Richard Stanihurst (1547–1618) was born in Dublin of what began to be called in his day Old English stock (“the descendants of the settlers who came to Ireland from Wales, Normandy, and England after the Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169–71”), and as Andrew Hadfield writes in his TLS review of Great Deeds in Ireland: Richard Stanihurst’s De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis, edited by John Barry and Hiram Morgan, “he poured scorn on both the – as he saw them – barbarous native Irish, and the vulgar and rapacious New English who were replacing the Old English descendants of the Anglo-Normans as rulers of Ireland loyal to the English Crown.” I had to laugh when I got to this section of the review:

In a striking aside, Stanihurst repeats his judgements about English identity in Holinshed, accentuating the gap between Irish and English – “Those who live in the English province differ from the Irish in their way of life, their customs and their speech: they deviate not one finger’s breadth from the ancient ways of the English” – before turning on the mores of the English today. The English in Ireland speak the language of Chaucer, “beyond doubt the Homer of the English”, so that they use “English in such a way that you would not believe that England itself was more English”. Chaucer is the right model because “Nothing in his writings will strike the reader as being redolent of disgusting newness”, a nice dig at the moderns.

(If you want to see the passage in Latin, go to p. 28 of the Google Books version, or search on “Homerus.”) Peevers today look back on Shakespeare as the exemplar of English at its peak, but in Shakespeare’s time they looked back to Chaucer.

I was also struck by this description of the book under review, De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis: “Written in chatty, familiar Latin, and peppered with anecdotes and asides, De Rebus was designed to provide its author with an entrance to the republic of letters dominated by Erasmus and harking back to Cicero.” It chimed with this, from Richard Jenkyns’s review, earlier in the same issue of TLS, of Sarah Ruden’s new translation of The Golden Ass: “Apuleius … liked loosely hanging clauses, symmetries, echoing phrases, rocking rhythms and hints of rhyme. At the start of The Golden Ass, the narrator claims to be a Greek who has learned Latin only in adulthood: that is why his lingo may seem eccentric. And indeed it is a unique farrago of archaisms, colloquialisms, coinages and sheer fantastication, combining a driving energy with elusive beauty.” And both those descriptions reminded me of the early-nineteenth-century Russian novelists I’ve been reading, more concerned with having fun with language and storytelling than satisfying anyone’s idea of classical form.


  1. Bizarrely enough, just yesterday I started reading a novel featuring a fictional nephew of Richard Stanihurst, Charles Stanihurst, who in pre-Cromwellian 1941 Ireland, moves out of the Pale – the above mentioned “English province” and discovers another Ireland in the west.
    I can’t say anything yet to the book’s quality but it’s a fascinating historical period and fictional evocations are rare. The book and author is “Patrick Devaney” “Through the Gate of Ivory” Lilliput Press, 2003.

  2. Interesting that in the 16th century Chaucer was that legible. To me, 16th century English is archaic but close enough to the modern language, but Chaucer is very far removed.
    On the other matter, I’ve always hoped that someone who knows all the relevant languages would some day compare Apuleius and Nabokov, and tell me whether there’s something in common between these two word artists, who ended up writing in other than their native languages. Maybe it’s the mastery of a language, without the acquired habits which would hold one back from going wild.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    I don’t think my high school Latin teacher taught us any words for “disgusting,” of which I assume Latin has a variety, but I am pleased to make the acquaintance of “sputatilicus/a/um,” which apparently is glossable as something like “deserving to be spat at.” I hope the new Pope can work it into an encyclical.

  4. Acutia: It’s interesting to think about an Ireland in which there were still English and Irish provinces during the Second World War. That would imply that there had never been an Act of Union, and probably no Flight of the Earls either.

  5. Y, while Chaucer was evidently understandable to Stanihurst, speaker of an English that had evidently not moved on that much, that doesn’t mean to say your average London-born Elizabethan could understand him. But I’m sure someone here knows sources that say whether, eg, Marlow would have understood Chaucer much more easily than we can …

  6. pre-Cromwellian 1941 Ireland
    I suppose there were a lot of cavaliers escaping Nazi Europe.

  7. Until the distinction between Middle and Modern English was understood, editors just routinely modernized Chaucer. The result was that while the punters could understand him, they thought he wasn’t a very skilled poet, what with all the off-rhymes and defective meters; his work was seen as the first crude beginnings of English versification.

  8. @ AJP Crown & John Cowan:
    I could not, for the life of me, figure out the associations you were making in your comments, until I actually saw the date I posted. Doh! Apologies for the witching hour typo.

