22 August, 2010

Edward II And English

Following a recent post about Edward II's use of French and Latin, here's one about his use of the language spoken by the vast majority of his subjects: English. Unfortunately, direct evidence to tell us to what extent Edward spoke and understood the language is lacking. Edward I's biographers Michael Prestwich and Marc Morris, however, say that Edward I learned English from a young age from his tutors and nurses, and Edward I's uncle Richard, earl of Cornwall, also spoke the language, as demonstrated by a statement in the chronicle of Matthew Paris - who knew Richard well - which says with reference to Richard's election as king of Germany in 1257 that he would have no problems learning German, as he already knew English. [1] Edward II's son Edward III certainly had at least some knowledge of English, as he used the language for his personal slogans at jousting tournaments far more often than he used French [2], though how well he spoke it or how often is impossible to say for sure.

Given that Edward II's father and son knew English, it is highly likely that he did too. Edward was criticised by various fourteenth-century chroniclers for enjoying the company of the lowborn, which is borne out by other evidence: he went on holiday for an entire month in the autumn of 1315 with "a great concourse of common people"; he drank in Newcastle with an unnamed but evidently lowborn woman in 1310; he dined privately in 1325 with a group of carpenters, and a group of sailors on another occasion; he went to a forge to talk to his blacksmith John Cole in 1323; he spent what seems like excessive amounts of time in the 1320s chatting to fishermen and often bought fish from them "with his own hands." There are numerous other such examples. Carpenters, fishermen, blacksmiths and the like would not have spoken French, and I find it hard to imagine that Edward would have taken as much pleasure as he obviously did in the company of the lowborn, and spent as much time with them, if he'd had to rely on interpreters to communicate with them. Although direct evidence is lacking, it seems to me that Edward II must have enjoyed a fluent command of English.

I find it interesting to see that English words occasionally crept into French texts of the early fourteenth century. I've written about Edward's Household Ordinance of 1318, where 'hackneyman' and 'cup house', among others, appear in English. In Edward I's 1306 order that the countess of Buchan should have one or two English women to attend her in her cage on the walls of Berwick Castle, the word 'English' is written in English (Englesche) rather than in French (engleis). Edward II's chamber account of 1325 records a gift of forty-seven caged goldfinches for his niece Eleanor Despenser, written in French with 'goldfinches' in English: xlvij Goldfynches en vne cage. Other English words crept into the chamber journal, such as 'shipbord' and 'shipwreghtes' (shipwrights). I wonder why; was there no equivalent French word, or did the clerk writing the journal just not know it?

The nobility of the early fourteenth century wrote their letters in French, and Edward II's letters were usually in French though sometimes (when writing to correspondents outside England) in Latin, but neither the king nor his nobles ever wrote in English, and therefore, as Seymour Phillips has pointed out, the great difficulty in establishing how much English they knew lies in 'catching them at it'. [3] I've written before about Hugh Despenser the Younger's literacy in French: various letters of his written in 1324 make clear that he read his correspondents' letters out loud to Edward II, though the extent of his literacy and ability in English remains unknown. Sometimes the concept of how bilingualism in fourteenth-century England worked in practice intrigues me; the charges against Despenser at his (so-called) trial of November 1326 in Hereford were written in French and presumably were also delivered in that language, not least because if they'd been read out in English it's doubtful that Isabella of France would have understood them. (Did Isabella learn any English? I have no idea.) Yet chroniclers record that a great roar of approval went up from the watching crowd when Despenser's death sentence was read out. As most of these people were not of the nobility and wouldn't have understood the French, does this mean that an interpreter was simultaneously translating the charges into English for their benefit?

To what extent, or whether at all, Edward II and his court used English as a means of communication among themselves is impossible to say for sure. Various scholars claim that although French was the daily language of the law courts and of baronial administration, by about the middle of the thirteenth century it had become an acquired language in England, and that most French speakers were native speakers of English; Michael Prestwich describes the French spoken in England in this period as "an increasingly artificial language, lacking the vitality to change and develop," in contrast to English. [4] The marvellous Henry of Grosmont, duke of Lancaster, Edward II's kinsman and one of my favourite people of the fourteenth century, wrote a treatise in French called Le Livre de Seyntz Medicines, the Book of Holy Medicines, in 1354. He wrote at the beginning "if the French is not good, I must be excused, because I am English and not much accustomed to French" (si le franceis ne soit pas bon, jeo doie estre escusee, pur ceo qe jeo sui engleis et n’ai pas moelt hauntee le franceis). Obviously this was a literary device to demonstrate Henry's modesty, as his French was completely fluent, even cultured. I can only speculate as to the fluency or otherwise of Henry's English, however, and it's worth pointing out that, whether he spoke much English in his daily life or not and whether it was his first language or not, French, in the middle of the fourteenth century, was still the language he chose to write in. It's interesting to compare Hugh Despenser the Younger, whose many extant letters are all in French, with his grandson Thomas, Lord Berkeley (1353-1417), for whose benefit John Trevisa translated the Polychronicon from Latin - into English, not French.

