annotating across languages

Medieval readers, like modern ones, annotated their books, filling margins with citations and quotations, adding references to Biblical and philosophical texts, and inserting pointing fingers, called manicules, to draw the eye to especially important moments in the text. Also like modern readers, they sometimes doodled in the margins, scribbled their names repeatedly, or copied irrelevant scraps from other works onto blank leaves.

Beinecke MS 360: Psalter and Hours

Beinecke MS 360. Wycliffite psalter and hours. England, between 1400 and 1415. 

We normally think of psalters and Books of Hours from the early fifteenth century as being written in Latin, but Beinecke MS 360 is an example of one translated into English. It contains the psalms in the later version of the Wycliffite translation, which, although condemned by the English bishops, circulated widely in England and gave direct access to scripture to those men and women who were literate in English but knew little or no Latin.

This did not mean, however, that these texts were read only by those who knew no Latin. The first words of each of the psalms are written in the margins in Latin, and other evidence of language mixing is found. For example, with no apparent sense of incongruity, a marginal annotation on folio 22r clarifies that the beginning of the English text of Psalm 26, which reads, “The lord is my ligtnynge,” corresponds to the Latin rendering of the psalm, which begins Dominus illuminatio. Clearly this well-known prayer was identifiable by its Latin opening word, even to an audience reading a primarily English text. Familiarity with the Latin of the liturgy would have been reinforced by constant repetition, whether or not the hearer had studied the language.

Nor did readers necessarily annotate texts in the language in which they were written. This volume of English translations of the psalms contains a note at the end on the four methods of interpreting scripture that is written entirely in Latin. This Wycliffite psalter is written in a small Gothic book hand, a script often associated with liturgical and devotional texts.

Osborn MS fa53: De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae

Osborn fa53. Henry de Bracton, De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae. England, between 1275 and 1300

Osborn fa53, a partial manuscript of the English jurist Henry de Bracton’s De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae is a fine example of the extreme multilingualism of learned society in thirteenth-century England. Bracton’s text is in Latin, the language of scholars and perhaps the one we would expect in a treatise on law. But as the opening at 182v-183r shows, Latin was far from the only language used for legal procedures. The lengthy annotation at the foot of the page is in a form of Anglo-French known as Law French, which was both spoken and written at the English courts from the time of William the Conqueror until the mid-fourteenth century. The first surviving documents in Law French are from the mid-thirteenth century, and they are already so highly technical and complex in nature that it seems certain the vocabulary had been developing for some time.

While Law French in England was based on the French and then Anglo-French spoken by the English aristocracy, it also drew upon Parisian French and Latin. Our annotator, then, was almost certainly a lawyer or legal scholar, fluent in the various languages of the law. Law French dominated the courts for more than two hundred years, but in 1362 Parliament passed the Statute of Pleading, stipulating that the courts should use English rather than French, which was judged to be trop desconue en dit realme ("too unknown in the said kingdom").

Osborn MS a1: Psalter

Osborn a1. Psalter. England, between 1275 and 1300.

Unlike the Wycliffite Psalter, which is in English, Osborn a1 is in Latin with annotations in Middle French and Middle English. This lovely psalter is written in a late thirteenth-century Gothic script, but the flyleaves tell another tale. The back flyleaf, shown here, contains the words to a song in Middle French — “Un bon chanson ay treue” — as well as the words to a Middle English carol — “Mayde and moder, glade thou be.” The front flyleaf contains musical exercises as well. Latin works may be annotated in vernaculars, just as vernacular works may include Latin glosses.

Multilingual Medieval England
annotating across languages