Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York

  The French of England:
Multilingualism in Practice, c. 1100-c. 1500

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Transmuting Alchemy: Chaucer’s English, Gower’s French, and the Privy Language of the London Goldsmiths
Jonathan Hsy, University of Pennsylvania
  Although these texts are rarely read alongside each other, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle
English Canon Yeoman’s Tale and John Gower’s Anglo-French Mirour de l’Omme both owe their production to London’s multilingual mercantile milieu and the close proximity between poets and craftsmen within the city. In Chaucer’s tale, a would-be alchemist “among us [in] Londoun” adulterates metal for profit. In Gower’s Mirour de l’Omme, one goldsmith named “Marchant Triche” practices alchemy throughout the “noble Cité sur Thamis.” I argue that pervasive discourses on alchemy and metallurgy in the Frenchlanguage records of the London Goldsmiths infuse both of these poems, and a curious overlap between discourses of artisanal production and poetry-making throughout these texts grants equal status to merchants and poets as “makers” (faiseurs)—i.e., producers of artistic works of great value. Most importantly, alchemy thematizes the fluid commingling of languages among the city’s professional classes. Specialized French technical jargon is readily transmuted into poetic verse, and it is radically altered as it traverses the city’s different language communities. Ultimately, Gower and Chaucer diverge in their assimilation of the guild’s proprietary language into English and French poetry. While they would appear to share a common stance against corrupt goldsmiths and alchemists (and perhaps even the powerful Goldsmiths’ guild itself), they nonetheless articulate very different visions of the poet’s role in city politics.

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