I'm going to end this rather hotch-potchy post with a couple of paragraphs about a text called Le Tretiz, The Treatise, written by Walter de Bibbesworth in about 1250 for Dionysia (Denise) de Munchesney, the stepmother of Joan, countess of Pembroke (1230s-1307), who was the granddaughter of the great William le Marshal and married Henry III's French half-brother William de Valence. The Tretiz was intended to teach Dionysia and her children the specialised French vocabulary they would need for estate management and husbandry. To quote from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, it "consists of approximately 1134 rhyming octosyllables and survives in sixteen manuscripts...The French vocabulary denoting the practices of rural life is equipped in many of the manuscripts with English glosses, the bulk of which stem from the author." What makes the Tretiz so fascinating is the insight it gives into what Bibbesworth expected Dionysia to understand of the French language; he assumes that English is her native language and states that she is already familiar with the fraunceis ki chescun seit dire, "the French which everyone knows" ('everyone' meaning everyone of her class, not everyone in England, presumably), but that he needs to teach her the "French which is not so common," fraunceis noun pas si commoun. The text is in French, and any words which are assumed to be unfamiliar to Dionysia are glossed into English. Bibbesworth himself, a knight of Essex, says that he himself had acquired French in a similar manner. [5]

Here's an example page from the Tretiz. I love line 256, Louwe oule, chein baie, with the first two words glossed into English as wolfe (wolf) and yollez (howls) and the fourth as berkes (barks). Notice that Bibbesworth didn't feel the need to gloss the third word, chein, as 'dog', evidently assuming that Dionysia would know such an everyday word. In lines 250, 275 and 282, every French word is glossed into English, but other lines appear only in French with no English translations: a good indication of the level of French Bibbesworth expected Dionysia to know. As for Edward II a few decades later, he seems to have been entirely comfortable speaking French in public and to have been fluent, articulate and confident in the language - and for sure he must have frequently spoken it in private with the French Isabella and the Gascon Piers Gaveston - but was French his native language, or did he learn English as his mother tongue from the people around him? Was he completely bilingual? I wish I knew...


1) Michael Prestwich, Edward I, p. 6; Marc Morris, A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, p. 8; N. Denholm-Young, Richard of Cornwall, pp. 86-87; T.W.E. Roche, The King of Almayne, pp. 134-135.
2) Ian Mortimer, The Perfect King: The Life of Edward III, Father of the English Nation, pp. 199-201, 265.
3) Seymour Phillips, 'The Place of the Reign of Edward II', in The Reign of Edward II: New Perspectives, ed. Gwilym Dodd and Anthony Musson, p. 225, note 30.
4) C.M. Woolgar, The Senses in Late Medieval England, p. 101; Michael Prestwich, Plantagenet England 1225-1360, p. 557.
5) Tony Hunt, Teaching and Learning Latin in Thirteenth-Century England, vol. 1, pp. 13-14.


Ragged Staff said...

I enjoyed this, Kathryn. Thanks!

From my own (limited) studies of early English, I was taught that by the second English born generation, people were identifying more with being English than French (or Norman), especially those with English spouses and an English parent, and that speaking English had become quite common. I can't give you a reference for this as I no longer have any of my notes for this course. The truly rarified probably didn't have the same connections to English people/speakers, but your circumstantial evidence does suggest to me that Edward II was probably bilingual.

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Ragged Staff! Really glad you enjoyed the post! I'm sure I've read somewhere that Edward I's father Henry III couldn't speak English (in connection to your point about the truly rarified people), so it's quite interesting that his brother Richard of Cornwall could. Edward I, at war with France in 1295, accused Philip IV of wanting to destroy the English language (not quite sure how Philip was meant to be doing that...!)

Brian Wainwright said...

I am always fascinated by the gradual transition from French to English. As far as the court is concerned, I think it happened gradually in the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV and was definitely complete by the time of Henry V. But before that, and for quite a long time, nobles must have been bilingual. Because yer average English bloke was never going to speak French!

Kathryn Warner said...

