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SIR JOHN MANDEVILLE,
THE FATHER OF ENGLISH PROSE.
That renowned Poet,
THE FIRST GREAT POET OF ENGLAND.
Dan Chaucer, well of English undefyled
T was not until the fourteenth century that there began to be, in any true sense, an English language. Until this time the Norman-French of the nobles and the Saxon of the lower orders had marked the differences of thought and feeling between the conquerors and the conquered race, but gradually they were coming to be one people, and their union is well indicated by the changes of language which resulted in our mother-tongue. This fusion of language has been well described by Sir Walter Scott in the opening chapter of "Ivanhoe." The Saxon swineherd and Wamba, the jester, are talking of their hardships:
Why, how call you those grunting brutes running about on their four legs?" demanded
"Swine, fool, swine," said the herd; "every fool knows that."
"And swine is good, Saxon," said the jester; "but how call you the sow when she is flayed and drawn and quartered, and hung up by the heels like a traitor?"
"Pork," answered the swineherd.
"I am very glad every fool knows that, too," said Wamba, "and pork, I think, is good NormanFrench; and so when the brute lives, and is in charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name; but becomes a Norman, and is called pork, when she is carried to the castle-hall to feast among the nobles; what dost thou think of this, friend Gurth, ha?"
"It is but too true doctrine, friend Wamba, however it got into a fool's pate!"
"Now I can tell you more," said Wamba, in the same tone; "there is old Alderman Ox continues to hold his Saxon epithet while he is under the charge of serfs and bondsmen such as thou, but becomes Beef, a fiery French gallant, when he arrives before the worshipful jaws that are destined to consume him. Mynheer Calf, too, becomes Monsieur de Veau in the like manner; he is Saxon when he requires tendance, and takes a Norman name when he becomes matter of enjoyment."
It was in just such ways as are here outlined that the two elements of Saxon and Norman formed one language. There had been poetry in England before
the Norman conquest, and the names of Cadmon and Bede have come down to us, with fragments of their writings in what is, to us, an entirely foreign tongue; but until the passage of three centuries had molded the people into one, giving them common thoughts and a common speech, there could be no real English literature. Sir John Mandeville has been called, whether rightly or not, the father of English prose. His book of travels, published about 1356, may properly, perhaps, be called the earliest English book. It is an account of the author's experiences in his travels, which occupied thirty-four years, and carried him over many parts of the world. Some of the stories are absurd in the extreme; but as few Englishmen had traveled abroad they were very generally accepted as true, and were so popular that of no book excepting the Scriptures can more manuscripts
of that time be found.
In one of the extracts which we quote it will be seen that Mandeville recognized the confusion of tongues in his native country, and therefore wrote his book in Latin and French and English, so that every man might understand it.
But the real father of English literature was Geoffrey Chaucer. His respect for English may be inferred from the lines in the "Testament of Love": "Let clerks indite in Latin, and the Frenchmen in their French also indite their quaint terms, for it is kindly to their mouths; and let us show
our fantasies in such words as we learned of our mother's tongue." He was the first to honor the English language by framing in it a great literary masterpiece, and his service to posterity is not only this contribution to literature and the impulse he gave to literary effort: he, more than any other, helped to fix the forms of the language, and, singular as his words may now appear, to inaugurate a definite spelling. It was only the beginning of this movement, which the invention of printing was to carry rapidly forward,-but to Chaucer belongs very much of the credit.
Chaucer was attached to the court in some way, probably during most of his life. We know that he filled several public offices; that he was sent on some commission to Italy; that he married the sister of the wife of John of Gaunt, and was identified with the party of the Duke of Lancaster. He was appointed clerk of the king's works in 1389, which office he held only for two years. His death
took place in 1400, when he was probably something over seventy years of age. His principal poems are the "Romaunt of the Rose," the "Court of Love," the "Assembly of Fowls," the "Cuckoo and the Nightingale," the "Flower and the Leaf," "Chaucer's Dream," the "Boke of the Duchesse," the "House of Fame," the "Legende of Goode Women," "Troilus and Creseide," "Anelydu and Arcyte," and the unique "Canterbury Tales," by which he is most known, and which is now by far the most read of all his works. This has furnished the plan upon which many later poets have built their work. It is the story of a company of "wel and nyne twenty" pilgrims to the shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury, gathering at the "hostelrie" of the Tabard Inn at Southwark. They come together by accident, and agree to travel together for purposes of good cheer and defense. Here are the host of the Tabard, who suggests that they beguile the way by each relating a story,—a knight, a squire, a yeoman, a prioress, a nun, three priests, a monk, a friar, a merchant, a clerk or student, and the rest-representing all the different classes or kinds of persons who made up the English people.
