Multicultural Middle Ages

The English Language Is, and Was, Profoundly Multicultural

Professor J. R. R. Tolkien preferred literature in England to be in English. In 1929, he wrote that it should be “in touch with a good living speech, a soil somewhere in England.” He felt that there was an ancient, English literary continuity—from the earliest neo-Germanic Old English texts, through Beowulf, and then on to Shakespeare and beyond. But he believed that this continuity had been disrupted by the French-speaking Normans when they conquered the island in 1066. Tolkien was right, at least in part; after 1066 French became an important literary language in England. But he was wrong about the idea that one land should produce one ethnicity and one language—a cornerstone of much nationalist thought. That is not how English (or any other language for that matter) works. English, as a language, has always been enriched by contact with other languages. Waves of immigration, as well as conquest into and out of England (and Britain), have ensured that!

Medieval Britain was not English-only. In medieval Britain, you could hear not only French, English, and Latin, but Norse, Danish, Welsh, Irish, Hebrew, Flemish, Gaelic, and Cornish. All functioned at different times and places in various versions of spoken and/or written language; and their relationships to one another changed over time.

Nevertheless, nation-state language myths—”one nation, one language!”—persist. Modern English speakers often inherit a historically shaky sense of how English works, imagining the English language as a single continuous entity with clear boundaries. Even well-informed people fall victim to oversimplification about language and English. Take, for example, Larry Summers; he’s former Treasury Secretary of the US and former President of Harvard:

English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation… and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile.

For those who think they’ll never need something in a foreign language—and that if they do, a machine can translate it—try, just once!, accepting Google’s invitation to translate a web page for you. That should be proof that there’s something wrong with Summers’ idea of language: in most cases you’ll be lucky to get anything as clear as Gerald Hoffnung’s famous parody of a translated hotel brochure: “There is a French widow in every bedroom.”

Moreover, yes, around the globe, English is a leading second language. But it is far behind Chinese and Spanish, and by some counts Hindi, as a first language. So unless it embeds as a first spoken language among its many users round the world, it could, like earlier global or imperial languages, lose its global function very quickly. This has happened before several times; linguist Nicholas Ostler showed in his 2010 book The Last Lingua Franca: English Before the Return of Babel that this has happened in the past with languages like Latin, Persian, Sanskrit, and Greek. So, Summers is wrong—but he is not alone in having an oversimplified model of how language works.

Despite all the prolific multilingualism in the medieval British Isles, people often assume the Middle Ages is when a “pure” form of English originated. The problem is, the very last thing English is is “pure.”

Multicultural English

Historically, English is a late-comer immigrant language to the small British archipelago. It arrived after Welsh, Pictish, Gaelic, Irish and Latin were well-established. Old English, which existed then in several different varieties, developed relations and interactions with the other languages already found in Britain. This Old English was the language of invading and immigrant Early English peoples in the fifth century. Throughout its career, English was marked by further immigrations, and other cultural contacts, so that even monolingual English speakers aren’t monoglot. In other words, if you speak only English, you’re still speaking a language shot through with the results of contact with and partial assimilation of other languages.

Take French, an important linguistic partner of English, for example. The English we speak today is nearly 30% French in its wordstock (i.e., its total vocabulary). This is the result of the long and intimate cohabitation of English and French in England from the eleventh century onwards. In fact, this preceded the Norman Conquest—French was one of the languages of the Early English court!

Throughout the Middle Ages, French was a prestige spoken and written vernacular of England—meaning that it was the language used by the secular elites. (For that matter, elite English children continued to learn French from their governesses and tutors into the twentieth century). Old English was an elite written language (produced in courts and monasteries) before the Norman Conquest of 1066, and French settlers in England learned the value of prestige vernacular writing partly from Old English. They began to do it themselves—in French—and were followed by later generations of writers from England. Spoken French and English continued to affect each other too. Speakers of Continental French who settled in England rapidly became bi-lingual. They used English for some aspects of household management, domestic life, and on agrarian estates. They continued to use French in governance and the court, however, and went on to develop an anglified variety of French in the professions and in trade. This can still be seen in the language.

