Marginalia: Journal of the Medieval Reading Group University of Cambridge (April 2009)

Review of Language and Culture in Medieval Britain

Elizabeth Dearnley, Cambridge

It is pointed out several times in this book that ‘Frenches of England’ might be a more accurate phrase than ‘French of England’; the sheer multiplicity of ways in which French was spoken, written, and intermingled with the other languages of medieval England means that there is no simple, single definition of the language. This wide-ranging, stimulating and thought-provoking collection of essays, edited by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne as part of the ongoing ‘French of England’ research programme based at Fordham and York Universities in which she plays a major part, goes a considerable way in teasing out the individual strands, the ‘micro-histories’, of the ways in which French was woven into the linguistic fabric of England over the 400-year period covered.

The essays in this book – some 34 contributions on topics ranging from the readership of Gower to the consumption of fish by nuns at Campsey Ash Priory – originated as papers given at three international ‘French of England’ conferences. They cover an enormous amount of both temporal and thematic ground. Rather than tracing a linear, rigidly bordered path through the subject matter, The French of England adopts a deliberately eclectic approach, loosely arranging its material into four main sections: I: Language and Sociolinguistics; II: Crossing the Conquest: New Linguistic and Literary Histories; III: After Lateran IV: Francophone Devotions and Histories; and IV: England and French in the late Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries.

Section I, Language and Sociolinguistics, begins with an essay by Serge Lusignan giving an overview of social contact between French and English in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries which makes invaluable comparisons between the situation in England and its counterpart in Flanders, a topic which is too rarely treated by English-language critics. Richard Ingham’s article in this section, ‘The Persistence of Anglo-Norman 1230-1362: A Linguistic Perspective’, rejects the traditional idea that Anglo-Norman was ‘a fossilized version of the French brought over with the Conquest’, analysing syntactic changes in the two varieties of French to argue that both were living languages evolving in parallel. Meanwhile, Marilyn Oliva’s fascinating study of the French kitcheners’ accounts of Campsey Ash Priory, a Suffolk convent, suggests that the relatively modest diet of the nuns at this house reflects their non-aristocratic status, and presents these accounts as evidence of the use of French by a non-elite group.

Section II, Crossing the Conquest, addresses the popularly received idea that the events of 1066 caused a cataclysmic linguistic breach, and explores overlaps and continuities in the languages, literatures and cultures of England over the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In ‘“Stuffed Latin”: Vernacular Evidence in Latin Documents’, David Trotter examines instances of French vocabulary in pre- and immediately post-Conquest Latin legal documents to show that their authors were in contactwith Normandy well before 1066. Elizabeth M. Tyler’s essay, ‘From Old English to Old French’, challenges the myth of the ‘narrative of loss’ which has traditionally been told about Anglo-Saxon literature following the death of Wulfstan in 1023. She discusses the openness of Anglo-Saxon England towards new learning from the end of the tenth century onwards and the continuity of English historical and poetic writing after 1066, paying particular attention to the role played by highly educated noblewomen such as Edith, widow of Edward the Confessor, and Edith/Matilda, wife of Henry I, as patronesses of literature during this transitional time.

Section III, After Lateran IV, looks at a number of devotional texts produced in the wake of the Lateran Council of 1215. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne’s own contribution, ‘“Cest livre liseez…chescun jour”: Women and Reading c.1230-1430’, points out that the French pastoral texts produced for the laity in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries fulfil the same roles as the more frequently studied English-language religious manuals for the ‘lewed’ circulating in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and that the latter cannot be fully understood without the former. Taking a striking image of a noblewoman from the Lambeth Apocalypse as a starting point, she explores the ‘feminised francophone literary culture’ which characterised not just women’s devotional reading but lay reading in general. Moving from literature for to literature by women, Delbert W. Russell follows the travels of the nun of Barking’s Life of Edward the Confessor to Amiens, where a French prose remaniment was written for the de Châtillon family, counts of St Pol. This example of a francophone text crossing the Channel from England to France serves as a useful illustration of the mobile nature of French and French texts, and the possibility of their moving in both directions.

Section IV, English and French in the late Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, considers the ways in which French remained a working language in England during this period. As Tim William Machan remarks, ‘English did not so much triumph over Latin or French as cease to compete against them’. Machan’s essay discusses at the evolving status and role of French in England from the end of the Middle Ages to the early modern period, looking at the teaching of French from Walter de Bibbesworth’s thirteenth-century Traitié to Princess Katherine’s English lesson in Shakespeare’s Henry V. The collection’s final essay, by Stephanie Downes, examines the reception of Christine de Pizan’s Epistre d’Othea in England, and concludes that continuing demand for French-language versions of Christine’s works ‘bears witness to the multilingual and multicultural practice of fifteenth-century manuscript production’.

The French of England is a book of filling in blank spaces, of making links between areas of study which are often artificially separated. For many years, ‘Anglo-Norman’ studies tended to fall between the larger linguistic stools of ‘English’ and‘French’ studies; although the work of the last thirty years has done much to counteract this, there is still much work that remains to be done on the Frenches of England. Wogan-Browne’s anthology is an invaluable and often highly readable addition to the field, and anyone with an interest in the languages of medieval England will find much to enjoy within its pages.