The Middle English Period - Geoffres Chaucer

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003

21 Pages, Grade: 2+ (B)


Table of contents

1) Introduction page

2) The Middle English Period
2.1) Chaucer’s Life (Biography) page
2.2) The English Language in the Fourteenth Century page (The Status of English)

3) Aspects of Chaucer’s English page
3.1) Chaucer’s Linguistical Influences
3.1.1) The French Influence page
3.1.2) The Latin Influence page
3.2) Chaucer’s Romance “Borrowings” page
3.3) Chaucer’s Vocabulary page
3.4) Pronunciation page
3.5) The Use of the final-e page
3.6) Chaucer’s Grammar page

4) The Early-Modern-English Period (1500 – 1800) page and the Process of Standarization

5) Bibliography page

1) Introduction

In this work I examine the history of the English language - especially the Middle English period throughout Geoffrey Chaucer. I also want to show how English has developed over the years and how it has been influenced. After the general view on Chaucer’s life and influences I try to give an overview of several aspects of the English language at this time. But I have to say that I can not go too far in detail in some points because there are too much facts which have influenced the English language. At last I close with a short view about the Early-Modern-English period.

2) The Middle English Period

2.1) Chaucer’s Life (Biography)

It is very difficult to trace a precise biography of Chaucer because we have no uninterrupted information about his life. We can only conjecture the manner in which Chaucer spent his life from hints given us in his own works, and from various notices in official records. The following biography gives dates which claim not to be a hundred percent correct, but are supposed to border an approximate period for a special event.

Geoffrey Chaucer was born in 1340 in London. His father was John Chaucer, citizen and vintner of London. His mother’s name was Agnes but we have no more information about her. His grandfather was Robert Chaucer who married a widow named Maria Heyronn. John Chaucer’s house stood in Upper Thames Street, beside Walbrook, just where that street is now crossed by the South-Eastern Railway from Cannonstreet Station. It is thought that Chaucer was sent for his early schooling to St Paul`s Almonry. Geoffrey’s father John Chaucer was in attendance on Edward III since 1338. This connection to the court led to his son’s employment there in the year 1357, as a page in the household of Elisabeth, wife of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the third son of Edward III. Two years later, in 1359, Chaucer joined the army of Edward III when the king invaded France, and was there taken prisoner. In May of the following year the peace of Bretigny was concluded between the French and English kings. Chaucer had been set at liberty in March, when Edward paid for his ransom. It is not known when exactly Chaucer began to write poetry, but it is reasonable to believe that it was on his return from France. He set to work to translate the French poem The Roman de la Rose. From 1361 to 1366 Chaucer possibly accompanied Prince Lionel to Ireland, but we do not have exact information what happened to him or to his family during these years. During 1368 and part of 1369 Chaucer lived in London again. In October 1368, his patron, Prince Lional, died, and it appears that Chaucer’s services were consequently transferred to the next brother, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. In the autumn of the following year (1369) Blanche, the first wife of John of Gaunt, died at the early age of twenty-nine. Chaucer did honour to her memory in one of his earliest poems, entitled The Deth of Blaunche the Duchesse. From 1370 on Chaucer was attached to the court and employed in frequent diplomatic services. During this time The House of Fame and The Parliament of Fowls were written. Before 1372 Chaucer finished at least parts of a translation of The Roman de la Rose, The Book of the Duchess and The ABC of the Virgin. In December 1372, being employed in the king’s service, he left England for Genoa, Pisa, and Florence, and remained in Italy for nearly eleven months.

On June 8, 1374, Chaucer was appointed to the office of Comptroller of the Customs and Subsidy of Wools, Skins, and Leather, for the port of London. In 1374 for the first time a person named Philippa Chaucer is mentioned as Geoffrey’s wife, though Philippa Chaucer is mentioned as one of the Ladies of the Chamber to Queen Philippa earlier. If this information is correct, it becomes highly probable that Chaucer’s wife Philippa was Philippa Roet, sister of the Katharine de Roet of Hainault, who married Sir John Swynford, and afterwards became the mistress, and in 1396 the third wife of John of Gaunt. Towards the end of the year 1376, Sir John Burlay and Geoffrey Chaucer were employed upon some secret service. But we also do not have exact information about his work. One year later, in February, Chaucer was employed on an other secret mission to Flandern. In April he was sent to France, to treat for peace with king Charles V. In January 1378, Chaucer seems to have been employed in France. Soon afterwards, he was again sent to Italy, from May 28 to September 19, being employed on a mission to Lombardy, to treat with Barnabo Vinconti, Duke of Milan. To whose death the poet alludes in his Monkes Tale. By deed of May 1, 1380, Cecilia Chaumpayne released Chaucer from a charge which she had brought against him "de raptu meo". We have no further information about the circumstances of this case. Between 1380 and 1385 Boece, Troilus and Criseyde and a translation of The Boethian Ballades were completed. Whilst still retaining the office of Comptroller of the Customs, he was now also appointed Comptroller of the Petty Customs, exactly on May 8, 1382. In the same year Chaucer begins to write The Palamon which was later known as The Knight`s Tale. In February 1385, he was allowed the great privilege of nominating a permanent deputy to perform his duties. It is highly probable that he owed this favour to the Queen Anne, for in the Prologue of The Legend of Good Women he expresses himself most gratefully towards her. If we may trust the description of his house and garden in the Prologue of The Legend of Good Women, it seems that he was living in the country. In year of 1386 Chaucer was elected a knight of the shire for Kent, in the Parliament held at Westminster. In August, his patron John of Gaunt went to Spain; and during his absence, his brother Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, dismissed Chaucer from both his offices, of Comptroller of Wool and Comptroller of Petty Customs. In 1386 Chaucer also produced a large instalment of The Legend of the Saints of Cupid, which is also known as The Legend of Good Women. Nearly one year later Chaucer’s wife, Philippa, died. To this loss he alludes in his Envoy to Bukton. It must have been about this time that he was composing portions of his greatest poem The Canterbury Tales.

