You don’t speak (Old) French? Get out of my courtroom!

Studying medieval cultures and societies is a hushed business, as everything we have to guide our thoughts and our imaginations is visual, whether written, pictorial, epigraphical, etc. The only noise the medievalist can hear is that of her or his own exerted faculties, harassing the evidence from all sides. The subject of language culture, however, has always engaged my haunted imagination. How did they speak back then? Who spoke what, with whom and on what occasion? Fortunately, all is not lost, and scholars have been able to recover some of that noisy world prior to the wire recorder and MP3 encoding. Although we may not be able to get into the fray of medieval spoken language (Latin, vernacular, for Western Christendom), we may still tell a meaningful, evidence-based story of how languages evolved, of what language was spoken along which lines in roughly what context. Michael Clanchy’s book From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307  (medievalists will now say, Oh boy, not him again) is the Starship Enterprise of scholarship on medieval language cultures, offering some significant and powerful answers to many of our questions about spoken and written language in Medieval England. His is the kind of work that a student of medieval England humbly goes back to every time new evidence breaks the floodgates of hypothesis and speculation.

Here’s how I ended up with Clanchy again today. I was reading this morning an interesting account of a protracted legal dispute between two medieval English monasteries over possession of marshland. Some of you may have guessed, it’s the famous Crowland-Spalding case (nothing to do with basketballs, my less medieval-minded reader!). In case you don’t know, the abbeys of Crowland and Spalding are in Holland, Lincolnshire, just north of Peterborough, both Benedictine, both fairly powerful in the Fenland area. The case is fascinating and shows, better than any other bit of evidence, the kind of legal hard-work that preserving your land (or fighting over your neighbour’s) required. The dispute began in the late 1180s and was only concluded in the early 1200s, during which time the abbot of Crowland (the narrative limelight is on him) explored all possible judicial avenues to secure his (legitimate) claim. It’s interesting to see the amount of seeking, pleading, defending, demonstrating that went into the early career of this abbot of Crowland – none other than my doctoral hero Henry of Longchamp, the brother of William, chancellor of England; if you read my blog every so often, you will have heard about good old father Henry.

While perusing this narrative, my attention was drawn to a detail which seems to have escaped Clanchy’s clinching scholarly fist. In the midst of this now-you-can-have-the-land-now-you-can’t, the abbot of Crowland had another go at claiming seisin (possession) of the marsh and initiated an inquiry in 1191. It was made before a county court, for which knights were needed to stand as jurors. Three were empanelled, but it soon turned out that they were a fraud, having been paid by Spalding to play the knightly part to tip the scales in its favour. We don’t know exactly how they were exposed, but the story goes on to say that two of them had not been knighted (literally girded with a sword, as this was the main ritual for knighting in that period), whereas the third – and here’s the chantilly in your lattè – could not speak French (Gallice loqui non noverat)There is a clear implication here that a knight had to speak French, but what about court language? Paul Brand has argued that in the second half of the 13th century, French was the language used in pleading in royal, county and city courts as well as the language of legal instruction. The language of pleading, yes, and that implies the overall language of court, spoken by those who were not necessarily pleading, just like our juror knight wannabe. The strongest evidence for this is the amount of French legal words that were absorbed into Anglo-Latin over the centuries, to the effect that a great deal -if not most- of common law terms have a French root.

If that was indeed the case, then one needs asking what the sham knight was hoping to achieve by entering a French-speaking court equipped like a modern average Englishman, that is with broken or zero French. Was he hoping that silence would get him through the proceedings or was the tension between French and English languages (as the assumption is that the impersonator was a low-born Englishman) spoken in the county court more pronounced than what scholars have previously assumed? In which case, our ‘knight’ would have had some chances of success, perhaps getting away with a few technical French words learned on the spot.

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 9.48.35from the Second Continuation of the Historia Croylandensis, Rerum Anglicarum scriptorum veterum tom. I. Quorum Ingulfus nunc primum integer, cæteri nunc primum prodeunt., ed. W. Fulman (Oxford, 1684), 458


Money and the pope’s ears

Some of the best puns come from medieval writers. Some of the most expected puns come from medieval chroniclers, like this one, drawn from the chronicle I’m editing:

“Instabat igitur constanter dictus Falcasius et perseveranter prece et pretio aures pulsare apostolicas usque ad impetrationem litterarum a sede apostolica domino regi Anglie destinandarum”

Therefore, the said Faulkes de Breauté constantly and persistently, through supplications and money-gifts, strove to obtain letters from the pope addressed to the lord king of England”

Faulkes de Breauté was an English baron of Norman descent who had rebelled against king Henry III, kidnapped one of the royal justices, threw himself into Bedford Castle, was subsequently besieged, defeated, exiled and disgraced. He then tried to explain himself to the pope and to the king. That’s when the cited text comes in. 

Literally, Faulkes sought to make himself heard by pope Honorius III. The expression here aures apostolicas pulsare – which seems to occur only in this text – means to ‘beat the apostolic ears’, to hit them hard, why not, even to make them pulsate (laterally, in the Lateran palace, I should say).

For the pope to yield to Faulkes’ plea, his ears needed to ring with the sound of coins (pretium) and supplications (preces). But coins, most of all.

The emperor that had been emperor before he was crowned emperor: Otto IV and Ralph of Coggeshall

I am used to medieval chroniclers giving me a treat every time I read their works. Ralph of Coggeshal is no exception. He was a Cisterician monk writing at the abbey of Coggeshall in Essex in the 1220s. He is famous for his account of John’s reign and many different bits and pieces that serve the expositional interests of English medievalists. I am interested in Ralph because his work is very similar to that I am doing my doctoral work on, the Crowland Chronicle. But back to Ralph.

His chronicle has been titled ‘Chronicon Anglicanum’, the English Chronicle and records all sorts of events under discrete annal headings (in 1066 AD this happened, in 1150 AD this, etc, etc). When he gets to 1209, he writes that “Henry duke of Saxony, brother of emperor Otto (the Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV), came to England.’ Then he mentions that clouds fought with the sun for a long time in February and then comes back to Otto IV, only to say that he was crowned emperor by pope Innocent III that very year.

How exciting is that? Some scholars have raised serious doubts about the narratological value of medieval annalistic chronicles (Hayden White, high five!), and I think this is the sort of thing they might have had in mind. There is no conceivable narrative sequence (let alone a plot) that may be discerned in this annal. This naturally raises the question whether the annal was designed as we now have it in Ralph’s autograph manuscript or whether Ralph was planning to redraft it.

Anyhow, this is the sort of thing a student of historiography does when confronted with annals and their authors. And Ralph is not alone in this. Sometimes, however, chroniclers who enjoy recording dry strings of disconnected events can turn the tide on annalistic narrativity, as my Crowland chronicler did on many occasions. But about this anon.

Some old London maps

To live in a city with such a distinguished history as London causes the mind to often whiz back in time. One way of doing that is to muse over the city’s streets, court, gardens, palaces, etc, that have gone up and down over the centuries. I like maps, and not any maps; the older, the better, I say. They tell stories, some that may still be told, others that have turn to stone. Here are two of my favourite maps, and, nisi fallor, some of the most detailed representations (if not the most) of London before the Great Fire of 1666.


Showing London from the Tower to the East to Gray’s Inn to the West. Taken from John Norden’s Middlesex, dated 1593. Each map is 9½ inches by 6¾ inches. Click to magnify.


Same as above. Showing the city of Westminster from the Strand to the East to Westminster Abbey to the West.


This map generally goes by the name of Faithorne, the engraver, but in reality the credit is due quite as much to Richard Newcourt the elder (d. 1679), who was the draughtsman. It is selected for a place here because, the date being 1658, it shows the City as it was before the Fire. Showing the heart of the City, with St Paul’s cathedral at the centre and going as north as Bunhill. One may even count the houses on each street. And I live right there, off Charterhouse square. Click to magnify

Latin in Medieval Britain

Screen Shot 2013-12-12 at 9.37.54The conference is set to begin this afternoon. I will try to cover David Howlett’s lecture on Making the Dictionary and tomorrow’s sessions. I am particularly looking forward to Neil Wright’s talk on The twelfth-century renaissance in Anglo-Norman England: William of Malmesbury and Joseph of Exeter, Charles Burnett’s Arabic in medieval British Latin scientific writings and Paul Brand’s The Latin of the early English common law.

I hope the weekend accommodation at St Anne’s College will not make one think too much of the medieval period.

Moral relativism in the medieval church: St Nicholas

Today’s the feast of St. Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop of Myra (that’s in present-day Turkey). I thought it suitable to share with you a story from the life of the saint whose name I bear (as my middle name).  There were many lives of St. Nicholas written in the Middle Ages, but Jacobus de Voragine’s account in his Golden Legend (c. 1260, a medieval bestseller) is by far the most exciting of all. He begins by saying that after his baptism, baby Nicholas would only suck on his mother’s breast on Wednesdays and Fridays, emphasising Nicholas’ early commitment to a life of fasting and abstinence. Then he goes on to relate the many miracles the saint performed in the company of sailors. Right after his death, a cult spawned and people of all sorts began to trust the saint’s power. The story I include below involves a Jew, an icon, a handful of thieves and an apparition and does something very strange indeed.  It seems to suggest that theft and iconoclasm could lead to conversion to medieval Christianity. This way, it serves as an example of something nobody would dare suggest for this period: that the medieval Church admitted of moral relativism, showing that actually nothing is intrinsically wicked, that faith transcends questions of good and bad, right and wrong.

