Is Chaucer Relevant

The University of Leicester is planning to “decolonize” their English Literature Department by ending the study of Chaucer and other great poets of Medival English and replacing them with new and up-to-date modules on race and sexuality. According to this article in the Sydney Morning Herald:

The University of Leicester will stop teaching the great English medieval poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer in favour of modules on race and sexuality, according to new proposals.

Management told the English department that courses on canonical works would be dropped in favour of modules that “students expect” as part of plans now under consultation.

Foundational texts such as The Canterbury Tales and the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf would no longer be taught, under proposals to scrap medieval literature. Instead, the English faculty will be refocused to drop centuries of the literary canon and deliver a “decolonised” curriculum devoted to diversity.

Academics now facing redundancy were told via email: “The aim of our proposals [is] to offer a suite of undergraduate degrees that provide modules which students expect of an English degree.”

New modules described as “excitingly innovative” would cover: “A chronological literary history, a selection of modules on race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity, a decolonised curriculum, and new employability modules.”

Professors were told that, to facilitate change, management planned to stop all English language courses, cease medieval literature, and reduce early modern literature offerings.

Despite Chaucer’s position as “the father of English literature”, he will no longer be taught if plans currently under consultation go ahead.

They would end all teaching on texts central to the development of the English language, including the Dark Age epic poem Beowulf, as well as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

This brings up the question of whether we ought to continue to teach these Medieval and Early Modern literary works or whether we ought to eliminate them in favor of newer, more diverse selections. Are these texts still relevant to our modern age, or should they be forgotten as relics of a darker, less tolerant past? Is it more important to study our own history and heritage or a selection of modules on race, ethnicity and the rest of that woke crap? Who is Geoffrey Chaucer anyway, and why should we read him six hundred years after his death?

                                                                         Geoffrey Chaucer

If you remember Chaucer at all from your English classes, you know him as the author of the Canterbury Tales, the one that begins with

When April with its sweet smelling showers

Has pierced the drought of March to the root

and then tells the story of a diverse group of pilgrims to Canterbury who decide to tell each other stories to make the long journey pass by more quickly Chaucer wrote and did a lot more than the Canterbury Tales, however. He was quite an interesting man. Born sometime in the 1340s, we don’t know exactly when; Chaucer was a Member of Parliament and close personal friend of King EdwardIII’s son John of Gaunt. Chaucer held a number of government posts, under the patronage of the royal family, including comptroller of the customs for the port of London, and clerk of the King’s works. King Edward III and his grandson King Richard II entrusted Chaucer

                                               King Edward III

When Chaucer was captured by the French during the Hundred Year’s War, King Edward III paid his ransom out of his own pocket, a measure of how greatly the king valued Chaucer.

Today, Chaucer is known more for his literary endeavors than his services to the King of England. Most educated people know about The Canterbury Tales, but he wrote a whole lot more. Chaucer translated Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy from Latin and wrote a treatise on the astrolabe for his son. His works of poetry include the epic poem Troilus and Criseyde, and of course, the Canterbury Tales, a work he began late in life and never actually finished before his death in 1400.
So that is who Chaucer was. Why should we study him? Well, Geoffrey Chaucer lived and wrote during a pivotal moment in the history of the English Language and Literature. Before Chaucer’s time, English wasn’t considered to be a very prestigious language. Latin was the international language of the Church, scholarship, and diplomacy. If you had anything important to say, you said it in Latin. Since the Norman Conquest of 1066, the aristocrats and anyone of importance in England spoke Norman French. England was a sort of colony of Normandy and English was the language you spoke to the servants or to the peasants to remind them to pay their taxes. The Angevin kings of England were more concerned with their lands on the continent and seldom visited England except to get money to finance their wars and crusades.

