French has had a long and important career in England, and study of it is vital for a fuller picture both of England’s medieval culture and its exchanges and contacts across the medieval world. 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 (1997). Equally significant are the many other domains of French in medieval England, often related to elite literary production or meritocratic careers for non-elite people. French was used in royal, provincial and civic government; as a professional language in law, medicine, trade, and mercantile and maritime occupations; and as a civic, petitionary, epistolary, and accounting language across a wide class range. As any modern speaker of English can readily recognize, French and English have long been linguistically intertwined in many more domains than the literary. The Oxford English Dictionary is currently rewriting many of its etymologies to take fuller account of the fact that medieval insular French contributed a very high percentage of items—30% or more in some views—to English lexis.
French valuably complicates the literary, linguistic, and cultural story of England, undoing retrojected nationalisms and teleological views of the development of English. It is also important as England’s only transregional vernacular throughout the Middle Ages, and hence vital not only in the administration of the English crown’s cross-Channel territories, but in diplomacy, trade, crusades, war and other forms of cultural contact and exchange between England, European and Afro-Eurasian regions. Since English remained a regional language until well into the early modern period, England’s participation in the ‘global’ Middle Ages requires French alongside the Latin of literate culture.
As a field, the French of England 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, since the codices and artifacts of medieval England seldom respect the linguistic boundaries defined by the modern disciplines under which they are studied. Scholars are asking new questions about the ways in which medieval “French” texts were “English,” as well as querying the interrelations between insular and continental French literatures and the literatures of other medieval cultures. Ultimately, their answers must lead to reconsideration of the canons of each as currently delimited by modern “nationalist” interests.
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, and its work has been further supported by the generous research allowance attached to Fordham’s Thomas F. X. and Theresa Mullarkey Chair in Literature.
French of England/ Anglo-Norman/ Anglo-French?
‘The French of England’ is a term originally designed to challenge easy equations of England with English and to create more attention to a large strand of England’s multilingual culture. ‘Anglo-Norman’, an older and arguably more ethnically charged term, refers mainly to French composed in England in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, severing these centuries from the continuing career of French in fourteenth and fifteenth century England. Its long scholarly history makes it a continuingly useful term for some purposes. ‘Anglo-French’ has tended to imply continental French in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries without including insular French, but again is sometimes useful. Our new term with its restriction to ‘England’ is designed 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.
The term also participates in the current re-thinking of varieties of French in the Middle Ages, itself now part of a wider effort to cease equating ‘the Middle Ages’ with a (Whitened) Europe. French is a major language for trade, crusade and cultural exchange in the European and Eurasian Middle Ages. England shares various registers of French not only with Flanders, Hainault, the Île de France, Champagne, Artois, Picardy, and Germania, but with Sicily, the Levant, the Mediterranean (‘Outremer’) and other European and Eurasian regions.