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The Chaucer Review 36.2 (2001) 184-207

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Stratford Atte Bowe Re-Visited

W. Rothwell

One of the most familiar quotations in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is the reference to his Prioress speaking the French of "Stratford atte Bowe" rather than that of Paris, which she did not know. Yet there is no consensus as to the meaning of the phrase. Editors of the tales have explained it in different ways. A. C. Cawley says: "The Prioress spoke French with the accent she had learned in her convent (the Benedictine nunnery of St Leonard's, near Stratford-Bowe in Middlesex)," 1 but more recently, without mentioning this explanation, The Riverside Chaucer suggests that her French was marked by more than just its accent, claiming that she spoke "in the manner of (After the scole of) Stratford atte Bowe (rather than that of the royal court)." This wider interpretation would open the door to a distinction not just between two different pronunciations, but between two different types of French. Furthermore, the reference in parentheses to the royal court introduces a new element, creating the possibility of a linguistic situation consisting not of two forms of the language, as in Chaucer's text, but three: 1) the "correct" French of Paris, 2) a non-standard French recognizibly associated with the areas of Stratford and Bow in East London, and 3) this third unspecified type, allegedly used in England at the royal court and contrasting with the Stratford atte Bowe variety, but not mentioned by Chaucer. However, whilst such a three-fold distinction would have the merit of recognizing that Cawley's restriction of the linguistic differences to one of local accent does not correspond to the sense of the text, where the Prioress is clearly stated to be ignorant not just of the Parisian accent but of the actual language of Paris, it is no more than a gratuitous creation of the editor, having no textual basis. 2 Chaucer's comparison involves two elements, not three: the French used at the royal court does not come into the picture, and there is no attempt made in The Riverside Chaucer to explain the choice of an apparently nondescript area of London to represent what the readers of The Canterbury Tales must have understood immediately in the later fourteenth century as being the seat of a non-Parisian form of French. 3 Cawley must be given credit for seeing that there was a connection between Madame Eglentyne's French and her vocation, but he did not get beyond the possible identification of Chaucer's model for his prioress [End Page 184] with one particular nunnery, offering no reason for this. Any convincing explanation of "Stratford atte Bowe" needs to be sought against a wider background: it will entail looking again at Chaucer's meticulous portrayal of Madame Eglentyne, examining the role of the religious houses in later fourteenth century England, and, above all, trying to understand the multilingual aspect of the social situation obtaining in the country at that time.

The portrait of the Prioress has been analyzed in detail more than once, 4 always in the perspective of gentle mockery on the part of Chaucer. Eileen Power used Madame Eglentyne as a foil against which to sketch broadly the life of the medieval nun in society, noting points such as her infringement of the Church's ban on the keeping of pets in the convent, her unveiling of her broad forehead, her leaving the convent to go on a pilgrimage, etc., an approach taken further by Helen Cooper's close scrutiny of the imperfections Chaucer built into his portrait, concluding that the Prioress is not quite the genuine article either as a nun or as a courtly lady. This latter criticism is occasioned by Chaucer's remark about Madame Eglentyne's attempt to imitate the court--"she . . . peyned hire to countrefete cheere / Of court . . ." (139-40), which may perhaps be responsible for the misleading conjecture about the French of the royal court found in the Riverside Chaucer. 5 Whilst none of this can be gainsaid, it does not necessarily...


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