Chaucer’s skill at representing demotic speech—especially that pungently indecorous kind that passes for the ordinary talk of people in a golden age before canons of politesse and decorum got hold of it—has long been central to his reputation, even (or perhaps especially) among those not otherwise committed to upholding this or any other kind of literary valuation. Each of us can probably call up from our middle childhood, well before we were conscious of participating in any literary culture, an anecdote something like the one Ralph Hanna adduces as testimony to that alleged mastery of “salty” talk by which Chaucer (here, as often, standing for The Medieval more generally) often comes to our first notice at an impressionable age.1 He recalls a scolding by his father for having used (unspecified) “bad language.” After fulfilling his paternal duty to enforce the (inferrably maternal) standards of propriety whose violation prompted the rebuke, his father added a concession that made the occasion memorable: “but what you said wouldn’t have bothered Chaucer.” To eleven-year-old Ralph, it suggested not only that parental discipline held a less united front than previously supposed, but that the daily language of the deep past was a treasury of unknown and hitherto untapped discursive possibility. A world in which one could say “piss” with impunity had once actually existed, and might be worth knowing more about. (Yes, the offending term on that occasion seems to have been “piss”—and we will return to it shortly.)
The illusion that the living speech-world of dead poets’ societies [End Page 29] might be directly recoverable from literary texts—where it is imagined as preserved like flies in amber, largely unmodified by their surrounding/containing medium—is an extremely tenacious one, to which classicists as well as medievalists are strongly attracted, if only because any other kind of access to the ambient talk of the deep past is beyond our reach.2 The very tenacity of that illusion attests to the kind of work that such moments of “loose talk” do in vernacular literary texts of the later fourteenth century. Irruptions of pungently demotic speech, (usually) in direct discourse, were a device that presented a different handle and cutting “edge” for poetic use from simple reflection of spoken language. Their effects, and their distinctive formal utility to Langland and Chaucer, will be my immediate concern here, as I explore (in an insufficient number of sketchy, discontinuous, and often minute examples) the defining properties, perpetual freshness, and radically destabilizing potential of this device. I think I can demonstrate that it is a literary device, not an inadvertent leakage of “natural” speech into artful texts, and that both poets were thoroughly conversant with it as such—less by way of their acquired knowledge of formal rhetoric (where all authorities agree in regarding it as a device of fictive discourse chiefly) than as striking usages in some of their direct vernacular models. But “loose talk” also became in this period a site of cultural ambiguities and ameliorating inventions, both requiring repeatedly renewed adjustments in the very brief moment, possibly no more than a decade, of our two poets’ formal experiments with it. Among the many provocations in Chaucer’s and Langland’s use of this technique is its durable affinity for the rude and excremental, as well as the sudden—features that prove integral to its more profound and intellectually respectable functions.
“Loose talk” as a category is not essentially salacious, scandalous, or irresponsible—though each of these modifiers suggests some of the accidental qualities of the device that made it interesting to both poets. It is not limited to “naughty” lexicon and idiom, of the sort explored some time ago, to different purposes, by both Charles Muscatine and D. W. [End Page 30] Robertson, and memorably exemplified in Jean de Meun’s portion of the Roman de la rose in the Lover’s critique of the use of plain vernacular terms for bodily parts and processes (it is noteworthy that he frames his distaste in an obscene double entendre: such things are “unbecoming in a lady’s mouth”).3 Nor is it co...