Geoffrey Chaucer, often termed the father of English literature, began his career in an Irish household. And, while Chaucer had to work hard to establish English as a literary language in a context in which French and Latin were the prestigious tongues, his employer, Lionel, governor of Ireland, implemented the Statutes of Kilkenny, laws that established a linguistic hierarchy in Ireland – with English very much on top.
Chaucer’s first employers were Elizabeth de Burgh and Lionel of Antwerp, later known as the Duke of Clarence. Elizabeth, countess of Ulster, was born at Carrickfergus Castle near Belfast. Chaucer worked first for Elizabeth, as a page, when he was a teenager, and documents show that she dressed him in provocatively tight stockings and short tunics. He then also worked for Lionel (son of Edward III), accompanying him to fight in France in 1359-60, where Chaucer was captured and ransomed. Lionel became governor of Ireland in 1361, and implemented the notorious Statutes of Kilkenny a few years later. Lionel’s years in Ireland coincide with Chaucer’s “lost years” – he may have spent some time in Ireland at this point, but we cannot say for sure.
Both Chaucer and Lionel were intensely concerned with the status of English, but in markedly different ways. Across Europe, there was a growing interest in vernacular languages, as opposed to Latin. In Italy, for instance, poets such as Dante and Boccaccio wrote their great poems in Tuscan, making literature more accessible to ordinary people. At the same time, tyrants such as the Visconti (with whom Chaucer negotiated in 1378 in Lombardy) used a particular dialect (again Tuscan) to assert their dominance over other local languages, such as Lombard. Vernaculars, then, could be used for very different purposes.
Chaucer and Lionel’s attitudes demonstrate the different status that English had in England and Ireland. Chaucer chose to use English because it was accessible to people of a greater range of social classes and to women, because it allowed more people a voice. It also enabled him to innovate, to craft new poetic forms and discourses in a language that was used far less for poetry than French or Latin. Lionel wanted to use English in order to divide people, to alienate and exclude indigenous people, and to give a voice only to the powerful.
The Statutes of Kilkenny sought to separate the Anglo-Irish/English from the Irish entirely: they banned the English from marrying Irish men or women, or adopting Irish children, or trading horses with the Irish, or using Irish names, or wearing Irish fashions. Crucially, the statutes also banned the descendants of English settlers from using the Irish language. Moreover, the Irish who were living among the English were banned from speaking their own language, and ordered to speak only English on pain of losing all their lands and possessions.
Chaucer lived and wrote at a time when English colonialism was a priority for the monarchy
Throughout Chaucer’s lifetime, the English kings increased their interest in controlling Ireland. For Richard II (who reigned 1377-1399) this was part of his imperial agenda: he made his subjects use imperial titles when they addressed him, and tried to become Holy Roman Emperor. His particular interest in the colonial rule of Ireland can be seen in his invasion of Ireland in 1394 – this was the first time an English monarch had crossed the Irish Sea since 1210. He returned in 1399, but after that no English monarch came to Ireland until 1689. Chaucer lived and wrote at a time when English colonialism was a priority for the monarchy.
But in England itself, English had the status of Irish in Ireland – an embattled vernacular, oppressed and subjugated by more prestigious languages. English had arrived in the British Isles in the Migration Age after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and pushed Celtic languages to the borders. But it was then itself marginalised by the arrival of the Latin church and the French Norman Conquest. These two languages were prestigious languages, the languages of government, religion, and law – and English was the poor relation.
In all kinds of ways, Chaucer challenged the idea of hegemonic voices and traditional authority
Chaucer became a great promoter of this obscure vernacular. A multilingual man himself, he had no interest in the idea of the “purity” of the language or in promoting the separation of languages. On the contrary, he coined words and borrowed and adapted them from other languages as he tried to make English a literary language, a language that could be used for sophisticated poetry. Writing in English opened his poetry up to more kinds of people – and indeed, his poetry was read in inns as well as at court, by brothel-owners as well as chamber-knights.
Writing in English was a proto-democratic literary choice for Chaucer, and was very much in keeping with his broad interest in encouraging diversity and oppositional voices. One of the key concepts underlying the Canterbury Tales is that everyone has the right to tell a story, and to interpret stories. Throughout the tales he shows us not only that a miller can tell at least as good a story as a knight, but also that “diverse men diversely they said” – that everyone will interpret stories differently and there is no single, authoritative perspective. In an astonishing challenge to hierarchy, in the Wife of Bath’s tale he makes the ethical centre of the story not the young, handsome knight but the old, ugly, low-class woman. In all kinds of ways, he challenged the idea of hegemonic voices and traditional authority.
Later on, after his death, Chaucer became part of the colonial story – co-opted as part of the rise of English, which was to become a colonial language all over the world. But in the 14th century, Chaucer didn’t see English that way at all – it was a somewhat rough language with few literary pretensions, a language that had to struggle to make its voice heard over the dominant languages that had colonised England. Over the last several hundred years, we have become accustomed to thinking of English as an imperial language, a language that has spread extraordinarily widely, often crushing other languages. Back in Chaucer’s day, it was a fledgling creature and, while it was unclear if it would ever really take off, it was beginning its predatory journey in Ireland.
Marion Turner is the author of Chaucer: A European Life, which is out now from Princeton University Press