French has a long and important career in England and the study of England and Britain’s medieval culture is radically incomplete without it. Nearly one thousand literary texts from the early twelfth century to the early fifteenth century are listed in the most important survey of francophone English literature to date, Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts, ANTS OPS 3 (London: Anglo-Norman Text Society, 1997) by Ruth J. Dean with the assistance of Maureen B. M. Boulton. Equally significant is French’s career as a language of record, used for documentation and administration in royal, provincial and civic government; important in many professions and occupations domestically and abroad (law, trade, maritime work, medicine, clerical work, for instance); and a civic, petitionary, epistolary, accounting, and administrative language across a wide class range (so that for example, a group of fourteenth-century fishermen might use this language to petition parliament against a new form of fishing equipment that is disturbing the oyster beds and threatening to make them unsustainable). This site includes a bibliographic guide to the French records of medieval England.
French and English are linguistically intertwined through their long co-habitation: the interchange between the two languages, each being affected by the other in different ways, can scarcely be underestimated, any more than can the literary, cultural and political effects of the contacts between these languages in insular territories and related cultures. Even today the Oxford English Dictionary is rewriting many of its etymologies to take fuller account of the fact that insular French contributes a very high percentage (30% or more in some views) of English lexis and that French words are not necessarily imported from the continent. French was also England’s only transregional vernacular throughout the Middle Ages and hence vital in diplomacy, trade, war – in all forms of cultural contact and exchange – between England and other European and Mediterranean regions. It is also indispensable in administration across the frequently shifting continental European domains attached to the English crown.
In recent years, new paradigms focusing on the multilingualism of English culture have modified older monoglot accounts in which England and English were seen as a natural and default conglomeration of land, people and language. French complicates the literary, linguistic and cultural story of England in innumerable ways. The French of England is a field that provides many avenues for post-colonial, feminist and post-disciplinary studies which seek to cross, re-align, and rethink disciplinary boundaries. It is equally important in manuscript history, book history and material and visual culture inquiries, since the codices and artifacts of medieval England seldom respect the linguistic boundaries that have largely defined the modern disciplines under which they are studied. Scholars are asking new questions about the ways in which “French” texts are “English” and about the interrelations between insular French literature, that of the continent, and the literatures of other medieval cultures.
The French of England Project (FoE) is based at Fordham University in New York City and has also been located in and supported by the University of York, UK. It has received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities in the USA and from the Modern Humanities Research Association in the UK.
French of England/ Anglo-Norman/ Anglo-French?
‘The French of England’ is a term aimed primarily at people interested in medieval English literature and history and intended to carry with it a challenge to any attempt to put easy boundaries around the languages, territories, culture and literature of medieval England. It also challenges chronological boundaries: the older term for English French, ‘Anglo-Norman,’ usually refers to the language of texts composed in England from the early twelfth to the late thirteenth centuries and a second older usage of the term ‘Anglo-French’ refers to texts circulating in England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries from other francophone regions. But these older terms disguise the fact that French texts and documents continued to be composed in England into the fifteenth century and occlude the presence of texts from other francophone regions in England before the fourteenth century and the circulation of English French texts out into other European regions.
Scholars from the modern discipline of French studies regard the term ‘French of England’ with considerable ambivalence, rightly pointing out that it underemphasizes the extent to which England shares French as a language with Flanders, Hainault, the Île de France, Champagne, Artois and Picardy, the Mediterranean (‘Outremer’) and other European regions. In this regard, however, the term ‘French of England’ is meant to participate in the current re-thinking of varieties of French in the Middle Ages. It can also be argued that ‘French of England’ remains open to the charge of subsuming the Frenches of Wales, Ireland and Scotland- indeed the Frenches of Britain as a whole- into England in a manner all too familiar from modern historiography. But ‘French of England’ is intended to do the very opposite: to suggest that British Frenches cannot be adequately considered through English perspectives: if there is a French of England, there are also Frenches of Wales, Ireland, Scotland, each having its own distinctive history while also participating in the wider stories of French in medieval Europe.
These difficulties with terminology reflect the wider problem of rethinking our assumptions about nation and language. When French of England was originally coined (c. 2001) as against French in England or French and England, it was intended to have a memorable frisson in its joining together of two terms, each redolent of a separate post-medieval nation state. The term will have done its work when we have a new conceptual vocabulary for thinking about the relations of language, literature, medieval cultures, politics and territories that is not predicated on (though it may adopt when appropriate) the idea of the nation-state and that embraces medieval geo-political configurations.