Mixing Languages on the Manor
Ingham, Richard, Medium Aevum
Multilingualism in medieval England
Medieval multilingualism in England has become a significant subject of study in recent years. (1) Much more is now known about the linguistic multi-competence displayed by language users in England, depending on textual type and function, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries especially. Although a belief in the adversarial nature of language choices--with French a language identified with Norman masters and English identified with the oppressed classes--has long been a staple of English language history, (2) it is becoming clear that the relationship between French and English in the later medieval period was more a matter of complementarity. The two languages represented, not differing communities with opposed interests, but choices available to those who possessed bilingual competence. Educated Englishmen, at least, seem to have been comfortable in the use of either vernacular, selected in terms of the language function required. The sharp growth in the use of French for administrative and commercial purposes in the fourteenth century, at the expense of Latin, would have been pointless unless there were substantial numbers of people who found it practical to have such documents drawn up in French, even though they were by now--centuries after the Conquest --unquestionably native speakers of English.
Although it has long been customary to downplay the existence of French as a spoken language in later medieval England, and to restrict it to a written code, members of the literate classes experienced years of practice using French as a spoken medium of instruction at grammar school. (3) The status of French as a vehicle for the teaching of Latin is amply documented by surviving pedagogic material in which Latin grammar and vocabulary is explained through French. (4) This can surely have worked as a successful teaching strategy only if French was well enough known to learners to have functioned as a spoken medium in the classroom. Thus substantial numbers of school leavers would have been produced in each generation whose knowledge of spoken French typically came from non-aristocratic social backgrounds. Their social roles in adulthood would have been those where literacy was required, including those involved in administration and commerce, such as tax collectors, bailiffs, scriveners, and accountants, (5) as well as teachers, lawyers, and the clergy. Documentary material survives in abundance from the later thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries to show that these professionals, as a group, functioned in French to an extent bearing comparison with Latin, producing a very large number of administrative records in French.
Granted that multilingualism was a fact of life in later medieval England, a key question is whether it took the form of 'code digiossia', (6) whereby Latin and French were essentially written codes, with English as the spoken medium of communication. If insular French was entering a phase of terminal decline in the later thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries, (7) little if any use of French as a functional spoken language would be expected, since in virtually all linguistic encounters the individuals talking to each other would have been native speakers of English, and would presumably have been able to use it to communicate. On the other hand, French as used in England in the later medieval period (8) is often written at a level of grammatical competence and fluency which belies the older image of decline and collapse, (9) so it may have retained a substantial spoken presence alongside its use in written documents. Given the pervasive orality of language in the medieval period, (10) this degree of written proficiency may have gone hand in hand with some considerable ability to make spoken use of the language.
The thesis of oral bilingualism in medieval England, once championed by Legge, (11) has been much criticized by many subsequent authors, who generally omit to note, however, that it actually comprises two distinct claims. One is to the effect that Anglo-Norman was an oral register--'just spoken French', the obiter dictum that Legge (12) attributed to Mildred Pope--while the other is that it was very widely used in all but the lowest social strata. Clearly, the second claim could be false while leaving the first intact. Let us grant that the uneducated classes constituting the vast majority of the population surely continued to be monolingual users of English throughout the medieval period: the notion of widespread use of French throughout most social classes (13) does not seem convincing. This does not mean that insular users of French in the fourteenth century did not employ it for spoken communication. The problem, naturally, is to find evidence one way or the other, since the spoken language of past centuries cannot be directly accessed.
Nevertheless some indirect evidence can be brought to bear, such as that from orthography. Examination of the orthography of later AN texts casts serious doubt on the notion that in later medieval England French was confined to a written code. When a language is codified for written purposes, its spelling and its grammar tend to become normalized. This was certainly true of Latin, both in classical and post-classical periods, but it was not the case with Anglo-Norman. The absence of codification can be seen in convenient form in an interesting case where chance happens to have preserved two versions of the same letter, sent by the captain of Saintes castle in Gascony during the war of Saint Sardos. The variation in spelling forms between the two versions is rather striking:
(1a) Jeo vous mercy en quaunt qe jeo say et peus des amyables lettres qe vous me maundatus. (3 Dec. 1324) (14)
(1b) Jeo vus mercie en quant que jeo say et pus de les amyabelis leteris que vus moy avez maunde. (John Fehon to Hugh le Despenser, 25 Dec. 1324; Saint-Sardos, p-115)
Evidently, the individual or individuals who penned the two versions of this letter had not been taught consistent norms of spelling or grammar. Supposing they were written by different scribes, (15) it could be argued that each was fairly consistently following a written code transmitted within a particular scriptorium, even though the locally devised codes differed from each other. However, spelling variation is also widespread within texts written by the same scribe, such as letters contained in the Anglo-Norman Correspondence Corpus, where the following examples of spelling variants within a single letter can be found:
(2) 'roigne'/'royne' (1326), 'facetz'/'faicetz'/'facietz' (1331), 'qe'/'que' (1329), 'certeyne'/'certaynes' (1331), 'mesoun'/'mesoune' (1339), 'saunz'/'sauntz' (1328), 'qydoms'/'quidom' (1329), 'vivre'/'vivere' (1329), 'moingne'/'moyne' (1339), 'dorroms'/'durroms' (1331) 'tems'/'temps' (1331) (16)
Faced with such variability within a single scribe's text, no credible claim can be entertained that insular users' use of French was codified, in the usual sense that a norm, whether local or supra-local, was being followed. Indeed, some of the spelling variation in these letters appears to testify rather clearly to the influence of pronunciation, especially the variable use of final
(3) 'Bonemente'/'autrement' (1334), 'estryetement'/'pleynemente' (1339), 'legerement'/'loiaumente' (1339), 'debate' (1329), 'la courte le Roi' (1331), 'barones' (1331), 'mesone' (1331) (18)
The writer seems to have been making optional use of
In the present research a new perspective is taken on the debate on medieval …
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Publication information: Article title: Mixing Languages on the Manor. Contributors: Ingham, Richard - Author. Journal title: Medium Aevum. Volume: 78. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring-Summer 2009. Page number: 80+. © 1999 Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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