Vernacular Literary Theory from the French of Medieval England: Texts and Translations, c. 1120-c. 1450

Edited by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Thelma Fenster, and Delbert Russell

With contributions from Henry Bainton, Maija Birenbaum, Donna Bussell, Clarissa Chenovick, Katharine Handel, Catherine Hume, Rebecca June, Brenna Mead, Jaclyn Rajsic, Joshua Smith, John Spence, Karl Steel and with an Appendix of Middle English translations of French prologues, transcribed and prepared by Catherine Hume.

Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2016

Publication information

This book is designed for scholars and students of medieval English literature and history and for those working with continental French. Several valuable surveys and accounts exist of the French literature of England, and more are to come:1 but reading about the French texts of England is not the same as seeing, hearing, and studying them directly. The current volume, because it features both original texts and translations, as well as a great deal of explanatory material/commentary, seeks to guide readers into the field while also serving as one mapping, among others, of the new perspectives offered by studies in the French of England. To that end, the volume comprises some 50 prologues and other excerpts in which medieval texts represent their origins, strategies and purposes: each is newly edited from a single manuscript and accompanied by a headnote, facing-page translation, bibliographical information and a glossary of the terms we deem ‘literary’.

We follow the lead of Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts by Ruth J. Dean with Maureen B. M. Boulton (1999) in seeing the culture of the French of England as permeable with that of the continent. Although the bulk of our book is concerned with texts composed in England, several entries exemplify the cross-Channel circulations of books and texts: the History of the Holy Grail, for instance, is included here not only for its extraordinary prologue creating the Lancelot-Grail cycle as a ‘secular scripture’, but because at least 19 manuscript copies of this continental text were made or owned in late medieval England.  The anonymous Nun of Barking’s Life of Edward the Confessor exemplifies a text not only copied on the Continent, but also re-worked into a prose remaniement there. The Débat des Hérauts represents a late medieval debate over the originary and literary traditions of England and its francophone neighbours.

Another permeable boundary is that between texts currently categorized as either literary or documentary. Although it is impossible adequately to represent the French of England in administration, record, and profession in the present volume, we again follow Dean’s lead in including scientific treatises (medical, cosmetic), and treatises on letter-writing and language learning. We add an instance of less formal monastic house history not included in Dean’s great book, in the shape of a partly versified trilingual register on the founders of a Norfolk nunnery (Coment la Mesun de Crabhouse commencerunt). Although visual representation of the manuscript culture within which these many kinds of texts are produced is necessarily restricted, we include a small selection of texts that discuss image and text relations, or where text and image interact on the manuscript page.

To emphasize the crucial interrelatedness of French and English in multilingual medieval insular culture we include an Appendix of Middle English reworkings of French prologues.

Excerpts in the volume are continuously numbered, but divided into five thematic sub-sections illustrating various aspects of textual production and reception:

Part One: Faus franceis and dreit engleis: On Language
Part Two: Si sa dame ne li aidast: Authorship and the Patron
Part Three: Primes dirrum la dreyte fey: The Conduct of Reading and Hearing
Part Four: Ki veult oir: Forming Audiences and Creating Textual Communities
Part Five: Si come en latyn trovay escrit: The Lineage of the Text

This arrangement emphasizes the book’s function as a compendium of vernacular literary medieval exegesis—what, for lack of a better term, we call medieval literary theory. At the same time, the volume demonstrates the richness of the French of England textual corpus.

Within each entry, the job of the introductory Headnote is not only to provide necessary information (Author, Date, Provenance, Sources and Nature of Text, Manuscript Source, and Bibliography) but to seduce and provoke. In each case, a mise au point and selective brief comments indicate something of each text’s interest and significance and show the (often considerable) need for further work and exploration. We hope to persuade readers to embark on further exploration of the texts and to mappings and boundary crossings of their own.

Exploring this literature with our graduate students has been a very great pleasure: we include a number of excerpts edited and introduced by postgraduates and postdoctoral researchers, and given a final edit for inclusion by ourselves. Many of these began as French of England postgraduate course projects.