the world of finance by being appointed customs controller. Based in an apartment over Aldgate, his years in the City were followed by further roles: justice of peace, member of parliament for Kent, clerk of the king’s works, and deputy forester in Somerset. At the end of his life he returned to Westminster where he died in the precincts of the Abbey.

Chaucer’s career experiences were thus richly diverse but also overlapping: during his time as customs controller, for example, he was simultaneously engaged in managing the often tensely political aspirations of wealthy London merchants and in fulfilling his duties as a courtly negotiator on many trips abroad to France and two to Italy. We know from his contacts and his writings that he knew Genoese and Tuscan as well as French and Latin: he makes many references to Flemish and sets his stories in locations with which he was personally familiar, such as Lombardy, Bretagne, Flanders, St Denis, Pavia, Rome and Navarre.

Chaucer was in that sense a true Londoner of a reasonably affluent type: well travelled, professional, operating across a broad range of cultures, able to survive linguistically and socially in quite disparate contexts.

All of this must be grasped if we are to make sense of his writings. The mythology of Chaucer as ‘Father of English’ has encouraged an idea about Englishness and his role in promoting it that probably bears little relation to what he or his contemporaries thought. His decision to write exclusively in English was indeed unusual. His contemporary John Gower wrote three massive works in Latin, French and English respectively. Langland, as we have seen, wrote one long work in English, but this was shot through with Latin and occasional French.

Military service

But Chaucer’s use of English was not aggressively anti-French. It was subtle, international, inflected by the sounds and meanings of the fascinating conglomeration of vernaculars he heard around him. He made English successful because he made it urban and international. Looking beyond English shores to the achievements of Guillaume de Machaut and Jean Froissart, to Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio, he gave English literary range, and a relationship with the classical authors of Ovid, Virgil and Cicero. For Chaucer and his European contemporaries, French was the language that defined vernacular poetic authority, and the closer that English came to translating that model of authority for itself, the more it proved capable of being admired.

But international admiration happened slowly. There survives just one record of a non-English contemporary writer who read Chaucer. This was the French poet-soldier Eustache Deschamps, who praised Chaucer merely for his skills as a translator from French. Just as the English relinquished their claims on France with huge dragging reluctance (France was not dropped from English royal titles until 1801), so their language remained deep in France’s shadow.

When Victorian scholars first turned Chaucer and Shakespeare into the great writers of their own image, they turned them into newly articulate spokesmen for an English that ruled the world. In a post-Victorian age, even perhaps a post-national one, we can learn from Chaucer’s desire to create an English that could communicate internationally and throughout literary history, but without the pretensions of domination.

Ardis Butterfield is professor of English at UCL. She is the author of a biography called Chaucer: A London Life (IB Tauris).

How to translate Chaucer into modern English

Middle English existed in a variety of dialects. Luckily for Chaucer the dialect in which his works were copied was the direct ancestor of modern English, which makes many of its features familiar. The main differences concern some grammatical endings, spellings, word order and semantics.

The grammar is quickly learnt: for instance, infinitive endings in verbs often end in ‘n’, as in the start of The Canterbury Tales: “Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages”, or common words like ‘doon’, ‘seyn’ and ‘knowen’.

Spellings vary greatly. It often helps to think laterally and remove or add an ‘o’, an ‘e’ or a ‘u’ (so ‘trouthe’ becomes truth), substitute an ‘i’ for a ‘y’ (so ‘wyf’ becomes wife) and a ‘u’ for a ‘w’ (so floures becomes flowers) and so on. Word order, and indeed syntax, can be unusual from a modern perspective, especially in rhymed poetry. “A knyght ther was” needs mentally rearranging to “There was a knight”… Some vocabulary needs learning, as in any language: ‘swithe’ means quickly, ‘ek’ means also. Others can be puzzled out, crossword-style: ‘ryve’ means stab (modern English riven), ‘orisonte’ horizon, ‘twynne’ separate.

More tricky are the words that look the same but have changed in meaning: ‘nice’ means foolish, ‘sely’ means innocent or naïve, ‘do’ means make or put (among other things). But many lines speak aloud now just as they did then: “I am myn owene woman, wel at ese.”

Chaucer’s best works

Chaucer is most celebrated in modern times for his Canterbury Tales, but let me start with some lesser-known but brilliant works.

Perhaps his earliest narrative poem is the Book of the Duchess, an elegy in the form of a dream. It has coded references to John of Gaunt and mourns the death of the beautiful lady White (Gaunt’s first wife was Blanche of Lancaster). With extraordinary delicacy it explores the speechlessness of grief using glowing paradisal images, a muffled, painful song and a stuttering, awkward narrator who helps the mourning knight to release his memories of love through eloquent poetry.

On a much larger scale, his epic work The Book of Troilus ranks as perhaps the greatest love poem ever written in English. In five books and against the backdrop of the Trojan war, it traces the encounter, high rapture and bitter decline of the love affair between the classical lovers Troilus and Criseyde. Separated by the forces of war, Criseyde eventually betrays Troilus for the Greek Diomede. Troilus, in desperation, hurls himself into battle and dies. Chaucer creates a story that probes deeply into the nature of love and betrayal, showing through understated but profound philosophical questioning how desire and free will collide, as much in a Christian world as a pagan one.

His Canterbury Tales collects together 24 narratives with a General Prologue and an epilogue or Retraction. The framework is a pilgrimage to Canterbury undertaken by a group of pilgrims who meet by chance at an inn in Southwark. They agree to tell stories to pass the journey and that the one judged to have told the best will get a free dinner paid for by the others.

The General Prologue has shaped much subsequent English writing from Dryden to TS Eliot. Its opening lines sketch out the longings associated with spring for a new life and a chance to break out and transform oneself both socially and spiritually. This exuberant breath of hope modulates into an exquisitely comic, often acerbically deadpan view of human professional types – secular and religious, higher and lower born – as each member of the pilgrim company is surveyed.

Two of them, the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner, are given narratives that have unforgettable vitality and perversity. Both of them speak about themselves at length even before their tales. The Wife shatters modern conceptions of how women were viewed in the Middle Ages through the astonishingly bold manoeuvre on Chaucer’s part of allowing her to enact all the mannerisms that were the standard terms of clerical misogyny. She has had five husbands, is loud, unremittingly garrulous, illogical, repetitive and cruel in her delight at sexually tormenting her elderly spouses. Yet the sophistication of her misquotations of biblical and patristic writings and the brilliance of Chaucer’s evocation of an utterly engaging female voice gives her performance the kind of literary power that her characterisation ought to make impossible.

The Pardoner’s performance is also twistingly clever. A blatant imposter, he sells fake pardons and relics, allegedly from the papal court at Rome, to the gullible public, whipping them up into a frenzy of fear by his hellfire sermons and then pocketing their money. This he fully explains, with sly hilarity, only then to deliver a sermon of frighteningly effective moral weight about death and greed. His self-exposure, again conducted through the choicest rhetoric, stings an audience out of its cynicism by the devastating accuracy of its portrayal of human amorality.


This article was first published in the December 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine