Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
John of Trevisa and Geoffrey Chaucer
By Thomas Fuller (16081661)
From the Church History of Britain
THIS year a godly, learned, and aged servant of God ended his days; namely, John de Trevisa, a gentleman of an ancient family (bearing Gules, a Garbe, Or,), born at Crocadon in Cornwall, a secular priest, and Vicar of Berkeley; a painful and faithful translator of many and great books into English, as Polychronicon, written by Ranulphus of Chester, Bartholomæus De Rerum Proprietatibus, etc. But his masterpiece was the translating of the Old and New Testament; justifying his act herein by the example of Bede, who turned the Gospel of St. John in English.
I know not which more to admire, his ability, that he couldhis courage, that he durstor his industry, that he didperform so difficult and dangerous a task; having no other commission than the command of his patron, Thomas Lord Berkeley: which lord, as the said Trevisa observeth, had the Apocalypse in Latin and French, then generally understood by the better sort as well as English, written on the roof and walls of his chapel at Berkeley; and which not long since (namely, anno 1622), so remained, as not much defaced. Whereby we may observe, that, midnight being past, some early risers even then began to strike fire, and enlighten themselves from the Scriptures.
It may seem a miracle, that the bishops being thus busy in persecuting Gods servants, and Trevisa so obnoxious to their fury for this translation, that he lived and died without any molestation. Yet was he a known enemy to monkery; witness that (among many other) of his speeches, that he had read how Christ had sent apostles and priests into the world, but never any monks or begging friars. But, whether it was out of reverence to his own aged gravity, or respect to his patrons greatness, he died full of honour, quiet, and age, little less than ninety years old. For, (1) He ended his translation of Polychronicon, (as appeareth by the conclusion thereof,) the 29th of Edward III. when he cannot be presumed less than thirty years of age. (2) He added to the end thereof, fifty (some say more) years of his own historical observations. Thus as he gave a Garbe or Wheatsheaf for his arms, so, to use the prophets expression, the Lord gathered him as a sheaf into the floor, Micah iv. 12, even full ripe and ready for the same.
We may couple with him his contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer, born (some say) in Berkshire, others in Oxfordshire, most and truest in London. If the Grecian Homer had seven, let our English have three places contest for his nativity. Our Homer, I say; only herein he differed: Mæonides nullas ipse reliquit opes: Homer himself did leave no pelf: whereas our Chaucer left behind him a rich and worshipful estate.
His father was a vintner in London; and I have heard his arms quarrelled at, being Argent and Gules strangely contrived, and hard to be blazoned. Some more wits have made it the dashing of white and red wine, (the parents of our ordinary claret), as nicking his fathers profession. But were Chaucer alive, he would justify his own arms in the face of all his opposers, being not so devoted to the Muses, but he was also a son of Mars. He was the prince of English poets; married the daughter of Pain Roëc, king of arms in France, and sister to the wife of John of Gaunt, king of Castile.
Indeed, Verstegan, a learned antiquary, condemns him, for spoiling the purity of the English tongue by the mixture of so many French and Latin words. But he who mingles wine with water, though he destroys the nature of water, improves the quality thereof.
I find this Chaucer fined in the Temple two shillings for striking a Franciscan friar in Fleet Street; and it seems his hands ever after itched to be revenged, and have his pennyworths out of them, so tickling religious Orders with his tales, and yet so pinching them with his truths, that friars, in reading his books, know not how to dispose their faces betwixt crying and laughing. He lies buried in the south aisle of St. Peters, Westminster; and since hath got the company of Spenser and Drayton, a pair royal of poets, enough almost to make passengers feet to move metrically, who go over the place where so much poetical dust is interred.