Terms and Definitions


The term “Anglo-French” was used in scholarship to refer to the form of French spoken in England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In this period, it was not usually the first language of those who spoke it, but was a frequently-taught second language and an important language of record. The term may also be used to describe continental French texts circulating in copies made in England, and for French used as a language of record on the Continent by English speakers. More recently, Anglo-French has been used to refer to all types of French associated with England.


Linguistically and historically, the question of what can be called “Anglo-Norman” is complicated. For scholars of language and literature, Anglo-Norman increasingly refers to the variety of the French language which was used in England from the Norman Conquest to the fifteenth century (some scholars still use “Anglo-French” for the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as described above). For historians, Anglo-Norman is generally used to describe the period of English history from the Norman Conquest to King John’s loss of Normandy – or, even more narrowly, the reigns of William the Conqueror and his sons. The term Anglo-Norman is also now used to describe the twelfth-century aristocracy of England, many of whom had either been born in Normandy or whose families retained significant holdings on the Continent. In most cases, however, the kings of England after William the Conqueror hardly ever referred to themselves in terms of their joint possessions in England and Normandy. Although the Conqueror often styled himself “rex Anglorum et dux Normannorum,” his son Henry I appears to have been first to operate under the paradigm of a single realm divided by the Channel, with the assumption that his authority over Normandy was implicit in his authority as King of England.

When it comes to specific examples, the lines can be blurry but perhaps represent the true situation of the French of England. For example, the earliest extant manuscript of the Chanson de Roland, the classic French epic, was actually written in England, and its language contains many regional variations specific to the French of England. Should the Chanson de Roland – or this manuscript, at least – be counted among Anglo-Norman literary works? Similarly, since Anglo-Norman was used as a language of devotional, poetic, and educational literature well into the fifteenth century, can the historical term Anglo-Norman really be limited to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries?

Another difficult question is the status of Anglo-Norman in relation to continental French.  Many scholars, especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, assumed that Anglo-Norman was simply an inferior version of continental French, and that those who used it were trying to speak or write in continental French and failing.  Jordan Fantosme’s verse Chronicle was long held to be “irregular” by the standards of continental French versification, but R. C. Johnston’s recent work on patterns of stress in Fantosme raises the possibility that his verses were not a deteriorating continental meter but rather a consciously organized, insular form.

Scholars of language have often supported their view of “irregular” Anglo-Norman with the famous passage from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales about the hypocritical Prioress who spoke French “after the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe for Frenssh of Parys was to hir unknowe.” More recent scholarship, however, has questioned this perspective. Today, many historians and literary scholars agree, and they approach study of the French of England as a language of insular culture of no less value, though often different from, its continental equivalents. French developed and changed in medieval England according to local linguistic habits, necessarily influenced by the important and continuing linguistic substratum that was the English language, not a factor on the Continent.  But the view that French in medieval Britain was a defective, low-status vehicle in comparison with other versions of medieval French no longer retains intellectual validity.

French of England

A proposed new term, intending to encompass the varieties of French spoken or written in England (whatever their territorial origin) and the English Frenches that migrated abroad, e.g. in Gascony or elsewhere, in manuscripts circulating from Britain to the continent.