The Kings of England spent more time in France than England

This situation began to change about a century before Chaucer’s time, when King John, of Magna Carta fame, managed to lose all of his territory in France. After that, the kings and aristocracy of England began to identify more and more as English rather than Norman and the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons became melded into one English people. English started to become the language of everyday life among the nobility. The process only accelerated with the coming of the Hundred Year’s War. Wars always encourage patriotism and this war was no exception.
English was still not a literary language, however. This had to wait until the later 1300s when Chaucer and other poets, under the patronage of the king, began to what in what is now called Middle English. These poets helped to establish the dialect spoken around London as the form of standard English and developed much of the vocabulary and devices used in English poetry. Geoffrey Chaucer was the greatest of these Middle English poets. His influence cannot be underestimated. Chaucer was, in many ways, the father of English literature, rescuing the English language from the negligence the language had endured after the Norman Conquest. The revival of English as a literary language would likely have occurred without Chaucer, but the history of English literature would be much poorer without him.
Needless to say, My answer to this question is an unambiguous yes. Chaucer is still relevant to the present day and we should still read and study his works. Chaucer’s works have endured for over six hundred years. I doubt very much if any of these modules “on race, ethnicity, sexuality, and diversity” will be read in six decades. If you want to understand the history and development of the English language and literature, you have to study the greatest masters of the English language, including Geoffrey Chaucer and the unknown writer of Beowulf. A university course that does not include these great writers is not teaching English literature. That university is defrauding its students, promising them an educated but delivering only woke fluff; politically correct nonsense that cannot stand the test of time. The woke universities that go this route ought to be shut down for academic fraud and the students’ tuition and other expenses should be paid back to them so they can get a real education.

Anglish

I have mentioned in passing how the Norman Conquest of 1066 fundamentally changed the English Language. When William the Conqueror and his French speaking Normans defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings and took over the Kingdom of England, French became the language of administration, the court, literature, and polite society generally. English was relegated to being a language of the conquered, spoken largely by servants and serfs. After about two centuries the Norman kings and nobility began to think of themselves as English and to speak the English language. English became, once again, the language of England and thanks to Chaucer and others, English was renewed as a language of literature equal to French. But it was no longer the language of Beowulf and Alfred the Great. The Old English, spoken by the Anglo-Saxons had become Latinized and Frenchified, the language historians call “Middle English. As a result, fully half the words in the English Language ultimately derive from Latin, either directly or though one of the Romance Languages, mostly French.

What would English be like if William the Conqueror had lost the Battle of Hastings and remained simply William the Bastard, the Norman Duke who failed to capture England? Would we still be speaking Anglo-Saxon? Would Beowulf, the oldest work of literature written in English be comprehensible to the modern English speaker, instead of seeming to be a strange dialect of German? Probably not. Languages change over time, even in the absence of foreign invasions. The Norman conquest marks a decisive breaking point between Old and Middle English, but the language was changing anyway. Still, there would probably be more of a continuity between Old and Middle English without the break of the Norman conquest.

If he had lost…

While there probably wouldn’t be the vast influx of Latin words entering the English Language from French, there would be some borrowing. Latin was the language of the Church and of scholarship and France was just across the English Channel. The vocabulary of Modern English would probably be more German with fewer words derived from Latin. The total number of words might be smaller, but it is really hard to know just how many words there really are in any language. Claims that English has a larger vocabulary than most languages is impossible to verify. Since the Germanic words in Modern English tend to be the more commonly used, perhaps there wouldn’t be as much of a difference as you might think. On the other hand, there are many common Latin derived words. I’m not sure I could write this post if I were confined to words derived from Anglo-Saxon.

There might have be a greater influence from Old Norse. The Vikings or Danes had been raiding and settling in England since around the later part of the eighth century and began to settle in England by the middle of the ninth century. At one point around half of England was under the control of England. Although the Danes were driven out by King Alfred the Great, they returned and from 1013-1042, England was ruled by Danish kings. Shortly before the Battle of Hastings, Harold Godwinson had defeated an invading army of Norsemen. This long relationship between the Anglo-Saxons and VIkings added Old Norse words to the English language including, scarf, skirt, keel, knot, wife, muck, mire, and many others. If the Normans had not conquered England, perhaps the Scandinavians would have. English could be a lot closer to Scandinavian languages such as Danish or Norwegian. England could be considered another Scandinavian country.

