Library Profilers Picks (February 2010)

Review of Language and Culture in Medieval Britain

Jennifer Lorden, YBP/Blackwell

The old story goes something like this: in England, in the eleventh century, the epic age of dragons and Beowulf was brought to its end by Norman usurpers bringing with them the dialect of French that would come to be known as Anglo-Norman. After permanently frenchifying the English language (and turning Old English into Middle), this language of the elite eventually sputtered out, conveniently sometime around the fourteenth century and the age of Chaucer, in the face of the English language’s ultimate triumph. The narrative chimes with a later, nationalist English self-understanding—complete with linguistic pride, French/English antagonism and the rejection of French cultural influence. It explains a certain discontinuity with our murky pre-Conquest inheritance, and a modern Medieval Studies more or less respectful of modern national boundaries.

Jocelyn Wogan-Browne’s important new volume, Language and Culture in Medieval Britain: The French of England, c.1100- c.1500, aims to correct the inherited version of the story. The argument of the essays presented here, often intellectually acknowledged but rarely accounted for in scholarly practice, is that the mixing of cultures and languages in England both before and after the Norman Conquest was much more sophisticated than our general understanding would allow. For example, an essay by Elizabeth Tyler crosses the historical dividing line laid down by the Conquest and points out that Anglo-Saxon culture was already international, multilingual, and receptive to francophone influences.

The first section of the book, focusing on sociolinguistic histories, explodes the myth of Anglo-Norman as an esoteric language of the elite, cut off from continental French. Serge Lusignan points to the use of French dialects by professional administrative classes, extending its use beyond the small circle of the elite into the middle classes as well as the lower classes with which they interacted. He points also to French subjects replying to the English administration in the same Anglo-French dialect in which they had been addressed. Pierre Kunstmann furthers the point, demonstrating through meticulous linguistic study that linguistic developments in Anglo-French actually anticipated later developments in continental French. Far from a restricted, cut-off dialect of the elite, Anglo-French was a widely known, living language—the other vernacular of medieval England.

Having challenged the standing linguistic narratives, the second group of essays challenges accepted history. David Trotter questions the definitive role of the Conquest in changing linguistic destiny, and points to already existing contexts for francophone influence. Tyler’s essay, mentioned already, points to Æthelred’s marriage to the Norman Emma and Cnut’s patronage of skalds to establish the already cosmopolitan, European nature of Anglo-Saxon political culture, mentioning almost as an aside that the Chanson de Roland’s earliest manuscript is an English, rather than French, production.

Extending this argument into the post-Conquest era, the third and fourth sections of the book explore English devotional and historical writing in French, and the continuing history of French literature in England. Wogan-Browne’s own essay here establishes the twelfth- and thirteenth-century insular francophone precedents to the fourteenth-century “efflorescence” of Middle English devotional texts. Helen Deeming follows this up with a study of French texts appearing in English preachers’ devotional anthologies. In “Lollardy: The Anglo-Norman Heresy?”, Nicholas Watson subversively argues that Wycliffite demands for Bible translation in an English vernacular, so often connected to our notions of the “triumph of English”, were preceded by Bible versions in an Anglo-French vernacular.

With no fewer than 34 essays, far more than can be adequately summarized here, the sheer weight of the evidence displayed in this volume not only argues the case for a persistent, widespread history of Anglo-French literature in England, but pursues the implications of Anglo-French dialects, accumulating evidence for a more comprehensive, multilingual history of English literature. Several of the essays also raise questions about the historical periods delineated by the apparent shifts in English, which are no longer so readily apparent given the continuities suggested in a multilingual history. Medievalists reshaping the historical narrative in terms of this broader framework will have their work cut out for them . . . but that’s another story.