The Father Of English Literature
The fact that English is the mostly widely spoken language in the world is indirectly thanks to the significant influence of Italy on England.
Geoffrey Chaucer is considered the father of English literature; his thirteenth century masterpiece The Canterbury Tales is credited by many scholars with popularising and establishing vernacular English in literature, which ultimately led to the richness of English literature and the diffusion of the English language that we know and see today. His poetical opus is also a hugely significant historical document, providing us with the first authentic record of English town life, while reflecting people’s aspirations to rise above their social rank in a modernising England.
The Black Death Breathes Life Into England
The first influence from Italy on Chaucer’s life was a tenuous but disastrous one: the Black Death was brought to England by ships returning from the European mainland, where it had arrived from merchant ships docking in the Italian port of Genoa in the summer of 1348. Half of England’s estimated population of six million had been struck down by the plague before it finally abated a year and a half later; the cataclysmic consequences were profound and would endure for years after, its intermittent return notwithstanding.
For those that survived, life had changed forever. God and the clergy, who had seemed deaf and helpless during that apocalyptic period, were now questioned as never before, and their previous power and control over the people had been weakened. The significantly reduced population also meant that there would be a labour shortage for many years, so peasants were no longer required to tolerate bad treatment from their aristocratic masters. There were also fewer of these aristocrats, whose wealth and titles had not spared them from the undiscerning pestilence that had killed so many of their labourers. With many vacant noble titles and a newly-empowered workforce, social mobility was born in England, and a mercantile class presented itself.
Chaucer Moves Up
Chaucer was one of those to benefit from this brave new world. He rose from being a lowly page to the relative heights of the low nobility of an esquire – somewhere between a gentleman and a knight – working at the behest of the king. It was while working for John of Gaunt, uncle of the young King Richard II (and thereby de facto ruler of England), that Chaucer was sent to Italy on an errand. While there, he almost certainly came across Dante’s The Divine Comedy, written in the vernacular Florentine. Dante’s language would go on to become the foundation of modern Italian. Chaucer saw that Dante had eschewed the traditionally esteemed Latin for the more accessible language of the ordinary man, and this would surely have influenced him when he ultimately made the decision to choose the vernacular over the ecclesiastical.
However, Dante was not the only influence on Chaucer during his stay in the peninsula. There is a distinct possibility that he may have met his contemporaries Francesco Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio. While there is no proof Chaucer owned a copy of Boccaccio’s The Decameron, it is certain that he read it. Boccaccio’s masterpiece was also written in the vernacular Florentine, but apart from that, it has many obvious inspirations for Chaucer: it is written as a frame narrative of a group of people telling stories, and several of Chaucer’s tales (those of the Franklin, the Clerk, the Merchant, the Pardoner, the Shipman and the Reeve) are all clear reworkings of original stories in The Decameron.
Also just like Boccacio, Chaucer wrote about a broad range of his own society, reflecting their values in the way they spoke, and the stories they told, so that nearly six-and-a-half centuries later, students in Italy can read stories of knights nobly fighting for the love of a beautiful woman in ancient Greece under the auspices of the gods, followed by a randy student shoving a red-hot agricultural implement up a flatulent love rival’s backside.
Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales are, for the most part, written in ten syllables, just as a Petrarchan sonnet, and other Italian poetry, traditionally would have been. Inspired by this, and marrying it with the Greek iambs of a stressed/unstressed rhythm, he created iambic pentameter, which he relied upon heavily in The Canterbury Tales, and which would become the most common form of poetry in English.
With the arrival of the Caxton’s printing press in England seventy years after Chaucer’s death, one of the first books to be mechanically published in that country was The Canterbury Tales. The printed English literary canon was born, and the English language of the common man – not the French of the Norman conquerors of 1066 or the Latin of the church – was the chosen medium. A prestige had been bestowed, and a precedent had been set, from which the English language never looked back.
The Italian Legacy
So, thanks to a fateful Italian voyage that brought an epidemic that changed European and English society, a young page had the chance to rise up and experience almost the entire gamut of English society, enabling him to record it for posterity. His travels in Italy inspired him to choose the language of his own people to write in, and that language would become the language Shakespeare would choose while writing arguably the world’s richest and best-loved literature of all. (Incidentally, thirteen of Shakespeare’s plays were set in Italy, and the structure of his sonnets was a reworking of that of the Italian sonnet.)
Not even considering that English has hundreds of Italian loanwords in its lexicon, and has a strong Latin influence, its prevalence throughout the world today is in some way attributable to the fathers of the Renaissance of 14th Century Italy, who unwittingly fathered another child: English as a literary language.
Today, English is being brought back to Italy through schools such as Acorn House International, and this is simply a modern-day continuation of the ongoing exchange between these two great cultures and languages.
John is the Middle School Coordinator for the English Curriculum. His favourite writers are Shakespeare, Dickens and the students in his English classes.