Verba vana: empty words in Ricardian London
By Robert Ellis
PhD Dissertation, Queen Mary, University of London, 2012
Abstract: Verba Vana, or ‘empty words’, are named as among the defining features of London by a late fourteenth-century Anglo-Latin poem which itemises the properties of seven English cities. This thesis examines the implications of this description; it explores, in essence, what it meant to live, work, and especially write, in an urban space notorious for the vacuity of its words.
The thesis demonstrates that anxieties concerning the notoriety of empty words can be detected in a wide variety of surviving urban writings produced in the 1380s and 1390s. These include anxieties not only about idle talk – such as janglynge, slander, and other sins of the tongue – but also about the deficiencies of official discourses which are partisan, fragmentary and susceptible to contradiction and revision. This thesis explores these anxieties over the course of four discrete chapters.
Chapter one, focusing on Letter-Book H, Richard Maidstone’s Concordia and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Cook’s Tale, considers how writers engaged with the urban power struggles that were played out on Cheapside. Chapter two, examining the 1388 Guild Petitions, considers how the London guilds legitimised their textual endeavours and argues that the famous Mercers’ Petition is a translation of the hitherto-ignored Embroiderers’ Petition.
Chapter three, looking at several works by Chaucer, John Gower, the Monk of Westminster and various urban officials, explores the discursive space that emerges following justified and unjustified executions. Chapter four, focusing on Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale and John Clanvowe’s Boke of Cupide, contends that the crises of speech and authority that these poems dramatise can be productively read within the context of the Merciless Parliament of 1388. Through close textual analysis, this thesis analyses specific responses to the prevalence of empty words in the city, while also reflecting more broadly on the remarkable cultural, linguistic, social, and political developments witnessed in this period.