On the Chancery Standard

And here is a second new entry for the HEL Timeline. Both of these have been exercises in wandering down some new byways: if you have any comments, please append them!

The Chancery (the office of the chancellor) had existed for at least a century and a half before this, but in 1377 a house was officially deeded to the Keeper of the Rolls to house the rolls and the business of keeping these official records. It stayed there until the PRO was built on the site between 1845 and 1895. The “Chancery English” that the office used–though it was variable–can be used as a bellwether for the later medieval development of English. What was the Chancery, and what does its use of English show us?

As deadening as it can be to read, the language of bureaucracy is the language of state (and, today, corporate) power. The growth of the Chancery signifies how English rises from being the third-rate language of the hoi-polloi to attain this status. As Fisher explains, “until the end of the fifteenth century, Chancery comprises virtually all of the national bureaucracy in England except the closely allied Exchequer [that managed the treasury]” (39). Its language came to define the parameters of royal power, including all judiciary functions and those later defined by various offices that answered to the King:

As custodian of the Great Seal, it was the central agency for the administration both of justice and of national affairs. . . . A mass of written petitions to the King and Council for letters of remedy and grants of land and money passed through the Chancery annually [along with] the ensealed writs and charters issued in response to these petitions. . . . The clerks . . . issued the summonses that brought parliaments together and the writs of expenses that sent knights and burgesses home with proof of their claims for wages. Chancery clerks both wrote and received petitions to Parliament and classified and presented them to the magnates who were the “triers” of petitions. They kept the rolls which recorded the proceedings of Parliament and drafted and enrolled the statutes that emerged from these proceedings. Chancery was likewise responsible for the administration of customs, taxes, and subsidies (since these derived from Parliament). All of the most important administrative officials looked to the Chancellor for their commissions of appointment and for authorizations for the most important actions. (42)

In 1400, there were about 120 clerks who worked in the Chancery (43). Documents issued by the Office of the Privy Seal were also copied by the Chancery–which is interesting because that is where Thomas Hoccleve, literary disciple of Chaucer, worked from 1387 until 1425. Hoccleve, after he retired, wrote a Formulary, a book of templates that clerks might use to construct documents.

Since it assumes such importance, its worth noting when and where English appears in it, and the Rolls of Parliament (the Rotuli Parliamentorum), scribed by the Chancery, “may be taken as a yardstick against which to measure the evolution of Chancery Standard” (46). They tell us that Parliament was first addressed in English in 1362, and that it was opened in English in 1363, 1364, and 1381. The first entry written in English was in 1388 for a petition by the Mercer’s Guild; after that, English entries appear in 1397, 1399, 1403, 1404, 1405, 1411, 1414 (twice), and 1421 (twice). After 1422, the accession of Henry VI, English entries become more frequent, and are the rule by 1450 (45-46).

A 2002 essay by Michael Benskin indicates problems with Fisher’s argument, showing that Chancery English in fact varied quite a bit, and that the line between Chancery English and PDE is not as clear as Fisher depicts; the models that fifteenth-century writers looked to did vary (there were regional models, for instance). But it remains true that the Chancery’s use of English provides a measure of the later medieval move away from French and Latin, and the corresponding recognition of the textual (and oral) ability of English to articulate and sustain the mechanisms of power.

See: Fisher, ch. 2, “A Language Policy for England”; Knowles 53-54; Crystal, CEEL 41, 54; Lerer, Inventing English ch. 8; Marilyn Corrie, “Middle English-Dialects and Diversity,” esp. 111-114, in Mugglestone (who cites Benskin’s essay). For copies of the texts, see John Fisher, Malcolm Richardson, and Jane L. Fisher, An Anthology of Chancery English (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1984), though its introduction is superseded by his chapter cited above. On Hoccleve, see Fisher 33-34, and Ethan Knapp, The Bureaucratic Muse (University Park: Penn State UP, 2001), esp. 29-36 on the Formulary.


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