In This Article The French of England

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Language Textbooks

Medieval Studies The French of England
by
Thelma Fenster
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0082

Introduction

French of England studies is a field that recognizes the claim of medieval England’s French culture, as represented by nearly a thousand extant texts, to assume its place in any comprehensive history of Britain, its literature, and its culture. To that end, it takes a multidisciplinary approach to medieval England’s four-hundred-year practice of Francophony, bypassing, in so far as possible, modern one-nation, one-language understandings of medieval cultures. It accepts as a given the multilingual fluidity (English, French, and Latin, primarily) that marked the insular experience of many, and the prevalence of strong Anglo-French relations, at times less intercultural than intracultural. Historically, French was the mother tongue of royalty from the time of the Conquest (although earlier close ties between Anglo-Saxon royalty and Norman nobles meant that French was used in England before the Conquest) until the end of the 13th century. It became fashionable among the aristocracy, was learned by elite landholders, court administrators, and bureaucrats, and was used in several professions. The great surge in French vernacular literary production of the 12th and 13th centuries (historiography, romance, devotional and doctrinal literature, and saints’ lives) can be traced more often to England than to France. Especially in the 12th and 13th centuries, French was also a medium for literary patronage and composition by women. Studies in the French of England incorporate areas covered by the still useful labels “Anglo-Norman” and “Anglo-French,” with the caveat that the latter terms construct artificial boundaries inside what was a historical continuum. In literary studies, moreover, they have sometimes determined the shape of scholarship by suggesting that investigation can be restricted to work in Anglo-Norman or Anglo-French alone, and they have inadvertently encouraged the view that French in England was a defective offshoot of Continental French. Among historians, the term “Anglo-Norman” has frequently signaled a limited period of time, that of Angevin rule (1066–1216), generally studied through Latin documents. Yet there is ample evidence that French, in various forms, remained alive in England at least into the 15th century. By looking at the subject more widely—that is, by including French writing of many types, whether composed, copied, or circulated in England in dialects of insular or Continental French—French of England studies can embrace the larger and more transformative phenomenon. It looks at the history of French in England as (variously and often simultaneously) aristocracy’s cachet, a language of medicine, law, record, and administration, a medium of commerce and trade, and perhaps a marine lingua franca. Not least, French of England studies recognizes a level of mostly lexical but also syntactic intimacy between insular French and English—the matrix for “English” writers such as Chaucer, Gower, and Langland. This bibliography has been prepared in consultation with Professor Jocelyn Wogan-Browne.

General Overviews

French of England studies has centered on cultural and literary matters, with an emphasis on describing the content of the field and arguing the importance of that content to any understanding of medieval England. The works cited in the subsections Monographs and Articles and Essay Collections are at once highly sophisticated and introductory: sophisticated because each breaks new ground with new evidence or fresh approaches that are the fruit of authors’ deep engagement with the subjects treated; and each is introductory because it invites and inspires further exploration. Taken together, they provide the most useful overview now available.

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