Another Jew saw the virtuous miracles of St. Nicholas, and did do make an image of the saint [an icon], and set it in his house, and commanded him that he should keep well his house when he went out, and that he should keep well all his goods, saying to him: Nicholas, lo! here be all my goods, I charge you to keep them, and if thou keep them not well, I shall avenge me on you in beating and tormenting you. And on a time, when the Jew was out, thieves came and robbed all his goods, and left, unborne away, only the image. And when the Jew came home he found him robbed of all his goods. He questioned the image saying these words: Sir Nicholas, I had set you in my house for to keep my goods from thieves, why have you not kept them? You shall receive sorrow and torments, and shall have pain for the thieves. I shall avenge my loss, and refrain my frenzy in beating you. And then took the Jew the image, and beat it, and tormented it cruelly. Then a great marvel occurred, for when the thieves departed with the goods, the holy saint, like as he had been in his array, appeared to the thieves, and said to them: Why have I been beaten so cruelly for you and have so many torments? See how my body is hewed and broken; see how that the red blood runs down by my body; go fast and restore it again, or else the wrath of God Almighty shall make you as to be one out of his wit, and that all men shall know your felony, and that each of you shall be hanged. And they said: Who are you that says to us such things? And he said to them: I am Nicholas the servant of Jesus Christ, whom the Jew has so cruelly beaten for his goods that you took away. Then they were afraid, and came to the Jew, and heard what he had done to the image, and they told him the miracle, and delivered to him again all his goods. And thus came the thieves to the way of truth, and the Jew to the way of Jesus Christ.

P.S. The gravitas of my suggestion must not lead anyone to think that this is anything but a pleasantry. Admittedly, the mere thought that the Jew’ infliction of derivative damage on St Nicholas marshalled him to conversion does not need any further witty suggestions. This disclaimer comes as a result of a reader’s (he knows who he is) denunciation of my suggestion that conversion to faith justifies the use of any kind of morality. This reader must remember our chat over lunch today.

The rise and fall of a medieval woman from cheese to oat: Matilda de Briouze

The study of medieval women has become quite trendy in the last decades or so. The narrative sources can tell us quite a lot about some women who have been able to escape the rigid and circumscribing expectations of most medieval authors. Perhaps there is no better example than the exceptional figure of Matilda de Briouse (1155-1210), wife of William, one of English king John’s top barons. Her misfortune was to collide with the unyielding king John, who locked her and her son up for debt, defiance and (some) caprice. Many know the story of Matilda’s rise and downfall, but perhaps few are those who have read the engaging account of the Histoire des ducs de Normandie et des Rois d’Angleterre, an Artesian verse narrative written in Old French in the first quarter of the 13th century. Praised for its precision and analytic depth, the Histoire takes an unprecedented interest in Matilda, ‘singing’ the last years of her life:

This William of Briouze had a fearless lady as his wife, born in the lands of the King of France; she was the daughter of Bernard of Saint-Valéry, the good knight; her name was Matilda. She was beautiful, very wise, very valiant and very vigorous. None of her barons ever mentioned a word against her. She kept up the war against the Welsh and conquered much from them. She had been loyal to king John, who treated her badly, although she offered him many gifts. She once made the queen a gift of 300 cows and a bull, all of them white, except the ears which were red. This lady once boasted to Baldwin count of Aumale her nephew that she owned no less than twelve thousand milk cows. And she kept bragging that she had so much cheese that if a hundred of the strongest men in England were besieged in a castle, they could defend themselves with her cheese for a whole month, so much that they would not use it up and always find more to throw down the battlements.

Cheese didn’t keep her from being captured by the king, after her husband fell out of royal favour. There have been many attempts to exhaust the possibilities of John’s volte-face against William and his family, and perhaps historians have relied too much on the prejudiced views of clerical chroniclers. For one reason or another, Matilda was locked up together with her son in 1210 and starved to death. The Histoire preserves a disturbing endnote of her and her son’s demise:

When he arrived in England, the king imprisoned Matilda and her son in the castle of Corfe and ordered that a sheaf of oat and one piece of raw bacon be given to them. He did not allow them to have any more meat. After eleven days, the mother was found dead between her son’s legs, still upright albeit leaned forward against her son’s foot, as a dead woman. Her son, who was also dead, was found sitting straight, bent against the wall as a dead man. So desperate was the mother that she had eaten her son’s cheeks.

A bit on the side lane, I should add that it is curious that the renowned chronicler Matthew Paris, writing in the 1250s, described William of Briouze’s coat of arms as containing three garbs or, that is three golden sheafs of wheat or oat or some other cereal. As far as I know, there is no other evidence of Briouze heraldry. This might be Matthew Paris’ way of honouring Matilda’s death and adding fuel to his denunciation of the king.

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