Hahaha, how true! :-)

It fascinates me too, Brian, especially thinking of the Despenser/Berkeley situation I mentioned in the post - a couple I've long been interested in, Maurice Berkeley (d. 1368, Roger Mortimer's grandson) and Elizabeth Despenser (d. 1389, Hugh the younger's daughter) being the children of people who always used French in writing and the parents of people who used English instead.

Clement Glen said...

Fascinating subject Kathryn.

As early as 1179 Richard Fitz Nigel has written that the 'English' and Normans had 'so fused that it can scarecely be discerned who is English and who is Norman by race.' So one assumes a form of 'English' was already gradually forming even at that early stage. Wouldn't it be interesting to hear what it sounded like?

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Piers learned any English. Since the Gascon language was very different from French, even French may have been like a foreign language to him.

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Edward I... accused Philip IV of wanting to destroy the English language (not quite sure how Philip was meant to be doing that...!)

Doesn't really matter, does it? That such a claim could be used at emotional rhetoric at that point is fairly indicative of how far the upper echelons of English society were by that time identifying themselves as English rather than Norman, and therefore accusing the French of doing what they did once before and what would have such emotional resonance - destroying of subjugating the language.

used the language for his personal slogans at jousting tournaments far more often than he used French

I did not know that!

I find it interesting to see that English words occasionally crept into French texts of the early fourteenth century.

It is, isn't it? Sources as disparate as Adam Murimuth's Latin and the Anglo-Norman of Lancaster's Doncaster Petition get sprinkled with English words - both of those use 'utlage/utlagatus' (outlawed), for example. Earl, and Oxford-trained but squire-born canon... there must at least have been some common, halfway dialect of mutual comprehension, you'd think.

concept of how bilingualism in fourteenth-century England worked in practice intrigues me

Me too - but, trilingualism!

As most of these people were not of the nobility and wouldn't have understood the French,

Actually, I don't know if that example helps. Firstly, there's no reason for the crowd to have been a representative cross-section of the community - certainly the higher up in society you went, the more people you'd find with some reason to hate him, or at least to be accustomed to jeering at his name, so you'd likely get a fairly high turnout of French-speakers to this particular event - certainly enough to lead the crowd in its emotional responses.
Secondly, even those with no French at all who turned up would know what the day was about and how it was going to end up and that this was an EVIL MONSTER OF EVIL who was going to be TORN UP in a really exciting way, because of his EVIL. They were probably already all stirred up and ready to respond at the slightest signal - and even without the responses of the Francophones to follow, the voice of the reader would probably give those cues, from what we know of public reading in the period.
Thirdly, even if you consider just the words - well, if the Latin- and French-speaking classes were using words of English in their everyday lives, so too (and perhaps even more, due to the lack of stability provided by a strong written culture) must the rest of the country have been increasingly using French imports in English. There would have been at least words here and there that they could catch, especially as they would have been accustomed to hearing announcements and sermons in languages other than English.

Not that that means it can't have been read out in English. :) Just that I don't think the evidence is particularly strong on that point.

That said! I think the best evidence you have is how much Edward enjoyed the company of English-speakers. As you say, it's very hard to imagine that without him having initially, or acquiring along the way, a fairly strong grasp of English - even colloquial English.

Gabriele Campbell said...

...that he would have no problems learning German, as he already knew English,

Heh, if it were that easy. ;)

Some of the language abilites of Medieaval English nobles may also have depended on whether or not they had an ear for languages. Some people pick languages up easily, others have to sit down adn memorise all that evil grammar stuff and never get fluent despite.

Kathryn Warner said...

Clement, I'd love to hear it! That'd be awesome...

Anon, I'd love to know if Piers ever learned English, and what if any difficulties his very different form of French caused between himself and Edward!

Kathryn Warner said...

Hannah, just to say that your comment posted no fewer than five times, but I only published it once! :-)

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Yeeep, sorry! It was telling me it wasn't publishing!

Oh yes. I think we need fanfic about Edward learning to understand Piers' French.

Kathryn Warner said...

Blogger can be seriously annoying sometimes! ;)

We definitely need fan fic about that, ohhhh yes. Sorry for not responding to your first comment, btw - it's just that you said everything! ;)

Kathryn Warner said...

Oh, and just realised that I didn't respond to Gabriele's comment! Yeah, I really wish learning German was that easy...LOL! :) Good point - a lot of the people I teach are techies and sciency people and don't always find English (or other languages) easy to pick up.

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

Oh, yes. I was reading your post over breakfast so I waffled. :) It doesn't require a response.

