French Literary Manuscripts in England, 1100-1500: A Quantitative Approach

Krista A. Murchison
Leiden University

French plays a relatively limited role in the traditional story of medieval England, relegated to the Norman aristocracy after the Conquest of 1066 and to a couple of generations of their descendants. Yet research of the past few decades has revealed that French persisted in England for centuries after the Conquest in various domains and roles, not only as a language of administration (Ormrod, 2003; Baswell, 2007; Spence, 2013) but also as a language of international affairs (Clanchy, 1979; Waters, 2015). This paper will contribute to this valuable and ongoing re-evaluation of the roles of French in medieval England through a quantitative approach to medieval French literary production.

The findings presented in this paper will be based on the data I recently compiled, thanks to the support of a Europeana Research Grant, about 810 manuscripts containing French literature from medieval England. For this dataset, I gathered traditional catalogue information about each manuscript, including its medieval owners, date, and language distribution (the percentages of French, English, Latin and other languages that are used in the manuscript). Since manuscripts were handmade and reflect the choices—deliberate or otherwise—of their producers and editors, each stands as a unique data point about medieval language use.

As this paper will show, this dataset provides valuable insight into the contexts in which French literature circulated in medieval England. In particular, comparing the dataset of Anglo-Norman literary manuscripts to other datasets of manuscripts from medieval England provides support for the theory that an interest in Anglo-Norman literary production did not emerge in force until almost a century after the Conquest. French literature circulated predominantly in multilingual contexts, and this literature continued to be copied—and, concomitantly, read—for much later than the traditional linguistic narrative of medieval England would suggest, with the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries standing as the most important for Anglo-Norman literary production. These and other findings that will be explored in this paper provide strong support for a growing body of research (Rothwell, 1992; Ingham, 2009 and many others) that underlines the significant and persistent status of French as a language of literature and culture in the centuries following the Conquest.