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Tuesday, August 24, 2021

English Prose in the Age of Chaucer

English Prose in Middle Ages,English Prose in Age of Chaucer,John Mandeville,Walter Hilton,John Wyclif,John Capgrave,John Fortescue,Polychronicon

English Prose in the Middle Ages (in the Age of Chaucer)


Q. Give an account of the English prose writings of the age of Chaucer.


Chaucer was a poet and his literary inspiration quickened definitely the expansion of literature in England and Scotland. Of course, his contemporaries, successors, and followers were not his equals, but they continued the tradition of English poetry and paved, to some extent, the path for the march of the Renaissance.

But the case was different with English prose. There was no mighty innovator or literary genius to expand it or provide inspiration to new writers. As a result, the art of prose writing had no significantly creative advancement since the time of Ancrene Riwle. The learned and scholarly Englishmen still preferred Latin as the formal medium, and the English prose style, in such a context, had hardly any scope for growth. As a matter of fact, of the chronicles, compiled during the fifteenth century, barely seven were in English, while nearly twenty-four were written in Latin.

Moreover, there was the continuation of the same tradition in vernacular prose compositions. As in old English, didactic lives of the saints were repeatedly rendered into English from Latin. Sermons and homilies had the same old character, containing similar legendary illustrations. The middle and later part of the fourteenth century had the use of English prose for the rendering of Biblical texts by means of the translations and adaptations of Latin and French originals, with the commentaries and exhaustive treatment of virtues and vices. Then from the last quarter of the century onwards, a variety of prose materials began to appear. There were historical and scientific treatises, allegorical, theological, and philosophical arguments and speculations and dialogues. Some interesting prose authors and works are examined briefly below.


There was actually no earnest effort at first to create original literary works in English prose. The prevalent trend, as noted already, was to translate foreign authors. John of Trevisa, a parish priest and Chaucer's contemporary translated Highden's Polychronicon and that proved to be an unhappy enterprise. The translation never seemed adequate enough.

Mandeville's Travels

But more popular was the work – The Travels of Sir John Mandeville – once supposed to be an original work. It was subsequently found to be an excellent literary fraud, presenting an imaginary knight's extraordinary adventures in some fabulous lands.

Mandeville's work was very popular – almost a household name - as a fascinating record of the experiences of a traveler, Sir John Mandeville. A long time after, it came to be known that Sir John had never lived, that his travels had never taken place, and that his so-called personal experiences had been compiled from different authorities on travels. Such diverting and popular accounts of divergent travels were found all lies.

Whatever might be fraudulent in it, Mandeville's work opened up a new avenue in the literary expression in medieval literature. That was to turn a manual for travels into an entertaining storybook.


Chaucer himself also attempted to translate in prose without any success. The two tales of The Canterbury Tales—The Tale Melibeus and The Parson's Tale – were actually translated from French. But his most ambitious attempt was the translation of Boethius's De Consoleatine Philosophiae from Latin, already translated by King Alfred. Chaucer, however, failed to show his originality or literary success in his translations.


Of the contemporaries of Chaucer, two prose-writers – Walter Hilton and John Wyclif – need be mentioned as doing something more than mere translations. Hilton's The Scale (or Ladder) of Perfection is a devotional work, written in terse and clear prose, anticipating Banyan's manner in The Pilgrim's Progress, Hilton's language has no wide range of variety, but his presentation of abstract and abstruse thoughts with ease is quite commendable. His expression is all through found simple and more modern than his fellow authors. There is noted no craze for novel and uncommon terms, no conventional leaning to tautologous expressions, or no random use of alliterative sentences in him. His lofty thoughts, clear insight, and just judgment are not more striking than the clarity as well as simplicity of his style.

John Wyclif

John Wyclif, designated as the first Protestant, is a more renowned name as a prose-writer in English. His English writings include religious tracts, leaflets, and pamphlets, addressed to the English people, about his struggle against the authoritarianism of the Pope of Rome. These are, however, minor works, and Wyclif's most important contribution to English prose lies in his English translation of the New Testament. Although the translation is literal, and not clear and simple always, it has the significance of laying the foundation of the Biblical translation and inspiring the famous Authorised Version of 1611.

Other Religious Prose Works

Wyclif's influence is definitely marked in other religious prose works, now mostly non-existent. Of the fragments, yet surviving, The Revelations of Divine Love by Juliana of Norwich, an anchoress, The Book of Margery Kemp, a sort of religious autobiography of a lady, Margery Kemp, The Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy, a bold defense of the clergy, and The Reule of Cristen Religion, a treatment of Christian principles, by Reginald Peacock, a learned bishop, may be mentioned. Peacock is particularly an important name here. His Repressor is quite original and provocative work. This is an elaborate work, arranged in five parts. Each part, again, is divided into several chapters. The work has a short prologue, that sets forth the author's purport and plans to defend eleven points in the governance of the clergy, condemned by some common people. The work well bears out how Peacock was the well advance of his age and class. In The Book of Faith, Peacock is found to pursue the same plan cf facing the heretics of his ground and goes to discuss whether the church can err. Peacock's style is clear and has a wide range of applicability. His terms are not merely theological, but also quite unconventional.

Prose Chronicles

By the side of religious literature in prose, there are traced some popular prose chronicles in English. John Capgrave, a highly learned and much-traveled friar of Lynn in Norfolk is noted for his singular prose chronicle. A Chronicle of England was written in a clear and terse prose style. The English Chronicle, supposed to be written by some monk, and The Chronicle, by John Warkworth, a Lancastrian, are the two other works which may be simply mentioned, as some immature attempts.

Miscellaneous Prose Works

There are some other prose works on other items. The Master of Game by the Duke of York is an elaborate treatise on hunting, while Monarchia or The Difference between an Absolute and a Limited Monarchy by Sir John Fortescue, a judge, and constitutional expert, is on the English constitution and the personal freedom, enjoyed by the English subjects of the time. The work combines a eulogy of the English theoretical system of government, with advice for its practical reformation. Fortescue, again, distinguishes between the two kinds of monarchy, absolute and constitutional, and praises the advantages of the latter.

In this connection Malory's rendering of Arthurian romances into prose is worth mentioning here. In a simple, straightforward, and rather sonorous prose he presents the romantic stories of King Arthur and the Knights of his Round Table. His mode of expression endowed his romances with a naturalness that makes them all convincing to the readers of all times, contemporary and distant. This is, as rightly asserted, the first English book in poetic prose.

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