Anglo-Norman in Chaucer’s Middle English


And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.
Canterbury Tales, General Prologue, ll. 124-26.

After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the availability of Anglo-Norman as a ‘second’ vernacular language dramatically changed the linguistic situation in the British Isles. The aim here to is look at the state of ‘English’ in the late fourteenth century, more than three hundred years later. It was in the last three decades of that century that Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his works, the most famous of which is of course the Canterbury Tales. This case study offers an analysis of the first 27 lines of this long poem, plus extracts from two of his shorter lyrics.

Chaucer’s poetry clearly demonstrates that Middle English was by then winning more and more ground from Latin and Anglo-Norman, though it was by now thoroughly infiltrated by Romance vocabulary.

It is generally accepted that several of the stories in the Canterbury Tales were skilful adaptations of French and Italian originals. To give just one example, the Clerk’s tale about the extreme patience and faithfulness of Griselda is believed to be based on a French version of the Italian poet Petrarch’s telling of the famous story. The overall narrative framework of the Tales appears to echo that of Boccaccio’s collection, the Decameron. Chaucer’s shorter lyrics were mostly modelled directly on the French ballade.

It has been calculated that more than 50% of Chaucer’s English vocabulary comes from Romance sources. Traditionally this has been explained by his familiarity with continental French and so these elements are referred to as ‘French borrowings’ — a term which, as we shall see, is doubly wrong.

As a soldier and later as a member of the royal household on diplomatic missions, Chaucer went several times to France. In early 1360 he was in captivity near Reims, and later that year he was in Calais. In 1377, he seems to have travelled to Paris and Montreuil, where he may even have met the French lyric poet Eustache Deschamps. At the same time there was a strong presence of continental French poetry in England throughout the fourteenth century, and several French poets spent considerable periods of time at the British courts, some of them even enjoying the patronage of Richard II.

However, Chaucer’s English was in the first place influenced by Anglo-Norman – a reality which is frequently ignored. As a diplomat, controller of customs, forest official or royal clerk, he would have functioned in either English or Anglo-Norman. Many of the historical documents connected with him are written in Anglo-Norman. Even though the court of Richard II (1377-1399) is believed to have been the first English-speaking one since the Conquest, official documents were frequently still in Anglo-Norman, as is clear from the number of entries still written in Anglo-Norman in the surviving records of parliamentary proceedings and statutes. The register of Chaucer’s famous patron, John of Gaunt, survives for the periods 1371-75 and 1379-83, and was composed predominantly in Anglo-Norman. So, even as late as the end of the fourteenth century, Anglo-Norman was an actively-used language in England, especially in the circles in which Chaucer moved. It is not surprising that the English which Chaucer used for writing his poetry continued to be influenced by Anglo-Norman, as English had been for centuries.

A significant proportion of the ‘French’ vocabulary in Chaucer’s poetry reflects specifically Anglo-Norman usage. Anglo-Norman developed a variety of nuances, meanings and even forms which are absent from continental French, and these are to be found in Chaucer’s Middle English. For example, he uses the word bachelor to signify an unmarried man on at least two occasions (The Merchant’s Tale ll. 1274 and 1278 and The Romaunt of the Rose ll. 918 and 921), a meaning which is clearly attested in Anglo-Norman bacheler, but not in continental French.

Chaucer’s language was not a hybrid of ‘local’ and ‘foreign’ sources of his own devising. It shows the extent to which Anglo-Norman vocabulary, after several centuries of use in Britain in varying degrees of independence from continental French, had become assimilated into English. The vast majority of the Anglo-Norman words which he uses – almost all of which became standard modern English – can also be found in earlier Middle English writing. This suggests that many of the words highlighted in these texts probably were no longer felt by English speakers to be ‘borrowed’ from another language, any more than, (say) parachute or hotel are regarded as ‘borrowings’ in modern English. In short, Chaucer’s ‘French borrowings’ are in most cases truly neither ‘French’ nor ‘borrowed’: they were part of the working vocabulary of the English of his day, regarded by his countryfolk as belonging to their own tongue.


Example texts

The three short passages that follow have been chosen to illustrate the Anglo-Norman influence on Middle English. They are taken from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edition ( Oxford, 1988), pp. 23, 637 and 652. The translations, designed not for reading in their own right, but to help readers unfamiliar with Middle English by deliberately staying as close as possible to the syntax of the original, are by Geert De Wilde, who is also responsible for the annotations that can be opened up by clicking on any of the highlighted words.

The first and most famous passage consists of lines 1-27 of the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales. It describes how the narrator, restless because of the arrival of spring, longs to go on a pilgrimage, and meets a very diverse company of like-minded people in the inn. They set off for Canterbury as a group and enliven the journey by telling each other tales. Benson dates this part of the Tales to 1388-92.