Sometimes the vocabulary of a particular area is largely French: for instance, many of our words for spices are French because that was the language of international trade and of marine law. So ginger, mace, cloves, saffron, almonds, licorice, sugar are our forms of the medieval French words: gyngyvere, maces, clowes, safroun, almandes, lycoryz, poudre de sucre. On the other hand, things that were locally made, such as a barn, a farm cart, shafts, wheels and their spokes are English. But we also often end up in modern English with choices of words drawn from either medieval French or English forms. In the morning you can put on either your (English) clothes, or your (French) garments. If you are dressing formally, you might wear an (English) gem or a (French) jewel. You go to your (English) work or your (French) travail. And before you die, you ought to write an (English) will or a (French) testament. And sometimes we have words that mingle what we call English and French, as in “grandfather” (which is a combination of the French “grantsire,” and the English “father”).

Medieval English speakers learned French or Latin if they worked in professional and administrative spheres. There was also a certain amount of language-mixing even in farm work, so that builders or agrarian workers and their overseers often communicated in particular mixed varieties of English, French and Latin. In records of what happened on monastic and other farms, for instance, scholars have found phrases such as ‘del emendacione del flodegate’ (‘about the mending of the floodgate,’ where del is French grammar, emendacione is Latin, and flodegate is English). Or, in a French sentence, ‘de Tamyse tanque a les flodeyates del molyn de Eynsham’ (‘from the [river] Thames to the mill at Eynsham,’ with English flodeyates and French mill (molyn, modern French moulin). Because the function words (like les = ‘the’, or del = ‘of the’) in such records are so often French, scholars have concluded that the language of report among minor farm officials was French, but a French that seamlessly used English vocabulary and was often entered into the record in sentences constructed as Latin.

The Lingua Franca

French was also important when communicating with people outside England. English remained useful only in the British Isles through the Middle Ages: great early authors such as Chaucer or even Shakespeare were first widely translated into other languages in the seventeenth century. People from England used French or Latin when trading, negotiating, and interacting with people from other places and cultures. This was the case both in Europe and in the broader Mediterranean world, where French was the (aptly named) lingua franca—at least among people who did not know Arabic, which was even more widely used there. French was the common language when the English participated alongside other Europeans in the crusades and in the colonizing of the so-called “Crusader States” in Palestine and its neighbouring regions.

So, French, alongside Latin, was England’s chief ‘international’ language.. But precisely because of its prestige and value as a transregional language, French in England also became a meritocratic language. If you knew French, that could give you access to clerical, administrative and court positions. People from quite humble backgrounds could learn in village schools to write Latin and French and to speak the latter. In the later fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, England produced the first-ever manuals of how to speak French for merchants, lawyers, administrators and travellers of any business or profession. Like modern day language guides these ‘Manieres de langage’ offer lively dialogues, meant to be amusing and engaging, about how to get a room at an inn, how to order supper, how to discuss the news or flirt with the hostess. They also included information about what phrases are very polite and what words are insulting or obscene.

Overall the situation with French in medieval England was quite like the relative numbers of first and second language speakers of English in our day; many more people spoke French in thirteenth through fifteenth-century England than had it as a birth language.

The idea that a colonizing or a global language straightforwardly dominates other languages is too simple. It overlooks the agency of the colonized, many of whom will always reframe, use, or put scare quotes around supposedly “dominant” “languages.” Those speakers of medieval English who had access to education—Geoffrey Chaucer, famed author of The Canterbury Tales, for instance—used French. They were not merely used by it.

The English of Sword and Spear

Working in multilingual cultures, writers can use the way languages contribute to each other to create particular effects. This is an enrichment, not a pollution. For an example, we can take the way Chaucer uses different kinds of vocabulary in different situations. Though he was praised by the sixteenth-century Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser as “the well of English undefiled,” Chaucer, like most medieval writers, probably learned Latin as his first written language, followed by French and then by English. Writing in English was a choice, not a natural or automatic way of writing for Chaucer.

