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Multilingualism in Medieval Britain (c. 1066-1520): Sources and Analysis ed. by Judith A. Jefferson and Ad Putter (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 30, Number 2, 2013
pp. 200-201 | 10.1353/pgn.2013.0091

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The essays comprising Multilingualism in Medieval Britain were first presented at a 2008 conference under the same name at the University of Bristol. That conference concluded a four-year collaborative project on Multilingualism in the Middle Ages, a period in which medieval multilingualism became increasingly visible in scholarship. This collection therefore makes a thorough contribution to what is now a vibrant part of medieval studies, and its content is critical for considering 'where we go from here'.

The volume's sixteen essays are not categorised by language, genre, geography, or chronology. Such themes can be identified, but the editorial choice to forgo such distinctions conveys the varied richness of approaches to multilingualism in medieval Britain.

As editors Judith A. Jefferson and Ad Putter make plain in their Introduction, there is much more to multilingual medieval Britain than the tri-glossic relationship of English, French, and Latin. For example, in addition to essays on those languages and their varieties, the volume includes important commentary on the complex language situation in Wales (Paul Russell), analysis of the linguistic practices of particular communities, such as English Jews (Eva De Visscher), and the evidence in Middle English texts of earlier linguistic contact with Old Norse (Richard Dance). These areas are not currently as well represented as studies of England's medieval French and Latin, and are flagged as areas which merit further work.

While highlighting aspects of medieval Britain's multilingualism underrepresented in scholarship, the volume also extends existing work on English, French, and Latin. Two essays on macaronic sermons consider some of the more challenging areas of historical language study: respectively, the reconstruction of spoken discourse as compared with the written record (Alan J. Fletcher); and the social functions of code switching (Herbert Schendl). Aspects of orality also feature in Richard Sharpe's study of eleventh- and twelfth-century charter addresses and Richard Ingham's analysis of French and English in Latin land management documents. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne considers another trilingual source: a confortatio letter-treatise. Wogan-Browne upturns the typical practice of interpreting medieval multilingual texts primarily via language by considering not the treatise's French, Latin, and English, but the styles and themes conveyed by the use of each of these languages.

One of the most pertinent points made by the volume is the rich potential of monolingual sources for evidence of, and attitudes towards, Britain's languages. Haruko Momma's essay considers the representation of other languages in Latin in William of Malmesbury's Gesta regum Anglorum and questions the implications of this linguistic flattening for medieval readers. In a study of Middle English prologues to late medieval versions of Scripture, Cathy Hume analyses the role of these works' commentary on their own multilingual contexts, both within and outside of the Lollard debate. The focus of Dance's essay, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is an outlier in this group of monolingual sources, including not only occasional French and Latin, but hiding a history of Old Norse contact with English. Elizabeth Dearnley uses an English translation of the Trotula to suggest a gendering of English due to social roles and to examine evidence for female audiences of vernacular translations. At the opposite end of the spectrum from these monolingual sources, Jane Griffiths's essay presents a reading of the most linguistically diverse text represented in the volume, John Skelton's Speke Parrot. Griffiths finds that Skelton's multilingual text and its multilingual marginal glosses encourage a new, critical mode of reading.

Alderik H. Blom's essay shows that languages in the Middle Ages were not always perceived with the degree of distinctiveness we retrospectively assign them. He contends that the glossator of the Vocabularium Cornicum understood the varieties of Cornish and Welsh contained in that text to be the same language. Laura Wright also discusses the difficulty of dating the points at which languages in Britain were considered distinctive through a focus on late medieval account records. The findings in both essays highlight the importance of recovering medieval language communities to better our understanding of how different groups of people within Britain and across the Middle Ages perceived the language varieties that they spoke, read, and wrote.

Thea Summerfield...



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