The stories they told and the charming setting in which they are placed, makes this the masterpiece of early English.
FROM THE PROLOGUE TO MANDEVILLE'S BOOK.
ND for als moche' as it is longe tyme passed, that ther was no generalle Passage ne Vyage over the See; and many Men desiren for to here speke of the holy Lond, and han thereof gret Solace and Comfort; I John Maundevylle, Knyght, alle be it I be not worthi, that was born in Englond, in the Town of Seynt Albones, passed the See, in the Zeer of our Lord Jesu Crist MCCCXXII, in the Day of Seynt Michelle; and hidre to have been longe tyme over the See, and have seyn and gon thorghe manye dyverse Londes, and many Provynces and Kingdomes and Iles, and have passed thorghe Tartarye, Percye, Ermonye the litylle and the grete; thorghe Lybye, Caldee and a gret partie of Ethiope; thorghe Amazoyne, Inde the lasse and the more, a gret partie; and thorghe out many othere Iles, that ben abouten Inde; where dwellen many dyverse Folkes, and of dyverse Maneres and Lawes, and of dyverse Schappes of men. Of whiche Londes and Iles, I schalle speke more pleynly hereaftre. And I schalle devise zou sum partie of thinges that there ben, whan time 2 Have. 3 Hitherto. 4 Armenia. 1 As much. 5 Shapes. I
schalle ben, aftre it may best come to my mynde; and specyally for hem, that wylle and are in purpos for to visite the Holy Citee of Jerusalem, and the holy Places that are thereaboute. And I schalle telle the Weye, that thei schulle holden thidre. For I have often tymes passed and ryden the way, with gode Companye of many Lordes : God be thonked.
And zee schulle' undirstonde, that I have put this Boke out of Latyn, into Frensche, and translated it azen out of Frensche into Englyssche, that every Man of my Nacioun may undirstonde it. But Lordes and Knyghtes and othere noble and worthi Men, that conne Latyn but litylle, and han ben bezonde the See, knowen and undirstonden, zif I erre in devisynge, for forzetynge,10 or elles"; that thei mowe 12 redresse it and amende
For thinges passed out of longe tyme from a Mannes mynde or from his syght, turnen sone in forzetynge: Because that Mynde of Man ne may not ben comprehended ne witheholden, for the Freeltee of Mankynde.
7 Should. 8 Again.
9 Know. 12 May.
HE gret Kyng hathe every day, 50 fair Damyseles, alle Maydenes, that serven him everemore at his Mete. And whan he is at the Table, thei bryngen him hys Mete at every tyme, 5 and 5 to gedre. And in bryngynge hire Servyse, thei syngen a Song. And aftre that, thei kutten his Mete, and putten it in his Mouthe: for he touchethe no thing ne handlethe nought, but holdethe evere more his Hondes before him, upon the Table. For he hathe so longe Nayles, that he may take no thing, ne handle no thing. For the Noblesse of that Contree is to have longe Nayles, and to make hem growen alle weys to ben as longe as men may. And there ben manye in that Contree, that han hire Nayles so longe, that thei envyronne alle the Hond and that is a gret Noblesse. And the
Noblesse of the Women, is for to haven smale
And so thei don
FROM THE PROLOGUE TO THE CANTERBURY TALES. *
HANNÈ that Aprilè with his shourès sote1
And bathed every veine in swiche3 licour,
Of Englelond, to Canterbury they wende,"
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were
Befelle, that, in that seson on a day,
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay,
And shortly, whan the sonne was gon to reste,
But natheles, while I have time and space,
Of eche of hem, so as it semed me,
* Little difficulty will be experienced in reading Chaucer if it is borne in mind that many words derived from the French were, in his time, given their French pronunciation, and that final e and ed are almost always separate syllables.