Knowing this about Chaucer can help you to unlock some fascinating aspects of his writing. I’ll give you an example: in Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” part of his The Canterbury Tales, he does something that’s still very hard to do in modern English. In one passage, he only uses words of English/Germanic etymology. He does this just for a moment, and for a particular purpose, in the tournament in “The Knight’s Tale:”

2605    Ther shyveren shaftes upon sheeldes thikke;
        There splinter spears upon thick shields;
2606    He feeleth thurgh the hertespoon the prikke.
        He feels the stabbing through the breast-bone.
2607    Up spryngen speres twenty foot on highte;
        Up spring spears twenty foot on height;
2608    Out goon the swerdes as the silver brighte;
        Out go the swords bright as silver;
2609    The helmes they tohewen and toshrede;
        The helms they hew to pieces and cut into shreds
2610    Out brest the blood with stierne stremes rede;
        Out burst the blood in strong red streams…

Note: this is from The Canterbury Tales, quoted with minor adjustments from the Harvard Chaucer web page

This is particularly stunning because so many of the words that we associate with tournaments come from French; tournament, heralds (originally a Germanic word, but used in French and thence into English), trumpets, joust, and many others. Chaucer uses them in framing this passage as the tournament begins, but within it, he uses only etymologically English words. And even more, he apes the style of English alliterative verse, where the first sound of words in a line are repeated (a technique that goes back to the oldest of Old English poetry). So he makes shafts shatter on shields, spears spring, and swords are silver-bright, while helms are hewn, and blood bursts out in strong streams. (Middle English alliterative verse does this too, such as in the famed Arthurian poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But when the Gawain poet does it, he freely ranges across words from English, French, Latin, and Norse).

Chaucer also adopts an important convention of English alliterative verse’s battle poetry: weapons, rather than humans, become the agents. It’s highly successful at evoking the clash and din of battle. It also reflects the difficulty of controlling battle’s unleashed forces, let alone seeing battle coherently from within. In The Battle of Maldon, a poem of perhaps the late tenth or eleventh century about the defeat of Byrthtnoth, earl of Essex, by raiding Vikings in 991 CE, the start of battle happens like this:

          Hi lēton þā of folman    fēolhearde speru
They released from their hands    file-hardened spears
             grimme gegrundene    gāras flēogan
                 grimly ground    spears flew
            bogan wǣron bysige    bord ord onfēng
                Bows were busy    shield-wood received spearpoint
         biter wæs se beadurǣs
Bitter was the onset of battle

Or, as read in Old English by Peter S. Baker:

Once humans start the battle, the weapons take over, as we see here in the cinematic close-ups of spears leaving fists, bowstrings busily at work and the wood of shields bracing as spear and arrowpoints rebound: there is now no turning back. In another example, a fourteenth-century alliterative poem on the death of Arthur (which has a title in French—Morte Arthure), you can hear the sound of a later weapon:

       Quarrels quaintly    quappes thorough knightes
Crossbow bolts skilfully    whip through knights.

Alliterative Morte Arthure, lines 2103–4

Qu is pronounced [kw], and the k in ‘knightes’ is a hard [k], so “k-neehtes”. If you say the line aloud you can practically hear the whistle and thunk of the crossbow bolts as they go through the knights’ bodies!

Chaucer skilfully and appropriately calls on this English tradition for a tournament—that was supposed to be an ordinary joust but turned fatal.  But elsewhere, he exploits different traditions and vocabularies.

Chaucer’s Englishes

The Toledo Astrolabe from the Aga Khan Museum Collection.

Though he is best known for The Canterbury Tales, that book was far from the only thing Chaucer wrote. For example, he wrote A Treatise on the Astrolabe (or, De astrolabio or, in some manuscripts, Brede and Milke for Children)essentially a technical manual on an instrument used for astronomical calculation (sometimes called “the first personal computer”). Chaucer composed this, in all likelihood, for his young son Lewis. In it, he wrote:

Little Lewis, my son, I have well perceived from clear evidence your ability to learn sciences concerned with numbers and proportions. And I also take into account your earnest request specially to learn the treatise of the astrolabe… I have therefore given you an astrolabe appropriate for our horizon, calibrated to the latitude of Oxford, about which, through the means of this little treatise, I intend to teach you a certain number of propositions pertaining to the same instrument…. I will expound this treatise to you with very easy discourse and simple words in English, for you as yet know only a small amount of Latin, my little son.

Or, in the original Middle English:

Lyte Lowys my sone I aperceyve wel by certeyne evydences thyn abilite to lerne sciences touching nombres and proporciouns. And as wel considere I thy besy praier in special to lerne the tretys of the astrolabie. … therfore have I yoven the a sufficient astrolabie as for oure orizonte compowned after the latitude of Oxenforde, upon whiche bye mediacioun of this litil tretys, I purpose to teche the a certain nombre of conclusions apertenying to the same instrument.…. This tretis .. wol I shewe the under full light reules and naked wordes in Englisshe: for Latyn canst thou yit but small, my litel sone

From pages 103–5 of Sigmund Eisner’s 2002 edition.

