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The use of French as a written language of instruction in twelfth-century England, with particular reference to the codicological evidence

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Mijanovic, Petra 


Anglo-Norman England made use of three languages: Latin, English, and French. Its literary culture was heir to the bilingual written tradition of late Anglo-Saxon England, which produced and copied literature in Latin as well as in the (spoken) vernacular, Old English. From at least the beginning of the twelfth century, French also began to be recorded in writing. Scholars have remarked that England was precocious in its use of written French, both as a site for the composition of new texts and as a place of production for manuscripts. Although the current survival of books cannot be used to determine medieval equivalents, it is significant that approximately two-thirds of the surviving twelfth-century manuscript witnesses to French were copied in England. Within this corpus a sizeable group of twelve manuscripts comprises texts that belong to genres with a precedent for use in instruction: the computus, the lapidary, and proverbs. To understand the historical significance of this evidence, this dissertation examines the role of French from its particular perspective as a language of written instruction in twelfth-century England, to investigate the extent to which it represents a continuation of the use of the vernacular for such purposes in late Anglo-Saxon England, or a response to new developments in the twelfth century.

In order to undertake a historical study of the surviving evidence, it is necessary to consider written French in the context in which it was used and encountered by medieval readers, namely, its manuscript context. This approach is consistent with the methodology of the ‘history of the book’, which aims to discover and describe how, why and by whom texts were produced, read, and circulated in a given period. Chapter one lays out the reasons for employing this methodology to study this evidence from a historical perspective and gives an outline of the fields of scholarship that are relevant to the history of written French in England. The remaining chapters examine the manuscript witnesses by textual genre. Chapter two focuses on the computistical material, represented by a single text, the Comput of Philippe de Thaon. Its survival in six manuscript witnesses dated to various points in the twelfth century is unusual, and allows for codicological comparison across time. Chapter three treats the lapidary, which survives in three manuscripts, of which two are witnesses to the same text. Chapter four considers the proverbs in French, i.e. texts composed exclusively of proverbs, in three manuscripts. An examination of the manuscript evidence clarifies the potential intended readership of these texts in twelfth-century England, which points to a clerical and monastic context for their production and use, rather than to Anglo-Norman aristocratic lay society with which texts in French have often been associated. It suggests that written French may have played an instructional role in England in the period before the emergence of the first French grammars and didactic manuals in the thirteenth century, and that its development drew in part upon the precedents established by the late Anglo-Saxon use of the written vernacular.





Webber, Teresa


twelfth century


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge