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

John Gower’s French and His Readers
Robert F. Yeager, University of West Florida

As far as we have evidence to know, John Gower (d. 1408) is the only English writer to be significantly productive in the three major languages of his day—Middle English, Latin and French of some kind. His two surviving poems in English, the Confessio Amantis and “To King Henry IV/In Praise of Peace,” and his Latin Vox Clamantis and Cronica Tripertita, allow us to rank him easily among the most accomplished practitioners in each tongue. Classifying his voluminous (29,945 lines plus) Mirour de l’Omme and this two balade sequences, Cinkante Balades and the so-called Traitié selonc les auctours pour essampler les amantz marietz, has proven more difficult, however, largely because consensus—let alone firm general agreement—about the sort of French Gower wrote has been elusive. In 2002, Brian Merrillees acknowledged the problem with exceptional succinctness:

John Gower’s French works seem in French scholarship to have fallen
between the cracks. If Dominica Legge in her Anglo-Norman Literature
of 1963 and Ruth Dean in her 1999 Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide
to Texts and Manuscripts record his contributions to the French written
in England in the Middle Ages, the Anglo-Norman Dictionary, both in its
first edition, 1997, and in the revised second edition fascicle A-E, now on-
line with restricted access, sets Gower aside as not being part of the Anglo-
Norman, let alone Middle French, canon. In their continuation of the Bossuat
bibliography of medieval French literature Jacques Monfrin and Françoise
Vielliard simply omit him altogether. Of his language, Ruth Dean says:
“Gower’s French is not distinctively Anglo-Norman.” There is some small
redemption in the Dictionnaire des Lettres françaises where a short article
devoted to Gower ends with the following: “La critique s’est longtemps
montrée injuste pour ce bon ouvrier qui symbolize sous son triple aspect la
culture anglaise du XIVe siécle.”

Currently I am completing an edition and modern English translation of Gower’s two balade sequences for TEAMS. In the processes of translating and preparing the textual and critical notes, I have necessarily reached a number of conclusions about the specific nature (and quite varied sources, both literary and linguistic) of Gower’s French work—among them, whether, and in what ways, the grammar and vocabulary of that “bon ouvrier” can be called Anglo-Norman; to what degree “Anglo” properly applies as a descriptor; his probable expected audiences and his choice of French instead of Latin or English for the poems he wrote in each. Inevitably, these and other observations have direct bearing on the state and practice of French in England at the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth century, when Gower’s Traitié somehow migrated into the hands of an obscure Yorkshire gentleman who translated it into northern Middle English sometime before his death ca. 1412-1416. In short, the case of Gower’s French has much to add to a discussion of English multilingualism at the end of the Middle Ages, and warrants a small but significant chapter in the history of French as used in England. I would like the opportunity to share my work with others at the conference.



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