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French – dialects, peoples and places – shaped late medieval European literary culture. We cannot with certainty ascribe any surviving French poetry to Geoffrey Chaucer, but the poet’s existing corpus demonstrates how Chaucer read, emulated and adapted French works and how Chaucer’s French also aided his approach to Latin sources. Chaucer’s contemporaries associated his poetry with the Roman de la Rose, and this essay surveys Chaucer’s engagement with French poetry produced by Eustache Deschamps, Guillaume de Machaut, Jean Froissart, Christine de Pizan, Oton de Grandson, John Gower and Guillaume de Deguileville in relation to the widely influential Rose.
Thomas Hoccleve referred to Chaucer as the ‘firste fyndere of our faire langage’. The word fyndere is carefully chosen, as a modified translation of the first ‘canon’ of classical and medieval rhetoric, the ancestor of present-day English invention. Any assessment of Chaucer’s ‘poetic art’ requires us not just to identify the linguistic choices available to him, it also requires us to ask how those choices relate to his broader poetics. Chaucer’s use of ‘pronouns of power’, for example, do not only characterise particular choices from the linguistic resources of London Middle English, they are also a matter of style, a notion for which classical and medieval literary theoreticians had their own terminology, distinguishing high, middle and low styles, widely recognised as having distinct functions relating to social status and roles. It is conceivably as a metrist, however, that Chaucer’s skill as a ‘finder’ is perhaps most subtly demonstrated, as examples from his works show.
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