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

27th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies, Fordham University
Friday, March 30 - Sunday, April 1, 2007
At the Lincoln Center Campus of Fordham University

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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