Learning French in late medieval England
Pour cette semaine, je vous demande d’aller voir le site de L’université de Cambridge, de regarder la petite vidéo que je vous ai mise dans ce post…
Puis, de mettre ces informations en relation avec le petit texte anglo-normand que je vous ai demandé de commencer à lire.
French was brought to England by the Normans in 1066. Their language, a Northern French dialect, gradually developed into a distinct variety that is now commonly referred to as Anglo-Norman. Late medieval study aids reflect its continuing importance as a language of English administration, even after its use in oral contexts declined in the later fourteenth century.
By the time that King John lost Normandy to the French in 1204, many of the Norman settlers in England had intermarried with the native population, and some now felt more confident speaking English than French. Walter de Bibbesworth responded to this new situation by writing the first ever French textbook, in or after 1235. His Tretiz was commissioned by Dionysia de Munchensi, Hertfordshire heiress and founder of Waterbeach Abbey, in order to teach her children the vocabulary they would need to run their country estates. The Tretiz shows that French was still being learned in infancy, and used in a wide variety of contexts: Walter’s course ranges from the farm to the banqueting hall. This comprehensiveness made it suitable for more advanced learners, as well as beginners: even though MS Gg.1.1 (displayed in the case Imagining the world) contains several literary texts in French, its compilers still included a copy of the Tretiz.
This page shows the beginning of the Femina nova (‘New woman’, ff. 88r–139r), a late reworking of Walter de Bibbesworth’s Tretiz. The Latin rubric claims that ‘This book is called Femina because, just as the woman teaches the infant to speak the mother tongue, this book teaches young people to speak French eloquently.’ In practice, this claim was optimistic: the only surviving copy includes a complete Middle English translation, but this often misinterprets the text. An unusual pronunciation key has been included at the foot of the page, suggesting that the manuscript’s intended audience was not confident with spoken French. (Sources University of Cambridge, https://exhibitions.lib.cam.ac.uk/moving-word/artifacts/trinity-ms-b-14-39-40-f-88r/)
From the point of view of competence and linguistic awareness, already by the 1160s speakers had begun to notice differences between Anglo-Norman and Continental French. More than two centuries later, in his Canterbury tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (London, 1343–c. 1400) still wrote of his upwardly-mobile Prioress:
‘And French she spoke full fair and fetisly,
After the school of Stratford atte Bowe
For French of Paris was to her unknowe.’
She pronounced French ‘fetisly’ (‘elegantly’), but she spoke the French of England. Whilst the language remained a desirable social accomplishment, the late-fourteenth and fifteenth-century manuscripts displayed here attest to increasing uncertainty about French composition and pronunciation. However, French remained an important language for all uses, from local administration to upper-class conversation, until the end of the Middle Ages.
The moving word
‘The moving word: French medieval manuscripts in Cambridge’ is a celebration of manuscripts held by the University Library and Cambridge colleges, and a survey of how knowledge travelled in manuscript form around Europe and the Mediterranean between 1150 and 1530. ‘French’ at this time was not just a language associated with what we now call France. It was an international language of scholarship and trade, independent of political boundaries and cultural identities. Nor was Paris the centre of manuscript production and transmission before the end of the reign of Philippe Auguste (Gonesse, 1165–Mantes-la-Jolie, 1223). Many French manuscripts were produced in England, the Low Countries, Italy, Cyprus, the Peloponnese, and the Middle East, and they travelled widely across linguistic and cultural spheres. England, in particular, played a major role in the dissemination of medieval French materials and many of the major traditions, including Tristan, the Lais of Marie de France, and the Song of Roland have their earliest roots in England before moving, via English manuscript production, to the continent. French continued to be used in commerce, law, and literature in medieval England; and Anglo-Norman, or Insular French, developed its own characteristics and lexicon. This exhibition highlights this cross-fertilisation and celebrates the richly multilingual and itinerant nature of medieval French literary traditions.
Using works such as a 13th century Arthurian manuscript once owned by the Templars, the earliest-known version of the Tristan and Isolde, and a French phrasebook from the Middle Ages, this exhibition will look at the enormous cultural and historic impact of the French language upon life in England, Europe, the Middle East and beyond at a time when French – like Latin before it and English today – was the global language of culture, commerce and politics.
The Moving Word, curated by Bill Burgwinkle and Nicola Morato, is part of a wider AHRC-funded research project looking at the question of how knowledge travelled in manuscript form through the continent and into the Eastern Mediterranean world, freely crossing linguistic and cultural boundaries at a time when France was a much smaller political entity than it is today.
Burgwinkle, Professor of Medieval French and Occitan Literature at Cambridge, said, “French may have been brought to England by the Normans in 1066 but it was already here well before then as a language of knowledge and commerce. It served as the mother tongue of every English king for almost 400 years, from William the Conqueror to Richard II, and it was still in use as a language of royalty, politics and literature until the Tudor period, when we see Henry VIII writing love letters in French to Anne Boleyn.
“Cambridge University is home to one of the world’s finest collections of medieval manuscripts of this kind. This exhibition not only gives us a chance to display the Library’s treasures, but also reminds us how the French language has enriched our cultural past and left us with a legacy that continues to be felt in 21st century Britain.
“Medieval texts like the ones we have on display became the basis of European literature. The idea that post-classical Western literature really begins with the Renaissance is completely false. It begins right here, among the very manuscripts and fragments in this exhibition. People may not realise it, but many of the earliest and most beautiful versions of the legends of Arthur, Lancelot and the Round Table were written in French; The Moving Word is a celebration of a period sometimes unfairly written out of literary history.”
A free exhibition, The Moving Word: French Medieval Manuscripts in Cambridge, at Cambridge University Library.