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Languages in Medieval England

by Gillian Polack, Ph.D.

Illuminations by Gillian Polack
ISBN: 0-9722091-0-7

What languages did people speak in England in the Middle Ages? And in what contexts did they speak them? Most writers of historical fiction cheat a little bit, and just use English for lower classes, French for aristocracy and Latin for really religious situations. But the reality was not so simple - it changed considerably over time, for one thing. It was also much more fun. What language do you insult someone in, and why? Modern English has retained several words that come from Old French insults, suggesting that maybe English was not always the language of choice for medieval impoliteness.

But first of all, what languages are we talking about? And when?

Let's start with "when". The Middle Ages is a moveable feast. Different scholars look at different periods of time and call them the Middle Ages - anything from Alfred (who couldn't cook) to Henry VIII (who was not a good husband) can fit. Some people take the Middle Ages from a bit earlier still, and some scholars (especially those dealing with Jewish history) will generously let the Middle Ages continue right to the 18th century. So it is almost impossible to wave an arm vaguely and say "In the Middle Ages" and be accurate. It is much safer to say "From the eleventh to fourteenth centuries". This period is often called the High Middle Ages. And it is what I am talking about here.

So what were the languages in England in the High Middle Ages?

There were versions of French and English - with lots of dialects.

Old French, in fact, had a dialect which was specifically English (Anglo-Norman) though people spoke and wrote in other French dialects as well. There was a great deal of international travel, especially connected with the courts of rulers and with trade, and people brought their native dialects with them.

There was Latin. How far people spoke Latin is an intriguing question, but it was the standard language for Christian learning and for Christian prayer, so quite a few people knew it.

The same applies to Hebrew, at least until 1290, when all Jews were thrown out of England. This doesn't mean that Jews were native Hebrew speakers: in fact, most (though not all) were native speakers of Old French, though many would have also spoken Middle English, and some (who came from the Arab world or the Spanish peninsula) started their lives speaking other languages entirely. Aramaic was known by a select few, almost solely for praying/religious purposes.

A few people at court may have been able to understand Old Occitan, in order to read the poems of the troubadours (mainly about love and war, but that is another subject). We don't know how many these few were - it may have been ten, or a hundred. Certainly at least one Queen of England knew Old Occitan: Eleanor of Aquitaine would have spoken it.

Cornish was alive and well (at least in Cornwall) but does not appear to have been written down much, and England's traffic with Wales and Brittany meant that some people would have had some knowledge of Welsh and Breton.

Very, very few people had any knowledge of Greek, even for scholarly purposes.

Some crusaders may have picked up Arabic, and several Jewish scholars in England knew Arabic.

How did a society work, with all these languages jostling for space?

Firstly, many people would have spoken more than one language. A peasant in an isolated village would have had Middle English (one of the many dialects - he or she would have trouble understanding someone from a distant part of the country) and just enough Latin to chime in with the correct response during Mass or Confession. A trader in London would also need French, and to be able to speak with people from all sorts of far-flung areas. He or she would have had a bit more Latin - enough to deal with trading terms, e.g., weights and measures.

Different people used different languages for different purposes. In the late 13th century, for instance, French made a big difference in dealing with the law and retaining your sanity (not to mention winning a lawsuit).

The main languages of learning were Latin and Hebrew (depending on your religion). The language of beautiful literature was Old French, with England suddenly blooming in the fourteenth century. There was some English literature round before then, and even more was probably not written down or has been lost.

So there is no hard and fast simple definition possible for who knew which language, just a series of likelihoods. It is quite possible to have a Jewish archer in Oxford speaking only English and not knowing even a simple phrase of Hebrew. It is more likely that this archer speaks Old French as a native, and has enough Hebrew for praying and English for everyday dealings. Most people with second languages had some degree of literacy or wider social networks than people who only used one language. People who knew Latin or Hebrew could almost invariably read.

And how about that change over time? It complicates things. Until 1066 any French known in England was by the elite of the elite - people with wide contacts or well-traveled, or with links to France. With the Norman arrival in England, many more people had access to French, and the language changed to meet needs.

English changed even more. Scholars divide it into Old English (or Anglo-Saxon - depending on who you read) until c1100 and then Middle English. Old English didn't just suddenly vanish. There is no miraculous language boojum that makes languages just die overnight. Older forms of the language would have been used for long after 1100 - they were just not everyone's favorite style for writing. And over time, the older usages would have faded from memory, until Old English became a dead language, and when scribes copied it, they copied without understanding.

The Latin used in the Middle Ages was not Classical Latin. It lacked the pristine purity of Cicero and Caesar, but had a much richer vocabulary. It is generally known as Medieval Latin (or Church Latin). Latin was the thinking man's language. The thinking woman's language was just as likely to be Old French. Old French and Old Occitan were developed from Latin in the same way that Middle English developed from Old English, but the importance of Latin to religion, to philosophy, to science, meant that Latin was used alongside these other languages, rather than dying.

And what is a language without grammar?

In the Middle Ages, the answer is "a complete language". Grammar was a very important building block of education. But the percentage of people who could read and write were considerably lower than now, and so large numbers of people used several languages happily without an inkling of nouns, verbs and parsing. It was part of the trivium and was one of the first subjects learned by anyone who wanted to progress beyond simple literacy. Most grammar, however, was Latin grammar. It didn't just include the study of parts of speech, but of poetry and etymologies (the origins of words). For less advanced students, it was a tool to teach them Latin, but it was also a very important part of advanced learning. There may have been an equivalent interest in Hebrew grammar in the Jewish community and in bits of the Christian one, but it was not considered a part of the trivium.


Indo-European Languages


Old Cornish

Links to Medieval Language Resources

Jewish Language Research

Troubadour and Early Occitan Literature


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