multilingualism & internationalism
Medieval England was a richly multilingual society. Speakers (and readers) of Latin, English, French, Welsh, Irish, Cornish, Hebrew, and Norse, among other languages, lived alongside one another and rubbed shoulders —that is to say, influenced one another—at various points between the seventh and the fifteenth centuries. This linguistic patchwork is owing to England’s political history in the Middle Ages and its geographic location. To name two prominent examples, the significant effects of the Viking raids, which began in the eighth century, and the Norman Conquest of 1066 were felt politically, culturally, and linguistically.
Because the written record is dominated by Latin, English and, beginning in the twelfth century, French, scholars often refer to medieval England as being trilingual. The question of which of these three languages would be used in a specific context throughout the period has given rise to much scholarship, and we explore some answers with the manuscripts displayed here.
In these two manuscripts we see the fundamental multilingualism and internationalism of medieval England reflected in ways that may surprise a modern audience.
Beinecke MS 492 is an early fourteenth-century manuscript with French-language material that is displayed in a typically English fashion: the blue initials and the red, flourished penwork dotted across the opening are characteristically English, and some of the content, such as a text by the archbishop of Canterbury that was translated from Latin into French, is very English as well. This opening shows a section of Pierre de Peckham’s versified consideration of generosity, La lumiere as lais, which is distinguished with a stunning inhabited initial.
Takamiya MS 93 is a genealogy written in English in 1504 that documents King Edward IV’s direct descent from Adam. Claiming biblical descent was common practice in royal genealogies and, indeed, everything about this attractive manuscript is straightforward, except its origins. Although written in English, it was produced in Louvain, in modern-day Belgium, and probably was written by an English scholar in residence at the university, thereby testifying to the presence of English (and Englishmen) abroad in the medieval period.