The second excerpt consists of the two opening stanzas of An ABC. This is a hymn to the Virgin Mary, with every stanza beginning with consecutive letters of the alphabet. It is a translation of Guillaume de Deguilleville’s Pelerinage de la vie humaine. The poem is probably an early work by Chaucer and is dated to before 1372.

Finally, the third passage is the opening stanza of Fortune, which Chaucer may have composed in the early 1390s. This lyric is a defiant complaint against the unpredictability of Fortune. Despite its French title and refrain, the poem does not seem to be a translation of a French original.

In the 51 lines of these three brief extracts, there are 66 words which clearly have a Romance origin. They are highlighted, and clicking on them will lead to the corresponding AND entry, often with additional commentary.


The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue, lines 1-27.


































Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,

And smale foweles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open ye

(So priketh hem nature in hir corages

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,

To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes

And specially from every shires ende

Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,

The hooly blisful martir for to seke,

That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

Bifil that in that seson on a day,

In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay

Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage

To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,

At nyght was come into that hostelrye

Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye

Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle

In felawshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,

That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.

When April, with its sweet showers,

Has penetrated the dryness of March to the root

And has drenched every plant’s vein in the sap

That has the power to produce the flower;

When also the west wind, with its sweet breath,

In every grove and field, has blown life

Into the tender shoots, and the young sun

Has run its half-course in the sign of the Ram,

And small birds are singing,

That sleep with their eyes open all night

(So much does lustiness incite them in their spirits),

Then people long to go on pilgrimages,

And palmers want to travel to foreign shores,

To distant shrines, famous in various lands.

And particularly, from every shire’s end

In England, they travel to Canterbury,

To seek the holy blessed martyr

Who had helped them when they were sick.

It happened in that season that one day,

When I was staying in the Tabard Inn in Southwark,

About to begin my pilgrimage

To Canterbury in most devout spirits

At night there came into that hostelry

Some twenty-nine people, in a company

Of various sorts of folk, fallen by chance

Into a fellowship, and all of them were pilgrims

Who intended to ride towards Canterbury

An ABC, lines 1-16


















Almighty and al merciable queene,

To whom that al this world fleeth for sucur,

To have relees of sinne, of sorwe, and teene,

Glorious virgine, of alle floures flour,

To thee I flee, confounded in errour.

Help and releeve thou mighti debonair,

Have mercy on my perilous langour.

Venquisshed me hath my cruel adversaire.

Bountee so fix hath in thin herte his tente

That wel I wot thou wolt my socour bee;

Thou canst not warne him that with good entente

Axeth thin helpe, thin herte is ay so free.

Thou art largesse of pleyn felicitee

Haven of refut, of quiete, and of reste.

Loo, how that theeves sevene chasen mee.

Help, lady bright, er that my ship tobreste.

Almighty and merciful queen,

To whom this world flees for assistance,

To gain deliverance from sin, sorrow and trouble,

Glorious virgin, flower of all flowers,

I flee to you, overcome by sin.

Help and relieve [me], you mighty gracious one,

Have mercy upon my dangerously woeful plight.

My cruel adversary [i.e. the Devil] has beaten me.

Virtuousness has its tent so firmly in your heart,

That I’m sure you will be my relief.

You cannot refuse the person who with good intentions

Asks for your help, your heart is always so generous.

You are abundance of utter bliss,

Haven of refuge, of tranquillity and of rest.

See how the seven robbers [i.e. the Seven Deadly Sins] chase me.

Help [me], resplendent lady, before my boat bursts apart

Balades de Visage sanz Peinture , ll. 1-8

Le pleintif countre Fortune


[The French title and gloss are too brief to allow any specifically Anglo-Norman features to be established. Similarly, line 7, entirely in French, which is also referred to in The Parson’s Tale (line 248) as the opening of a ‘newe Frenshe song’, could be either Continental or insular. However, their inclusion indicates that both Chaucer and (more significantly) his intended audience had a strong affinity with the French language.]










This wrecched worldes transmutacioun,

As wele or wo, now povre and now honour

Withouten ordre or wys discrecioun

Governed is by Fortunes errour.

But natheles, the lak of hir favour

Ne may nat don me singen though I dye,

J’ay tout perdu mon temps et mon labour ;

For fynally, Fortune, I thee defye.


The changeability of this wretched world,

As good or bad fortune, first poverty and then honour,

Without organization or wise judgment,

Is controlled by the fickleness of Fortune.

But nevertheless, the lack of her favour,

Even though I die, may not make me sing

‘I have completely lost my time and my hard work’,

Because, at last, Fortune, I defy you.