Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Today's research snippet. Speaking the Language:

Languages in 12th century England.

There were three main spoken languages in England in the 12th century. English, French and Latin. The latter was a language learned by an educated minority and spoken in the spheres of the church, of law, of administration and education. 
English was the language spoken by most of the population from birth - the 'mother tongue.' French was spoken in England in a dialect we now call Anglo Norman. it was used by the King, the barons, and the great churchmen. Most of the aristocracy, both high and low had been born and brought up in northern France in the period immediately following  the Conquest. Two generations later, both King Stephen and Henry II had lived more in ( what is now) France than in England before becoming King. Henry's children grew up in a French-speaking environment. In 1192 Eleanor of Aquitaine needed an interpreter when dealing with the local English population. French was a language of prestige used by the wealthy and powerful, but over the decades and centuries would gradually lose ground to English, which was itself changing, absorbing new words with influences from the French.
Being literate in the 12th century meant being able to understand Latin. It was a universal language. Those who learned it could communicate across continents with other Latin speakers and have access to written information inaccessible to the majority, so in that way it was creating an elite. It was the language of papal authority.
Those educated in Latin were often disparaging of the native tongue. Benedict of Peterborough, when writing down the miracles that had happened at the tomb of Thomas Becket writes of a knight who had been cured. 'He was called Robert, the son of a Surrey knight - the barbarous name of the village has not stuck firmly in my memory.' The chronicler of Ramsey Abbey speaks of translating into Latin documents 'written in the barbarism of English.' Gerald of Wales also called the English-language barbaric. after the Norman Conquest, Latin replaced English in official documentation. some documentation was written in French, although Latin dominated. French was used to write romances and histories for the consumption of the aristocracy.
Nevertheless, English not only retained its foothold but gained ground. Waltheof Abbot of Melrose spoke both French and English 'eloquently and fluently'. he was the brother of Simon de Senlis, Earl of Huntingdon, and had been born in the early 12th century. So here is evidence that children of the high aristocracy were imbibing English along with French.
English, unlike so much the French and Latin was spoken in dialects. William of Malmesbury remarks that 'The whole language of the Northumbrians, especially in York, is so grating and uncouth that we Southerners cannot understand a word of it.' And when Abbott Samson of Bury St Edmunds preached in English, he spoke in a Norfolk dialect.
I would love to go back, stand in the marketplace, and listen!

Today's photograph from my archive: This is a photo of The Milton Brooch in the Victoria and Albert Museum.  More about it here: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O111113/the-milton-brooch-disc-brooch-unknown/

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