English of those days would have been far closer to German than modern English, though - the traces of cases, the basic vocab and its ability to be clearly distinguished from the French, the presence of the guttural consonants, and particularly the fact that it well pre-dated the Great Vowel Shift of Doom!

But yes, I imagine you'd still need a fairly good philological instinct to get it right, rather than just mangle it up into an accent that approximated it.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Really enjoyed this, and wish I could add an intelligent comment!

Kathryn Warner said...

I just got visions of a character in a British sitcom of a few years ago pretending he could speak German to impress his girlfriend, and 'translating' 'Hand it over' as 'Handen Sie over'. :-)

Thanks, Susan - glad you enjoyed the post!

Anonymous said...

According to the Gascon expert I asked, speakers of northern French dialects would not have been able to understand Gascon at all. I'm sure Piers would have learned "French" but how well he spoke it when he first got to England, who knows. I recall there was a pope at this time who apparently had difficulty understanding French because he was from the South ( I don't remember if this was the Gascon pope or not)

Anonymous said...

Forget English! Here are some "useful Gascon phrases" I found that Edward can use when conversing with Piers:
Bon vrespe
Que m'he gai de v's veder
E vas plan?
Com v's aperats?
E volets danca dat jo?
Gaujos Nadau e bona annada
Que t'aimi, Piers
(some of the accent marks are missing because I don't have them on my computer)

Kathryn Warner said...

Wow, thanks for that! I understand quite a bit of it, but some of it...not at all! :-)

The pope you mean was John XXII (1316-1334), who I believe was Gascon by origin, and asked Charles IV of France to write to him in Latin as he didn't understand Charles' (Parisian) French. As Piers was of the Gascon nobility and his family had a lot of contact with Edward I, I dare say he learned French at some point, but as you say, who knows how well he could speak it? Interesting!

Queen Echo said...

Piers may have been like many of us who study French in school but can barely understand a word when visiting the country! I'm sure he would have quickly become fluent in Norman French while living in England. I don't know if he would have bothered to learn English, though.

Kathryn Warner said...

You could well be right, Queen! :-) I'd love to know if Piers ever learned English, though if he did I somehow doubt it was more than a few words.

Anerje said...

What a fascinating post! I like the way you have used Edward's connections with the 'lowborn' as evidence of his using English, which he surely must have. And yes, some fan fic of Edward and Piers conversing would be great! I'm sure Piers would quickly have picked up the French used at court - he'd served Edward Ist from a young age, after all.

Now, did Edward II ever speak Welsh?:>

Hannah Kilpatrick said...

"what's English for 'bling'?"

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks, Anerje! I'd love to know that too...;)

LOL, Hannah!

Anonymous said...

This was a really interesting post - your other posts are also !!! - but this is an area of fascination for me. Language is always evolving and this is a reminder to me that it happens all over the world. Brill.

PS. My word verification was thwotled - which sounds like something someone with a gorgeous lisp would like to do to all the silly people who perpetuate Edward II myths!!!

Kate Plantaganet

Kathryn Warner said...

Brilliant word, Kate! :-) Glad you liked the post!

Antlers said...

You have no idea how useful this was for my English Literature coursework! And (not in a bad way) I was surprised by how interesting Edward II was! Before I thought of him as one of the many kings who ruled "pre modern"-for me, thats anyone before Henry VIII! Thanks for the help and enlightenment :)

Kathryn Warner said...

You're very welcome, Antlers! Thanks for letting me know, and really glad you find the site helpful!

Geronimo2006 said...

Regarding your point on the "great roar of approval" for the death sentence for Hugh Despenser, I would point out that the French word for death is "mort" and one wouldn't need to be very conversant in French to recognise that word.

Kathryn Warner said...

True, but the judgement didn't include the word 'mort': Hugh, as a traitor you are found, and as such are judged by all the good people of the realm, great and small, rich and poor. By common assent you are found as a thief and a criminal, and for this you will be hanged. And because you are found a traitor, you will be drawn and quartered, and sent throughout the realm. And because you were exiled by our lord the king and by common assent and returned to the court without authorisation, you will be beheaded. And because you were always disloyal and procured discord between our lord the king and our very honourable lady the queen, and between other people of the realm, you will be disembowelled, and then they will be burnt.

Anthony Ehrenzweig said...

The fact that the opening of parliament in 1362 was made by the Lord Chancellor in English indicates that if you wanted to make yourself understood you could no longer use Norman French. The aristocracy, the royal court & the law courts were the last bastions of the language. Otherwise you had to speak English & this trend started in the 13th century.