If the Anglo-Saxons had managed to maintain control over England, perhaps Modern English would be something like Anglish. Anglish is English which has been purified or purged of foreign words. You can learn all about it at The Anglish Moot, a Wiki devoted to the subject with articles in English and Anglish telling what they are doing towards make the English language more English along with Wikipedia style articles written in Anglish and translations of texts and speeches.

Here is a description of their purpose.

The aim of Anglish/New-English is:

English with many fewer words borrowed from other tongues.

Because of the fundamental changes to our language, to say that English people today speak English is like saying that the French speak Latin. The fact is that we now speak the international language, Ancwe (Ancillary World English). Unlike most nations, we no longer “own” our language. The Anglish/New English project is intended as a means of recovering the Englishness of English and of restoring ownership of the language to the English people.

Here is a part of their article on the Banded Folkdoms of Americksland (United States of America)

The Banded Folkdoms of Americksland (BFA), mainly called the Banded Folkdoms (BF or B.F.) and Americksland, is a bound groundlawful folkwealth made up of fifty folkdoms and a bound shire. The land is indwelt in midmost Northamericksland, where its forty-eight linked folkdoms and Washington, C.S. (Columbo Shire), the headtown shire, lie between the Great Frithly and Even Seas, landlinked to Canada to the north and Mexico to the south. The folkdom of Shoulderland is in the northwest of the landstretch, with Canada to the east and Russland to the west across the Bering Narrowing. The folkdom of Firelands is an ilandcluster in the mid-Great Frithly Sea. Americksland also holds a few landstocks in the Great Frithly and Caribish Seas. Americksland is one of the world’s most heathenly sundry and manibreeding folklands, the outcome of great incomings  from many rikes. The earthlore and weather of the Banded Folkdoms is also sundry.

And a translation of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Speech.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this greatland, a new folkship, dreamt in freedom, and sworn to the forthput that all men are made evenworthy. Now we are betrothed in a great folk-war, testing whether that folkship, or any folkship so born and so sworn, can long withstand. We are met on a great battle-field of that war.

We have come to earmark a bit of that field, as a last resting spot for those who here gave their lives that that folkship might live. It is altogether meet and seemly that we should do this. But, in a greater meaning, we can not earmark — we can not bless — we can not hallow — this ground. The bold men, living and dead, who struggled here, have blessed it, far above our wretched strength to eke or take. The world will little write, nor long ken what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be earmarked here to the unfullcame work which they who fought here have thus far so highbredly put forth. It is rather for us to be here earmarked to the great task lasting before us — that from these hallowed dead we take increased drive to that belief for which they gave the last full deed of drive — that we here highly settle that these dead shall not have died in idleness — that this folkship, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that lawmoot of the folk, by the folk, for the folk, shall not swelt from the Earth.

It’s English, but not quite the English we speak. It seems less abstract, since the Latin roots and affixes that English often uses to create new words do not always have obvious meanings unless one is familiar with Latin, maybe homier is a better way to describe Anglish. It is a language closer to German both in vocabulary and in that homey quality that I wrote about not long ago.

While Anglish is interesting, and if I were a writer who wanted to write a story set in an alternate universe in which William the Bastard lost the Battle of Hastings, I would have the characters speak in Anglish, I do not altogether approve of the idea of language purification. I believe that the idea of  language purity to be almost as silly an idea as racial purity, though not nearly as silly an idea as cultural appropriation in vogue among leftists.

Languages grow by taking words from other languages. Any attempt to keep a language pure of foreign influences only stifles its growth, causing it to become something like a linguistic bonsai tree. It is the glory of English that it has always been willing and eager to take words from other languages without shame and the Latinate words the people at the Anglish Moot disdain as foreign are every bit as English as a word with a pedigree going back to Old English.

 

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