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THE BIENNIAL CHAUCER LECTURE The New Chaucer Society Fourteenth International Congress July 15th–19th, 2004 University of Glasgow PAGE 23 ................. 11491$ PRT2 11-01-10 14:00:36 PS PAGE 24 ................. 11491$ PRT2 11-01-10 14:00:37 PS The Biennial Chaucer Lecture ‘‘I speke of folk in seculer estaat’’: Vernacularity and Secularity in the Age of Chaucer Alastair Minnis The Ohio State University Between 1934 and 1946, Georges de Lagarde published a five-volume study entitled La naissance de l’esprit laique, wherein he tracks certain developments in the ‘‘secteur social de la scolastique,’’ and places considerable emphasis on the political philosophy of Marsilius of Padua and William of Ockham, both of whom defended the interests of empire against those of the church.1 From this material he amasses a substantial body of evidence for what he identifies as the growth and development of a ‘‘lay spirit’’ in the later Middle Ages. This study, considerably influential for at least three decades (it ran to three editions) may be criticized in respect of many of its details—or rather, the weight that Lagarde has them bear—and it too often suppresses or elides the religious frameworks that are indispensable for a comprehensive understanding of many of the developments that it identifies as crucial. But the ambition of Lagarde’s study is quite stunning, and in my personal opinion its central thesis is fundamentally correct. It was supported by Walter Ullmann, albeit with different emphases, in his research on the development of political and social thought in the later Middle Ages, wherein the role of recently recovered Aristotelian texts, particularly the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics, is seen as crucial for the growth of 1 La naissance de l’esprit laique, 5 vols. (1934–46; 3rd ed. Louvain: Nauwelaerts, 1956–70). PAGE 25 25 ................. 11491$ $CH2 11-01-10 14:00:52 PS STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER secularity.2 The past sixty years have seen the growth of a major tradition of studies in this crucial area, including (to name but a few) monographs by John W. Baldwin, Michael Wilks, J. A. Watt, Brian Tierney, and Joel Kaye.3 Distinguished recent additions include Peter Biller’s The Measure of Multitude and—a study of particular relevance for the present essay—Matthew Kempshall’s The Common Good in Late-Medieval Political Thought.4 My aim here is to raise the possibility that research from such a perspective needs to be undertaken in respect of late medieval European literature. I will make the case with unapologetic reference to ‘‘high culture’’ texts produced in the fourteenth century in France and England , countries that were culturally close (insofar as they shared a corpus of crucial ideological sources) although politically divided. We have heard much recently of ‘‘vernacular theology,’’ and of the special importance of ‘‘vernacularity’’ in religious culture. I have no desire whatever to criticize this trend, one of the most compelling in the past decade of Middle English Studies (and one that I myself have labored to promote). But surely it is high time that some sense of balance was restored by an examination of texts that are expressive of ‘‘vernacular social philosophy .’’ Hence, betwixt earnest and game, I propose a new partner for that demanding term ‘‘vernacularity’’—namely, ‘‘secularity.’’ The playful element in my proposal is a means of admitting (initial) embarrass2 See, for example, Ullmann’s studies The Origins of the Great Schism: A Study in Fourteenth -Century Ecclesiastical History (London: Burns and Oates, 1948), The Growth of Papal Government in the Middle Ages (London: Methuen, 1955), and Law and Politics in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975). Taking a different but crucially related tack, his younger contemporary Ernest Kantorowicz demonstrated the ofteninterwoven nature of medieval theological and political discourse, in The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957). 3 Baldwin, The Medieval Theories of the Just Price (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1959), Masters, Princes, and Merchants: The Social Views of Peter the Chanter and His Circle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), and The Government of Philip Augustus: Foundations of French Royal Power in the Middle Ages (Berkeley and...


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