The linguistic repertoire of medieval England, 1100-1500

Ad Putter*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter in a book

2 Citations (Scopus)


Languages and literatures do not develop in isolation from each other; and that is all the more true when speakers of different languages live in close proximity, or when two or more languages are spoken by the same person. The linguistic environment of Middle English is especially interesting and complicated, not only because of the many languages it was in contact with but also because of the many variables involved in language choice. In medieval England the language(s) you spoke depended on social status and mobility, profession and business, location and education. All these variables were in turn historically contingent and variable across time, for by the end of the fifteenth century the linguistic landscape had changed almost beyond recognition from that of the early twelfth century. This chapter provides a history of these variables by looking across the wide spectrum of languages spoken and written in England from 1100 to 1500. These include not only the Big Three (English, French, and Latin) but also the Celtic languages and early Scandinavian. A convenient starting point is the Norman Conquest, which in many histories of England features misleadingly as the moment when the national mother tongue became subservient to the language of French colonizers. Like many other myths, this one has its origin in the medieval period. Writing in the first half of the fourteenth century, the Dominican friar Robert Holcot looked back at the Norman Conquest in terms that have become very familiar: Narrant hystorie quod cum Guilelmus dux Normannorum regnum Anglie conquisivisset, deliberavit quomodo linguam saxonicam posset destruere et Angliam et Normanniam in ydiomate concordare, et ideo ordinavit quod nullus in curia placitaret nisi in gallico et iterum quod puer quilibet ponendus ad litteras addisceret gallicum et per gallicum latinum que duo usque ad odie observantur. (The chronicles say that when William, Duke of Normandy, had conquered England, he schemed to destroy the Saxon language and to unify England and Normandy under a single language, and so he ordained that no one should plead at court except in French and that any boy who was to be put to letters should also be taught French and, by means of French, Latin, and this practice is still observed today.) What Holcot says about his own times is confirmed by other sources.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationImagining Medieval English
Subtitle of host publicationLanguage Structures and Theories, 500-1500
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781107415836
ISBN (Print)9781107058590
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2016

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