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‘Babbling in the Vernacular’: The English Language in the Middle Ages

Among the riches being digitised as part of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York are three codices containing English, one eleventh-century, one thirteenth- or fourteenth-century and one fifteenth-century. Collectively, these three manuscripts give us an interesting snapshot of the status of English in the Middle Ages and the complex history of its emergence as a written language.

We now take reading and writing in English for granted. Netflix sends us emails telling us what we should next stream, we can buy a range of daily newspapers, or browse their websites, to find out what is going on in the world, and we can visit a library to borrow a novel to make the commute seem painless. Our primary and secondary educations habituate us to reading, writing and a life mediated through the medium of text.

All this rests, however, on a long process of technological, linguistic and ideological innovation that, for English at least, took perhaps 1,500 years. It requires a conviction that English ought to be written; an alphabet; a set of accepted mappings between the sounds of speech and these symbols of writing; upgrades to the vocabulary and syntax of spoken language so that abstract concepts can be conveyed clearly and without circumlocution; and a highly-developed set of conventions for the presentation of text on the page.

For English, major steps were taken in this direction in the Early Middle Ages. Soon after the arrival of Christianity in 597 brought books and literacy in Latin, King Æthelberht had his laws written down in English. In the subsequent centuries, while Latin remained the language of religious worship and de rigeur for serious purposes like the perpetual transfer of land and the recording of the deeds of new saints, English was used in a range of functions unparalleled by any other vernacular language in Europe, with the possible exception of Irish, with the effort expended in training monks and other professional religious to write in English apparent in the regularity of the spelling of the extant manuscripts and the consistency with which particular Latin terms were translated into English. I have calculated elsewhere that the eleventh century might have seen the production of 3,750 manuscripts in English, containing 67 million words, and the work of more than 13,000 scribes.

An ex-libris in Old English, ‘of searbyrig ic eom’, “From Salisbury I am”, from TCD MS 174, front flyleaf.

TCD MS 174, a collection of Latin saints’ lives compiled at Salisbury in the time of Bishop Osmund and the decades that followed, offers us a small, late glimpse of this. Osmund was probably of continental, if not Norman origin, and before becoming bishop had served as William the Conqueror’s chancellor. At Salisbury, he oversaw a major overhaul of the cathedral’s book collection. The Normans seem to have been both troubled and inspired by the use of English in the manuscripts they found in the foundations they took over after the Conquest; inspired, in that these encounters with written English very probably inspired the first sustained attempts to write French, but troubled in that ‘babbling in the vernacular’ (as William of Malmesbury put it) was no match for Latin literacy in the pursuit of salvation. So Osmund’s scribes produced books with contents almost exclusively in Latin. Yet, the flyleaf of TCD MS 174, with its English-language inscription (‘of searbyrig ic eom’, “From Salisbury I am”) shows that at least one English-literate canon remained at Salisbury, keenly claiming one of the new Latin books.

One of Bishop Osmund’s scribes (Webber’s scribe ii), begins copying a booklet of materials on St Stephen by St Augustine, from TCD MS 174, f. 95r.

Latin remained the pre-eminent language of learning throughout the Middle Ages, with mastering it the first goal of early-years education. Before the Norman Conquest, as manuscripts of texts like Ælfric’s Grammar show, English was the language used to approach Latin; by 1300, when TCD MS 270 was composed, the language used was French, which, though initially a first language for the newly-arrived Norman and continental overlords, had by the second half of the twelfth century become a language they needed to learn in school. Boys destined for the church or royal administration therefore grew up speaking English, then had to learn French, and approach Latin through that French, with English slipping into the classroom only when French failed. The school texts in TCD MS 270 show this well. John of Garland’s Dictionarius, composed in Paris around 1220, is a collection of Latin vocabulary for everyday life: the things one might see in a horse’s stable, the equipment used in spinning, the names of animals found in French woods and so on. The vast majority of these are explained in French, but a few words have English explanations. Thus, in the section on parts of the body, Latin caville, ‘ankle’, is explained first in French as kevil, then in English as onkele. The subordination of English to French here and elsewhere in TCD MS 270 reflects its broader marginalisation in this period.

Interlinear glosses in English and French feature in John of Garland’s Dictionarius, including this section on parts of the human body, from TCD MS 270, f. 14r.

It was only in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that English grew in importance once again. The reasons are complicated and it is not always easy to distinguish causes from effects, but social changes, the increasing equation of language choice and identity, and conflict with France played a part. The fifteenth-century TCD MS 519 is a nice indication of the change. It is overwhelmingly in Latin, and, alongside nothing in French, there is a solitary English text, Benedict Burgh’s translation of the Distichs of Cato, long a staple school-text. Burgh was a disciple of the prolific English poet John Lydgate, himself a disciple of Chaucer, one of whose sources for the epic poem Troilus and Criseyde, Guido of Colonne’s History of the Destruction of Troy, is also found (in Latin) in TCD MS 519. TCD MS 519 is thus a neat illustration of the gradual re-emergence of writing in English that began with Chaucer in the second half of the fourteenth century.

Opening folio of Benedict Burgh’s English translation of the Distichs of Cato (left), and opening of Guido of Colonne’s History of the Destruction of Troy in Latin (right), from TCD MS 519, ff. 2r and 102r.

As you finish this reading this blog, reflect on the long history of technological, linguistic and ideological innovation that underpins its ability to communicate to you across time and space. Medieval manuscripts, including those manuscripts digitised for this project, eloquently manifest that history and can cultivate in us a greater awareness of things we take for granted. That power is one of the primary reasons to value, and share, the past.

Mark Faulkner
Ussher Assistant Professor in Medieval Literature

The work of the Manuscripts for Medieval Studies project has been made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Virtual Trinity Library is a digitisation initiative of the Library of Trinity College Dublin’s most valued collections. It will conserve, catalogue, curate, digitise and research these unique collections of national importance, making them accessible to a global audience, from schoolchildren to scholars.

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