1389, on May 3, Richard II. suddenly took the government into his own hands. John of Gaunt returned to England soon afterwards, and effected an outward reconciliation between the King and the Duke of Gloucester. The Lancastrian party was now in power once more, and Chaucer was appointed “Clerk of the King’s Works” at Westminster in July. In 1390, Chaucer was also appointed “Clerk of the Works” at St George’s Chapel at Windsor, and was put on a Commission to repair the banks of the Thames between Woolwich and Greenwich. 1391 is the date given by Chaucer to his prose Treatise on the Astrolabe, which he compiled for the use of his little son Lewis, of whom nothing more is known, and it is supposed that he died at an early age. At this time, for some unknown reason, the poet lost his appointment as “Clerk of the Works” but is appointed “Deputy Forester of North Pertherton” in Somerset. The date of Chaucer’s death is October 25, 1400. The circumstances of his death are not really known, but it is even possible that he was murdered. Due to his merits for the country he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

2.2) The English Language in the Fourteenth Century (The Status of English)

Between 1100 and 1500 English suffered its most meaningful changes. The man who envaded and conquered England and the Anglo-Saxons in 1066 was William the Conquerer, the Duke of Normandy. The Normans brought with them the French language known as Anglo-Norman. This language became the language of the Royal Court and the ruling and business class. Latin had been only a minor in the English language. Some French words replaced Old English words. King John lost the province of Normandy to the King of France. The mixture of two languages, Old English and French, (be)came to be known as English. Most of the English speaking people can read Middle English.

Geoffrey Chaucer probably learned French from his earliest age. Chaucer was of the gentle classes; therefore he clearly spoke this language since his youth and wrote his first poems in French, the official language of the courts in which he served first as a page in the court of the Countess of Ulster, then as a squire in the courts of Prince Lionel and the Kings Edward III and Richard II.

The situation was changing in Chaucer's lifetime - or rather, changes that had been operating since the thirteenth century were beginning to have an obvious effect. The aristocracy used French but most used English as well. King Edward I knew English and even enjoyed English poetry. However, French continued its cultural dominance: The court of King Edward III was French in culture and cultivated French poetry, with French poets such as Jean Froissart and Otho de Graunson, whom Chaucer knew. Furthermore the court began speaking Parisian French, an acquired skill, rather than Anglo-Norman, the variety of French used in England, to which earlier nobles had been born. By the time Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales the form of speech brought over by the Normans was still extent only in the provinces.

By this time, English had replaced French as the language of instruction in the elementary schools. English was also becoming the language of government; in 1362 Parliament was opened with a speech by the Chief Justice in English (and by the Chancellor in the next two parliaments), the first time since the Conquest the native language was so used.

Also in the Parliament of 1362 the Staute of Pleading was enacted. It provided that “All pleas which shall be pleaded in his [the King's] courts whatsoever, before any of his justices whatsoever . . . shall be pleaded, shewed, defended, answered, debated, and judged in the English tongue.”

Though the statute also specified that the records of pleas were to be kept in Latin (and the parliamentary speeches were recorded in French), by this time English was (be)coming to be regarded as a language suitable for aristocratic literature. In the early fourteenth century English writers aimed for audiences that knew no French.

By the later fourteenth century a demand for English had developed, and literary works in English were wanted not because their audience had no French but because they preferred English. John Gower, a famous poet at this time, wrote works in Latin, French, and English - the latter, his Confession Amantis, written at the request of King Richard himself.


Excerpt out of 21 pages


The Middle English Period - Geoffres Chaucer
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Anglistics)
Hauptseminar: Aspects of the history of English
2+ (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
542 KB
Middle, English, Period, Geoffres, Chaucer, Hauptseminar, Aspects, English
Quote paper
Martina Winkler (Author), 2003, The Middle English Period - Geoffres Chaucer, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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