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In the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, we're introduced to Madame Eglentyne, a prioress (a nun). On lines 124-126, there's a confusing passage where we're told that she speaks elegant French, but that she doesn't know the French of Paris:

And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hir unknowe.

Why would someone know French but not the French of Paris? Is this a joke about her (and the people around her) thinking she knows French, when the fact is that her French is essentially gibberish?

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    It is likely she speaks a 'high' or 'written' French while the parisians have an accent and dialouge that she has never learned, not having learned French from the French... The difference is probably much like speaking english taught by an middle class nanny, or speaking English with a strong Scottish accent.
    – Mirte
    Commented Jul 12, 2017 at 16:32

2 Answers 2

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No one knows, but it is likely a joke at the expense of the Prioress.

There are, as you have observed, multiple ways of interpreting this text.

It could be that Parisian French is radically different from the scholarly French taught at "the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe". It's not hard to imagine that the sanitised French taught in an English convent could be quite different to the rough dialect spoken on the streets of Paris. It could also be a matter of accent or skill: that she can recite genteel phrases but cannot actually converse or understand real French.

Given the multiple interpretations and the distance in time from the authorship of the text, we can never know for certain what exact meaning Chaucer intended here. However, we can infer what his intentions were.

Whatever the interpretation, the Prioress - alongside many other religious characters - is held up in the Tales as a figure of mockery. She breaks a number of rules of religious life, yet clinging to the mannerisms and rights her station gives her. She also has a habit of aping courtly ladies, which is not befitting to the role of a prioress.

Given this, whatever is wrong with her French it is clear these lines are poking fun at her "achievement" in trying to speak it. Indeed it may be a double joke. Not only is she taking on airs by claiming a useless skill, but since French was, at this point, the language of the English court, her having learned it at all may be another example of how she is imitating aristocratic manners in place of focusing on her religious role.

Reference: W. Rothwell, The Chaucer Review, Volume 36, Number 2, 2001

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  • This is the case for a lot of languages today. Learning the Arabic language of the Qur'an is unlikely to help you a whole lot in navigating complex social situations and not getting ripped off trying to buy a fez at a Marrakesh market. Commented Jul 25, 2017 at 18:29
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The point is that she speaks a bastardized French resulting from the French-speaking Normans having been in England since the Conquest (1066). At this point, the French spoken by English nobles had undergone radical changes due to interaction with Anglo-Saxon/Old English, becoming a bastardized form called Anglo-Norman. By the 1300s, most people, even the nobility descended from the Normans, primarily spoke English (to be specific, Middle English). So poets and French teachers had to be brought in from Paris to give the nobility (and social climbers like the Prioress) instruction in French, which was to them now a second language. The Prioress apparently doesn't have access to those Parisian teachers, and is learning her French presumably from native English speakers who also learned their French as a second language. Chaucer's narrator is a bit of a dim-bulb who still says she speaks "fair and fetisly" (beautifully, elegantly), but since Chaucer himself was fully fluent in good French as well as Latin, in reality he probably found such French speakers to be hicks.

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