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17.12.28, Fenster, The French of Medieval England

17.12.28, Fenster, The French of Medieval England

This handsome book is a fitting tribute to Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, whose pioneering scholarship underpinned the establishment of an internationally recognised field of study on the "French of England," a term that she herself coined. The particular mix of elements she has, in her distinguished career, highlighted as key to understanding the multilingualism of England in the Middle Ages--including language, politics, materiality, commercialism, literature and culture--are all here represented, and each contribution seeks to pay tribute to, and importantly to further, Wogan-Browne's ground-breaking work to date.

That Carolyn Collette and Thelma Fenster have thought carefully about the composition of their volume so as to enable it to be more than a simple Festschrift is clear from their introduction, where they concisely, yet thoroughly set out the context and contribution of Wogan-Browne's work on the French of England. They express plainly the complexity of the matter at hand, and raise the pertinent and unavoidable truth that it is easy to colour much of what we know about medieval England with the shades of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century political agendas and associated scholarship. Such a two-dimensional view of the situation, they argue, has been necessarily revised by the work of scholars such as Ruth Dean, William Rothwell, Simon Gaunt and David Trotter (as well as through the work of the Anglo-Norman Text Society and the establishment of the Anglo-Norman Dictionary), but it has been Wogan-Browne's particular tenacity, and her ability to make connections and collaborate, that has led the field to where it now is. The results and influence thereof are present for all to see in the chapters that follow, and their internal coherence and conversation is to be much admired.

The first five essays work together neatly to provide a series of case studies of translation at work. Thomas O'Donnell, for instance, in his examination of the Cambridge fragment of Philippe de Thaon's Le Comput, which contains a lengthy Latin gloss on the text in French, demonstrates the particular 'modes of literacy (34) of English speakers in the early twelfth century. Emma Campbell follows this opening chapter with a consideration of more theoretical issues related to the notion of "difference" in Francophone texts and manuscripts--here she throws into sharp relief the connection of modern ethics of translation with the discourses of nationalism and colonialism, and sets out a compelling case for the fluidity permissible in medieval translation, which was less shackled to ideas of foreignness and identity than is its modern counterpart. Monika Otter picks up this thread almost seamlessly in her chapter, which takes in not only a neatly expressed comparison of translation cultures medieval and modern, but extends the analysis to include the more specific practice of contrafacture (the re-texting of a melody (56)). Otter's case study of The Prisoner's Lament shows the ways in which the melody acts as a kind of catalyst, and the source and target texts actually end up working together as alternative versions of the same whole, such that it matters little whether the French or English came first. Fiona Somerset takes on a study on the micro-level, looking at just one word, "consent," and its semantic range across three languages, which serves to evidence a sense of "transregional community" (93), before Andrew Taylor draws our attention with particular dexterity to the role of textual editing, as depicted in Cologny, Bodmer, MS 11's redaction of the Chanson d'Aspremont. Here, Taylor argues, editing practice may have influenced Edward III's model for kingship as fashioned according to the example set by Charlemagne.

Moving from translation to the usage and influence of language, Serge Lusignan's chapter on the use of Anglo-Norman during the Anglo-Scottish Wars is a characteristic tour de force of clarity and precision. Lusignan, of course, has previously discussed the unusualness of using Anglo-Norman in day-to-day relations--here, by contrast, he meticulously unpicks through documentary evidence the utility of Anglo-Norman as a bridging language that served as a kind of lingua franca between the kingdom of Scotland, its borders and the rest of England during the twenty years of conflict between 1295 and 1315. Richard Ingham, meanwhile, explores examples of Middle English borrowing from French, using as a lens the Early South English Legendary. This is a chapter full of technical skill, and it makes a strong case for seeing such examples of borrowing as being less connected with imported practices and items (such as law or cuisine) than with the establishment of a "linguistic register...appropriate to the mental-domain" (139). Nicholas Watson then mines the final section of Piers Plowman for evidence that it operates as a kind of Verse Bible, and one that finds a possible model in Robert Grosseteste's Le Chasteau d'amur, suggesting that William Langland assumed a familiarity with that work on the part of his audience.

The two subsequent chapters work particularly well together, with Thelma Fenster and Christopher Baswell considering vernacularisation. In some ways, Lusignan's chapter, with its focus on the day-to-day, might have been slightly better placed immediately before these, but even without that, the complementarity of all three contributions is still self-evident. Baswell explores the notion of disability, as expressed in the saints' lives collection contained in London, British Library, MS Additional 70513 (the Campsey manuscript), as a culture-connecting force--an outward expression of a system of shared beliefs--across the networks of the Anglo-Norman world, while Fenster's lively chapter presents a similar argument for the teaching of Judaism by English women using French books.

The French of England, of course, is not just about the importing of culture and language--it is also about the movement of people, as Mark Ormrod and Maryanne Kowaleski remind us in their respective discussions of the integration of French migrants into England during the later Middle Ages, each of which drills down neatly into the localised use of both French and English in particular communities. These two chapters dovetail well, but to some degree, given their close analysis of confined areas, a more general introduction to the concept of migration in the Middle Ages might have benefited them. Just such a grass-roots discussion is offered, helpfully and necessarily, by Paul Cohen's chapter--but here the focus is shifted forward to the establishment of a standardised vernacular in sixteenth-century France, and the influence of the French of England on that process. Cohen's particular achievement, to my mind, is his echoing and furthering of Ingham's earlier arguments in respect of language serving less as marker of national identity, than as a tool for expressing register and influencing policy. We move forward in time yet further with Delbert Russell's fascinating discussion of nineteenth-century editorial policy in respect of Anglo-Norman texts, and how this continues to influence modern academic thinking. This is then shown particularly vividly by R.F. Yeager's consideration of the reception and editorial of Gower's French work, by comparison with his English work, in the twenty-first century (a chapter which echoes and yet also offers an alternative view of pedagogical impact to that put forward in Fenster's earlier chapter). The final chapter of the book is left for the late Robert Stein's thought-provoking conference paper on England in the long twelfth century. Since Stein was unable to complete his promised chapter for this volume, it is pleasing to see this version of his work here, and I understand why it is placed as the closing contribution. However, in terms of content, it does feel as if it belonged earlier in the volume, even if its format is less formal than those by which it would have been bookended. Robert W. Hanning's Afterword serves as a helpful aide mémoire, summarising the key takeaway messages of the volume, and impressing once again just how transformative Wogan-Browne's work has been.

Aside from a couple of very minor gripes about the ordering of chapters here and there, what this reviewer finds so pleasing is the way in which each contributor takes care to pay tribute to how their chapter was influenced by the work of Wogan-Browne, at the same time as acknowledging how their study fits into the present volume's wider narrative, and how it might inform future scholarship. This, I believe, is a sign of excellence in the editorial practice of Collette and Fenster--they have obviously made concerted efforts to connect past, present and future, and this makes for a wholly satisfying reading and learning experience. I should also add that, as a scholar of French who teaches medieval literature to students of English literature, I am often in need of cogent support for the inclusion of the likes of Marie de France on my course, and this is a book that will find its way directly onto my reading list, where it will sit in perfect comfort alongside Wogan-Browne's own excellent edited collection. [1]

--------- Note: 1. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Language and Culture in Medieval Britain: The French of England c. 1100-c. 1500 (York: York Medieval Press, 2009, repr. 2013).