Journal of English and Germanic Philology. Vol. 110 (October 2011): 539-42

Review of Language and Culture in Medieval Britain

Kristen M. Figg, Kent State University

Unlike many collections of essays that have originated from a series of academic conferences, this volume is notable for its singleness of purpose. The thirty-four essays included here have been compiled, organized, and revised with two closely related goals: first, challenging long-held assumptions about the relationship between French and English in medieval England and, second, transforming the traditional linear narrative to one that represents more accurately a complex multilingual culture—with its wealth of lexical borrowing, code switching, and resonances—that spans the entire four centuries indicated in the title. Inspired by the French of England teaching and research program initiated by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and Thelma Fenster, the papers included here were chosen from sixty presented at three related conferences held in 2007 in New York and York, UK, and they will serve as a foundation for other publications yet to come, including a French of England translation series.

The essays in the first of the book’s four sections take a primarily linguistic or sociolinguistic approach. The main question being addressed in this part of the book is the status of French in England as it appears in specific contexts, such as petitions to the crown, historiography, account keeping in nunneries, maritime communication, and, finally, the works of insular literary writers. Here, and throughout the volume, the use of the phrase “French of England” to conceptualize the full range of francophone linguistic activity is vital since in many contexts the contrast implied by the traditional terms “Anglo-Norman” and “Anglo-French” suggests an oversimplified discontinuity between the French developing directly from the language of the Norman invaders and that introduced in later centuries through contact with the Continent. As Richard Ingham demonstrates, even the French of clerks keeping administrative records is not a “fossilized version of the French brought over with the Conqueror” but rather a living language “evolving in parallel with continental French” (pp. 44–45). And, as Pierre Kunstmann points out, sometimes the distinctive grammatical features of Anglo-Norman, traditionally thought to be corruptions, simply anticipate changes that will take place in continental French somewhat later, and thus remain part of the same dialect continuum.

Among the ten essays in the first section, Serge Lusignan’s historical overview of the “diffusion of French into English society” from the aristocracy to the rural gentry and urban elite (p. 21) most directly addresses the issue of lexical influence by showing how Anglo-French (“French in the style of the English”) could easily have moved from its essential role as a common technical language in law and administration—used as far away as Gascony—to a source of new vocabulary at many social levels, since those who used French professionally would naturally begin to introduce words they “found particularly efficient or pleasing” to their English-speaking associates. Other essays in this section present the numerous reasons for which French itself persisted, ranging from a very practical need for a lingua franca in kitchens and ships to more subtle attempts to establish or maintain political advantage. Likewise, explorations of the particular type of French used, whether Norman, continental, or some combination of the two, provide insight into a cultural environment that could, at times, lead to “uncommon linguistic self-awareness” of the type that Robert F. Yeager attributes to Gower, whose “consciously literary” idiolect of French (p. 125) was, as Brian Merrilees and Heather Pagan suggest, perhaps an attempt to secure a broader audience than he found in England alone.

If the first section of the volume is defined by its overarching sociolinguistic methodology, the remaining three sections are organized mainly by chronology. In section two, entitled “Crossing the Conquest: New Linguistic and Literary Histories,” the concept of the Norman Invasion as the single event that defined the shifting language patterns of eleventh- and twelfth-century England is countered by the analysis of both unfamiliar and familiar texts, showing first that French vocabulary had begun to be used in Britain before the Conquest (convincingly illustrated by David Trotter’s discussion of the insertion of both Anglo-Saxon and French into medieval Latin documents) and, second, that Anglo-Saxon culture, “already international, multilingual, and in part francophone” before 1066 (p. 149), did not end with the proliferation of Anglo-Norman texts that occurred in the twelfth century. Indeed, this section of the book is particularly enlightening in the way it evokes the implications of Ian Short’s 1991 article suggesting the importance of English as the earliest written vernacular, one that predated, and consequently paved the way for, French as a written language (see “Patrons and Polyglots: French Literature in Twelfth-Century England,” Anglo-Norman Studies, 14 [1991], 229–49; this citation is, unfortunately, omitted from the volume’s otherwise comprehensive fifty-page bibliography). In back-to-back essays focusing on Guimar’s l’Estoire des Engleis, for example, Elizabeth M. Tyler and Henry Bainton make very different but equally convincing cases for the complexity of Guimar’s use of French in historiography. For Tyler, Guimar’s work is both an illustration of the “continuity of history-writing and poetry in England across the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries” (p. 167) and evidence of his awareness of developments in the royal court, where female patronage played a particularly important role in creating “lay access to the ‘story-world’ of Rome” (p. 168). Bainton, on the other hand, points out that the use of Norman French to rework much of the content of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not merely strike a “claim to the right of writing the history of England” (p. 180) but rather has the effect of “opening a discursive space” for the story of the Danes (p. 186) and, consequently, a cultural identity involving a “multiplicity of . . . origins” (p. 187).