  9. I keep a Google document with a timeline of peeving, so that in a pinch I can show a peever that he is in a centuries-long tradition of people bitching that the language is going to hell. This is my new earliest entry, antedating a 1672 Dryden quote:
    “these absurdities, which [Jonson and Shakespeare] committed, may more properly be called the age’s fault than theirs.”

  10. John Cowan — the only early edition of Chaucer I’m familiar with is Caxton’s. A quick search shows other editions, by Wynkyn de Worde (1498), Pynson (1492), Thynne (1532), and Stow (1561). I think these did not attempt to modernize the English, but I’m not sure.
    From the anti-peeverists of the era comes this comment on Chaucer (amongst others), From Thomas Wilson’s The Art of Rhetoric of 1560 (here with modernized spelling):
    “Among all other lessons this should first be learned, that we never affect any strange inkhorn terms, but to speak as is commonly received: neither seeking to be over-fine, nor yet living over-careless using our speech as most men do, and ordering our wits as the fewest have done. Some seek so far for outlandish English, that they forget altogether their mothers’ language. And I dare swear this, if some of their mothers were alive, they were not able to tell what they say: and yet these fine English clerks will say, they speak in their mother tongue, if a man should charge them for counterfeiting the King’s English. Some far-journeyed gentlemen, at their return home, like as they love to go in foreign apparel, so they will powder their talk with oversea language. He that comes lately out of France, will talk French English and never blush at the matter. Another chops in with English Italianated, and applies the Italian phrase to our English speaking, the which is, as if an orator that professes to utter his mind in plain Latin, would needs speak poetry, and farfetched colours of strange antiquity. The Lawyer will store his stomach with the prating of peddlers. The auditor, in making his account and reckoning, cometh in with sise sould, and cater denere, for 6s. [and] 4d. The fine courtier wil talk nothing but Chaucer. The mystical wise-man and poetical clerks will speak nothing but quaint proverbs and blind allegories, delighting much in their own darkness, especially when none can tell what they do say. The unlearned or foolish phantastical, that smells but of learning (such fellows as have seen learned men in their days) will so Latin their tongues, that the simple can not but wonder at their talk, and think surely they speak by some revelation. I know them that think rhetoric to stand wholly upon dark words, and he that can catch an inkhorn term by the tail, him they count to be a fine Englishman, and a good rhetorician.”

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    Wilson seems rather peeverish his own self. Surely counseling the avoidance of high-falutin’ foreignisms and suchlike affectations is a common theme of modern peeving, even if the peevers do not consistently follow their own advice.
    I will admit that I’m not sure what his beef with Chaucer was in context; although the implicit contrast between “plain Latin” (in an up-to-date 16th century version?) and the “farfetched colors of strange antiquity” is an interesting one.

  12. JW, you may have a point. I had been imagining Wilson’s courtiers speaking would-be Chaucerian English, and looking down their noses at the commoners speaking like commoners. Perhaps Wilson’s snobs are not peevers, in that they don’t want the world to reform, they just want to place themselves above it.

  13. A quick search shows other editions, by Wynkyn de Worde
    Wynkyn de Worde! That’s going right into my mental stash of all-time great names.

  14. Wynkyn de Worde was the inheritor of Caxton’s shop, and is an important figure in the history of English printing.
    He also published a book of stupid jokes, The Demaundes Joyous, the first one in English.

  15. Despite what he says, the original Anglo-Norman invaders of Ireland back in the days of Richard “Strongbow” fitz Gilbert de Clare were mostly French-speaking, at least at the ruling class level.

  16. Y, I was more thinking of the 17th and 18th centuries than the 16th. I have spent a while searching for examples, but in vain.

  17. He also published a book of stupid jokes, The Demaundes Joyous, the first one in English.
    “How many calues tayles behoueth to reche frome the erthe to the skye?”
    “No more but one if it be longe ynough!”
    (Punctuation added.) Better than Cap’n Billy’s Whiz Bang! It took me a minute to realize that Demaunde = question, and the Demaunde at the start of each thigh-slapper could be replaced by Q.

  18. dearieme says

    “the original Anglo-Norman invaders of Ireland”: I’ve seen them referred to as “Cambro-Norman”. Apparently many of their infantry were Flemish. A sort of NATO before its time, I suppose.

  19. Wardroper’s edition of The Demaundes Joyous has a facsimile of the original, annotations, and the history of early feelthy jokes. A perfect gift for any 15-year-old medievalist of your acquaintance (it was for me.)

  20. If there’s one thing I can’t stand when reading today’s fiction, it’s the redolence of disgusting newness.

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