You don’t speak (Old) French? Get out of my courtroom!

Studying medieval cultures and societies is a hushed business, as everything we have to guide our thoughts and our imaginations is visual, whether written, pictorial, epigraphical, etc. The only noise the medievalist can hear is that of her or his own exerted faculties, harassing the evidence from all sides. The subject of language culture, however, has always engaged my haunted imagination. How did they speak back then? Who spoke what, with whom and on what occasion? Fortunately, all is not lost, and scholars have been able to recover some of that noisy world prior to the wire recorder and MP3 encoding. Although we may not be able to get into the fray of medieval spoken language (Latin, vernacular, for Western Christendom), we may still tell a meaningful, evidence-based story of how languages evolved, of what language was spoken along which lines in roughly what context. Michael Clanchy’s book From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307  (medievalists will now say, Oh boy, not him again) is the Starship Enterprise of scholarship on medieval language cultures, offering some significant and powerful answers to many of our questions about spoken and written language in Medieval England. His is the kind of work that a student of medieval England humbly goes back to every time new evidence breaks the floodgates of hypothesis and speculation.

Here’s how I ended up with Clanchy again today. I was reading this morning an interesting account of a protracted legal dispute between two medieval English monasteries over possession of marshland. Some of you may have guessed, it’s the famous Crowland-Spalding case (nothing to do with basketballs, my less medieval-minded reader!). In case you don’t know, the abbeys of Crowland and Spalding are in Holland, Lincolnshire, just north of Peterborough, both Benedictine, both fairly powerful in the Fenland area. The case is fascinating and shows, better than any other bit of evidence, the kind of legal hard-work that preserving your land (or fighting over your neighbour’s) required. The dispute began in the late 1180s and was only concluded in the early 1200s, during which time the abbot of Crowland (the narrative limelight is on him) explored all possible judicial avenues to secure his (legitimate) claim. It’s interesting to see the amount of seeking, pleading, defending, demonstrating that went into the early career of this abbot of Crowland – none other than my doctoral hero Henry of Longchamp, the brother of William, chancellor of England; if you read my blog every so often, you will have heard about good old father Henry.

While perusing this narrative, my attention was drawn to a detail which seems to have escaped Clanchy’s clinching scholarly fist. In the midst of this now-you-can-have-the-land-now-you-can’t, the abbot of Crowland had another go at claiming seisin (possession) of the marsh and initiated an inquiry in 1191. It was made before a county court, for which knights were needed to stand as jurors. Three were empanelled, but it soon turned out that they were a fraud, having been paid by Spalding to play the knightly part to tip the scales in its favour. We don’t know exactly how they were exposed, but the story goes on to say that two of them had not been knighted (literally girded with a sword, as this was the main ritual for knighting in that period), whereas the third – and here’s the chantilly in your lattè – could not speak French (Gallice loqui non noverat)There is a clear implication here that a knight had to speak French, but what about court language? Paul Brand has argued that in the second half of the 13th century, French was the language used in pleading in royal, county and city courts as well as the language of legal instruction. The language of pleading, yes, and that implies the overall language of court, spoken by those who were not necessarily pleading, just like our juror knight wannabe. The strongest evidence for this is the amount of French legal words that were absorbed into Anglo-Latin over the centuries, to the effect that a great deal -if not most- of common law terms have a French root.

If that was indeed the case, then one needs asking what the sham knight was hoping to achieve by entering a French-speaking court equipped like a modern average Englishman, that is with broken or zero French. Was he hoping that silence would get him through the proceedings or was the tension between French and English languages (as the assumption is that the impersonator was a low-born Englishman) spoken in the county court more pronounced than what scholars have previously assumed? In which case, our ‘knight’ would have had some chances of success, perhaps getting away with a few technical French words learned on the spot.

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 9.48.35from the Second Continuation of the Historia Croylandensis, Rerum Anglicarum scriptorum veterum tom. I. Quorum Ingulfus nunc primum integer, cæteri nunc primum prodeunt., ed. W. Fulman (Oxford, 1684), 458


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