Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 28 January 2021

The language of Kings

I came across an excellent post on Quora about the use of English as a spoken language by post-Conquest monarchs. It is by Stephen Tempest and well worth sharing. He cites interesting comments from contemporary sources about which languages were mutually understandable in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. I have adapted it slightly to include a few additional comments from other readers and by a slight modification of my own and a comment at the end:

It's generally believed that Henry IV was the first to speak English as his first language — that is, the language he learned first in infancy and spoke by preference. His son Henry V actuvely promoted English as a ‘national’ language and as one of record.

Many previous kings probably spoke at least some English. One of the comments from a reader suggests that  Henry II might have been able to speak some English. Henry II probably wouldn’t have been fluet, but he spent large amounts of time hunting around England and probably would have picked up some English from the locals during his travels. We know that Richard II did, because there was the famous incident when as a teenager he spoke to the rioting crowd during the Peasants' Revolt. The three king Edwards are reputed to have understood spoken English, but not been fluent enough to speak it themselves. One commentator cited Edward II’s recorded predilection for the company of labourers as suggesting he could communicate easily enough with them in English. Another says that Edward III spoke some English with a variety of words and phrases to hand but not enough to be able to complete a sentence. Another adds that he had read that his son Edward, Prince of Wales spoke French to his Gascon troops and English to his English troops, and that having seen some of his written French, from the spelling, he seems to have spoke French with a London accent! Poitiers, for example is spelt Petters.

For the first hundred years after the Norman Conquest, French seems to have remained the sole language of the nobility, and also of the higher ranks of the Church and the law courts. Most noble families owned lands on both sides of the Channel, and high-ranking children from England would often be fostered with their relatives in Normandy or Anjou, where they would speak French.

By the later 12th century, though — the reigns of Henry II, Richard and John — it seems that bilingualism was becoming more and more common. Royalty and aristocracy spoke French to each other and English to their servants.

The loss of Normandy and Anjou to the King of France under John accelerated the move away from French. The English aristocracy no longer had estates in Normandy, and could no longer as easily send their children to be educated in what was now a foreign country. During the 13th century, it seems that at least the lower ranks of the gentry became English-speaking.

French remained the language of the elite for longer, however. The Scottish chronicler John of Fordun, who wrote in Latin, sometimes quotes king Edward I Longshanks speaking in French, and helpfully provides a translation of his words into Latin for the benefit of his readers.

"Ne avoms ren autres chose a fer, que a vous reams a ganere?" Quod est dicere: "Nunquid non aliud habemus facere, quam tibi regna lucrari?"

(Roughly, "Do we have nothing better to do than win kingdoms for you?" 'Quod est dicere' is Latin for 'Which is to say'.)

By the 14th century, ambitious members of the English gentry were learning French because it was the prestige language: the language spoken by the king and his court. We have evidence of people paying for tuition, of language schools being set up, and even of textbooks being written explaining how to speak French.

This proves two things: that French was not, any longer, the mother tongue of at least the lower ranks of the English aristocracy: but that the ability to speak French fluently was considered essential for anyone who wished to enter polite society.

Robert of Gloucester, writing around the 1270s, had this to say:

so þat heiemen of þis lond, þat of hor blod come.
holdeþ alle þulk speche, þat hii of hom nome.
vor bote a man conne frenss, me telþ of him lute.
ac lowe men holdeþ to engliss, & to hor owe speche 3ute.

So that high men of this land that of their [Norman] blood come
Hold to all that speech that they took from them;
For unless a man knows French, men think little of him.
But low men hold to English and to their own speech yet.

The monk Ranulf Higden, writing in the 1340s, was of a similar opinion:

Filii nobilium ab ipsis cunabulorum crepundiis ad Gallicum idioma informantur. Quibus profecto rurales homines assimilari volentes, ut per hoc spectabiliores videantur, francigenare satagunt omni nisu.

The children of nobles are taught the French language from the very cradles of infancy. People from the countryside, wishing to make themselves similar to them in order to appear more respectable, make every effort to learn to speak French.

In the 1380s the linguist and Oxford scholar John Trevisa, who among other things translated Ranulf Higden's work into English, suggested another reason for the continued prevalence of French: that it served as a lingua franca:

Hit seemeth a greet wonder how Englisshe, that is the birth-tongue of Englisshemen and her owne language and tonege, is so dyversse of soune in this oon iland, and the language of Normandie is comlyng of another londe, and hathe one manere soun among ale men that speketh hit aright in Engelond— Nevertheless, there is as many dyvrese manere Frensshe in the reem of Fraunce as is dyvers manere Englisshe in the reem of Engelond. For a man of Kent, Southern, Western and northern men speken Frenssche al lyke in soune and speche, but they can not speke theyr Englyssche so.

In other words, the many dialects of English spoken throughout England are often not intelligible to each other; but wherever you go in England, north, south or west, there will be people who will understand you if you speak the one standard dialect of Norman French.

However, Trevisa wrote in 1385 that knowledge of French in England appeared to be a lot less than in Higden's day two generations earlier. He dated this change specifically to before and after the Black Death. Before the plague, schools in England generally used French as their language of teaching, and moved onto Latin for more advanced students. In the second half of the 14th century, though, students were arriving in school with little knowledge of French, and the instruction was largely provided in English.

The French poet Froissart attended the court of King Richard II and was surprised to find the nobles there speaking in English to each other: he'd expected they would speak French. However, when he read out extracts from his work for the king in French, the King understood him and praised his work in the same language. Meanwhile in England Geoffrey Chaucer, who could read both Latin and French fluently, nevertheless chose to write his poetry in English in order to reach a wider audience.

It seems then that it was roughly the years 1350-1420 that marked the transition between French being the regularly-spoken language of the upper classes (even if they also understood English as well) to it being entirely a second language learned in school.

The Clever Boy would add that his long held view is that this is not a matter of 

‘either/or’ but rather that Kings and nobles, and indeed the literate classes generally, would have had one language that they were most comfortable in - French, then English - plus English and subsequently French as a second language to talk to servants in the first case and visitors in the second as time moved on - plus some Latin for church use, legal matters and international dealings, as well as for devotional, scholarly and recreational reading.

Chaucer Reading His Poetry to the English Court

Chaucer reading his English poetry to the court of King Richard II

Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS

Image: Ancient History Encyclopaedia

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