Robert of Gloucester’s Metrical Chronicle and the French of England

Here is another new HEL Timeline entry for teaching this Spring. Let me know what you think!

Written by a few different writers, this was finished around 1300, or perhaps a bit after. It’s a history written in verse. The text keeps some aspects of Old English metrical rhythm but not others: each verse is in two half lines, but the verses are not in four beats, and they do not consistently alliterate. The text uses both thorn (þ) for “th” and yogh (ȝ) for “g,” as ME would through the fifteenth century.

Linguistically, its dialect tells us that it comes from Gloucestershire (in the west of England on the Severn, just at the foot of Wales). One dialectal characteristic is that it uses southern “h” forms (“hor” for PDE “their,: “hii” for PDE “they,” etc.) for plural pronouns, as opposed to the “th” form common to the old Danelaw regions that would spread to become more common in Later Middle English. Another southern form here that would disappear is the “o” in “nome” and in “lond” and “engelond”: these would become “name” and “land.” Even more local is the form “ido” for PDE “done”: there is no final -n. PDE “f” here is voiced and spelled “v” (as in “vor,” “vaire”).

The section about William the Conqueror comments on the language of the ruling class of England:

Willam þis noble duc • þo he adde ido al þis
Þen wey he nom to londone • he & alle his
As king & prince of londe • wiþ nobleye ynou
Aȝen him wiþ uair procession • þat folc of toune drou
& vnderueng him vaire inou • as king of þis lond
Þus com lo engelond • in to normandies hond
& þe normans ne couþe speke þo • bote hor owe speche
& speke french as hii dude atom • & hor children dude also teche
So þat heiemen of þis lond • þat of hor blod come
Holdeþ alle þulke speche • þat hii of hom nome
Vor bote a man conne frenss • me telþ of him lute
Ac lowe men holdeþ to engliss • & to hor owe speche ȝute
Ich wene þer ne beþ in al þe world • contreyes none
Þat ne holdeþ to hor owe speche • bote engelond one
Ac wel me wot uor to conne • boþe wel it is
Vor þe more þat a mon can • be more wurþe he is
Þis noble duc willam • him let crouny king
At londone amidwinter day • nobliche þoru alle þing
Of þe erchebissop of euerwik . . . . (7532-7550)

The chronicler says that “Vor bote a man conne frenss • me telþ of him lute”: “For unless a man knows French, people speak little of him.” After the Conquest, French became the language of the aristocracy and the clerical elites. The writer seems to be upset–or at least thinks it odd–that the “English” don’t speak their own language, “Þat ne holdeþ to hor owe speche,” though “þe more þat a mon can,” the more that a man knows, the better. French, the monk implies, is learned, a self-conscious, deliberately gained knowledge–not a first language. As Barber, Beal, & Shaw note, “There are signs that English became the day-to-day language of even aristocrats within a generation or two; the literary and courtly French employed in England (known as Anglo-Norman) was probably essentially a second language within a few generations” (145).

This moment around 1300 was the high point for the French of England. How would the language wane? Crystal notes “conscious change in American and British English is usually in the direct of those linguistic forms which are widely and openly recognized as prestigious. . . . This kind of change is often initiated by people from the lower middle class or upper working class–especially women. . . . By contrast, subconscious change is usually in the opposite direction, away from overt prestige. It is often initiated by working-class men” (CEL 343). A similar dynamic seems to be at work during the century around 1300: while social and literary customs consciously preserved and taught the French of England, they would be whittled away by the traumas of the coming half-century–the famine, the weak rule of Edward II, the Hundred Years War, and especially the Black Death–that allowed the language of the lower classes, the men and women who tilled, milled, smithed, and worked wood–to gain in linguistic and political authority.

See: Cambridge History to English and American Literature 1.16, §1; Barber, Beal, & Shaw 145-46 (with a translation of this passage); Bennett & Smithers text XI. On the power of French on English see Barber, Beal, & Shaw 150-60; Crystal, CEEL 30,41, 46-7; Millward & Hayes 145-47, 192-97; and later in the timeline under Trevisa.

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