Chaucer claims that he’s using “naked”—simple—“wordes in Englisshe” because Lewis doesn’t know much Latin yet. But Chaucer is actually using very complicated language. You could even call it “academic” (in the bad sense). Most of the words here—all those I’ve italicised—aren’t English words by origin; they are French-, Latin-, or Latin-and-French-derived. Chaucer is using French words to imitate a Latin treatise—in English. But despite its complexities, it does seem personally written for Chaucer’s son. The intimacy of English as first [spoken] language is also there in the English family relations and pronouns—son, you, he, his, my and the repeated ‘little Lewis;’ all together, it shows great tenderness on the part of the author. This is a special Franco-Latinate English designed for a young, and it would seem, beloved child.

The French words in this treatise for what is being taught include sciences, proportions, conclusions [propositions], treatise, horizon, latitude, instrument. This makes for a distinct, learned tone. But this French or Franco-Latin word use is also as much a part of regular medieval English usage as it is of modern. In the example above, more-common words like certain, ability, numbers, consider, prayer, and rules are also French. These words are found in both French and English dictionaries with only minor variations between their forms.

Some of the words above are “franglais” in their very formation: Chaucer uses ‘touching’ here, in the sense of “touching on a subject, concerning a particular matter.” This is a usage, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, that formed within English, but that was applied to a French word. The OED says it is “perhaps after Middle French “touchant”.

To summarize, even Geoffrey Chaucer—especially Geoffrey Chaucer, the “father of English poetry”—was vastly, playfully, and skilfully multilingual. And thanks to the wonderfully mixed history of English, some kind of multilingualism and diversity is present within English wherever it is written or spoken. English is also continuously adding, losing, and changing.

Wherein the Professor of English Advocates for Learning other Languages

England itself has always been a multilingual zone. English largely owes its rich resources to immigration and cultural contact of various and continuing kinds. The rhetoric of “one nation: one language” is still with us, however, together with arguments that immigrants must lose their language in order to acquire English. But neither of these are true: one language doesn’t drive out another—you get better at English the more languages you know or learn. Also untrue is the toxic idea that other languages in our classrooms are, or ought to be, inferior or minoritized (rather than seen as a resource). So too is the arrogant notion that English will “always” be the global language—as well as the idea that it is all you need (neither are at all guaranteed). These are all attitudes that will lead to young people in English-speaking countries being cut off from global job markets.

While you can’t predict what particular languages you’ll need in in your working life, you’ll have a better grasp of English and learn other languages more easily if you’ve already studied another language in school or college—or if you’ve studied English in some of its older stages like Old or Middle English. But whether you’re monoglot (as about 39% of the world’s people are) or bi- or multilingual (about 61%: it’s the global norm to grow up speaking more than one language), we need to think multilingually and relationally about English. Teachers need to work consciously with, and enable students consciously to work with, the diversity that is IN English.

The fact that so many students are bilingual is a great classroom resource for wider and more informed understanding of how languages work. And all students need to be taught historically aware cultural narratives of English as what, in fact, they are: narratives of a diverse, shifting, contested and multilingual linguistic history. English simply doesn’t offer any historical precedent for one-language/one-nation simplifications. The story of English is not one of stigmatizing other languages. And the history of the English language cannot support the brute utilitarianism and inadequate account of language, deployed, among others, by Harvard’s former president.

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Jocelyn Wogan-Browne

The author Jocelyn Wogan-Browne

Jocelyn Wogan-Browne is an Australian who has had to explain why she thinks medieval studies ae exciting and important while teaching and researching in Australia, the UK, Europe and the USA. Most recently (2010-2019) she was Thomas F. X. and Theresa Mullarkey Chair in Literature at Fordham University, New York. She now divides her time between Oxford UK and Budapest-Vienna. American-affiliated Central European University is in transition between these two cities, after being pushed out of Hungary by Premier Orban in pursuit of his “illiberal democracy”. Medievalists in CEU are maintaining splendid interdisciplinary programs to which she is honoured sometimes to contribute.