Other essays in the second section explore Wace’s knowledge of and affinity for English, the “Psalter en romanz” as a francophone manifestation of Dante’s “illustrious vernacular,” the implications of a Hebrew word in the bilingual (French/Latin) Jeu d’Adam/ Ordo Representacionis Ade, and the “precocious” role of Anglo-Norman in the history of European medical literature (Monica Green, p. 220). As this list of topics suggests, fresh examinations of texts from this early period of the French of England effectively problematize any simplistic view of Anglo-Norman, reinforcing the conclusions drawn from the sociolinguistic evidence in the volume’s first section.

Wogan-Browne points out in her General Introduction that it is not the purpose of this collection to provide a survey designed to “work through the well-known landmarks” of English literary history (p. 12), and, in particular, the book has little to say about the already widely studied influence of francophone romance in thirteenth- and early fourteenth-century England. Instead, in section three (“After Lateran IV: Francophone Devotions and Histories”), the editors have chosen to present a much less well-known corpus of devotional and doctrinal texts, which, taken together, demonstrate again the “continuity and internationalism of England’s francophone culture” (p. 236). This section provides two very useful overviews in Wogan-Browne’s study of women’s penitential reading and Michael Bennett’s survey of the “availability, circulation and production of French texts” during the reign of Edward III (p. 320); in addition, there are thought-provoking arguments, such as Nicholas Watson’s piece on Lollardy, and some case-specific examinations of texts or groups of texts, such as the homiletic exempla of Nicole Bozon and the French version of the Vita Edwardi produced at Barking Abbey. Perhaps the essay most likely to be consulted by general readers is Julia Marvin’s work on manuscripts of the Anglo-Norman prose Brut. Marvin’s careful analysis of miniatures and annotations contributes to a fascinating study of the reception of a major vernacular book as well as making a strong case for an “active Anglo-Norman culture” extending across a wide range of classes well into the fifteenth century (p. 318).

Finally, in the section treating the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the book addresses the persistence of multilingualism as the “many Frenches” of England take on varying roles in the teaching of language, composition of texts, development of lexicon, and circulation of manuscripts (p. 361). Martha Driver demonstrates the “malleable” quality of French/English boundaries in her enlightening narrative of the scribe Ricardus Franciscus and the illuminator known as the “Fastolf Master,” both of whom had French origins but created manuscripts for English patrons in England. Combining studies of the reception of specific authors (including Jean Froissart and Christine de Pizan) with a return to sociolinguistics, much of the rest of this section directly confronts the myth of French as a language in an “agonistic struggle” with English (Tim William Machan, p. 363), and demonstrates instead, as Carolyn Collette explains, “an alignment of English with French as vernaculars that stand in opposition to Latin” (p. 375). For those who teach the history of the English language, these essays often elucidate the issue of lexical expansion and language registers, providing such teachable examples as Ad Putter’s description of a trilingual epistolary poem in which an abbot “uses French as the language of polite correspondence, Latin to ground a dictum in seynt Escripture, and finally switches to English for a last heartfelt plea” (p. 404). Indeed, this is a book that would be invaluable to anyone who wants to understand the complexity of multilingualism in the post-Conquest period, both providing definitive studies on some topics and laying the groundwork for further research in others. Above all, it effectively counters what the authors often refer to as the myth of the “triumph of English,” making it a volume whose publication should have long-term influence on those who study medieval culture, as well as those who are interested specifically in the field of Anglo-Norman language and literature.