‘Mes cest romanz a laie gent/ Assez suffit plenerement’: Computus texts and the languages of knowledge in 13th-century England

Edward Mills
University of Exeter (United Kingdom)

The computus — the set of calculations involved in determining the date of Easter — might seem like an unlikely framework within which to consider the status of French in medieval England. French-language renderings of this highly technical and seemingly-obtuse subject matter would appear to offer little in response to broader questions of speech communities and language contact. As recent work by Thomas O’Donnell has shown, however, this need not necessarily be the case: a text such as Philippe de Thaon’s Comput can in fact present an opportunity to ‘rethink the relationship between different languages […] and to broaden our critical conceptions of the meaning of the romance vernacular.’1

This paper proposes to build on the work carried out by O’Donnell and others by investigating attitudes to the use of French in the mid- to late thirteenth century England, particularly with respect to its use as a language of knowledge exchange, through the specific lens of a second computus text: the Kalender (1256), attributed to the otherwise-unknown Rauf de Lenham. The work may initially appear to reinforce traditional views of French as a ‘language of access’ to Latinate knowledge paradigms, with Rauf professing to have produced the work for a secular lord ‘qui pas le latin ne entendeit’ (l. 1300); I will argue, however, that the text can also be read as constituting a challenge to any reductive conceptions of the status and function of French in medieval England. The Kalender, particularly in its presentation of technical content and in its three surviving manuscript executions, represents an under-explored source for nuancing our understanding of the role played by the French of England with respect to Latin and English, and demonstrates how French can operate as a language of exclusion and restriction even to those capable of accessing it.