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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

VII. Chaucer

§ 15. Chaucer’s Learning

One such point of some importance is the probable extent and nature of Chaucer’s literary instruction and equipment. He makes, not exactly a parade in the bad sense, but a very pardonable display of knowledge of that Latin literature which was the staple of the medieval library; and, of course, he illustrates the promiscuous estimate of authorities and values which is characteristic of his time. But the range of his knowledge, from the actual classics (especially Ovid) downwards, was fairly wide, and his use of it is generally apposite. In French, at least the French of his own day, there can be no doubt that he was proficient, not only as being grant translateur, but as taking subjects and forms freely from what was still the leading literary vernacular of Europe generally, though it had now been surpassed by Italy, so far as individual accomplishment went. Nor, though the evidence is less positive, can there be any reasonable doubt that he was acquainted with Italian itself. A man of Chaucer’s genius could, no doubt, pick up a great deal of knowledge of Italian literature even without, and much more with, the assistance of his Italian visits. His mere reference to the “laureat clerk Petrarch,” or to Dante, “the great poet of Italy,” would not prove very much as to the exact extent and nature of his acquaintance with them. But the substance of Troilus, and of The Knight’s and Clerk’s Tales, and of The House of Fame, proves everything that can be reasonably required. It may be rash, especially considering how very uncertain we are of the actual chronology of his works, to delimit periods of French and periods of Italian influence too rigidly. But that these influences themselves exist in Chaucer, and were constantly exerted on him, there is no doubt at all. Much less attention has been paid to his acquaintance with existing English literature; and doubt has even been cast as to his possession of any. This is ultra-sceptical, if it be the result of any real examination of the evidence; but it is, probably, in most cases, based on a neglect or a refusal to consider that evidence itself. That Chaucer had no scholastic instruction in English (such as, no doubt, he had in French and, possibly, in Italian) we know, indeed, for certain, or almost for certain, inasmuch as his contemporary, Trevisa, informs us that English was not used in schools, even for the purpose of construing, till later. And it is, of course, certain that he makes little direct mention of English writers, if any. He knew the romances, and he makes them the subject of satiric parody in Sir Thopas; he knew (a point of some importance) the two modes of alliteration and rime, and refers to them by the mouth of one of his characters, the parson, in a fashion capital for literary history. But there is little else of direct reference. A moment’s thought, however, will show that it would have been very odd if there had been. Although Chaucer’s is very far from being mere court-poetry it was, undoubtedly, composed with a view to court-readers; and these, as the passage in Trevisa shows, were only just becoming accustomed to the treatment of English as a literary language. There were no well-known named authors for him to quote; and, if there had been, he could have gained none of the little nimbus of reputation for learning which was so innocently dear to a medieval writer, by quoting them. That, on the other hand, he was thoroughly acquainted, if only by word of mouth, not reading, with a great bulk of precedent verse and, probably, some prose, can be shown by evidence much stronger than chapter-and-verse of the categorical kind. For those who take him—as he has been too seldom taken—in the natural evolution of English poetry and English literature, there is not the slightest need to regard him as a luscus naturae who developed the practice of English by the study of French, who naturalised by touch of wand foreign metres and foreign diction into his native tongue, and who evolved “gold dewdrops” of English “speech” and more golden bell-music of English rhythm from Latin and Italian and French sources. On the contrary, unprejudiced study will show that, with what amount of actual book-knowledge it is impossible to say, Chaucer had caught up the sum of a process which had been going on for some two centuries at least and, adding to it from his own stores, as all great poets do, and taking, as many of them have done, what help he could get from foreigners, was turning out the finished product not as a new thing but as a perfected old one. Even the author of Sir Thopas could not have written that excellent parody if he had not been to the manner born and bred of those who produced such things (and better things) seriously. And it is an idle multiplication of miracles to suppose that the verse—the individual verses, not the batched arrangements of them—which directly represents, and is directly connected with, the slowly developing prosody of everything from Orm and Layamon to Hampole and Cursor Mundi, is a sudden apparition—that this verse, both English and accomplished, is fartherless, except for French, motherless except for Middle and Lower Latin, and arrived at without conscious or even unconscious knowledge of these its natural precursors and progenitors.