Trading Tongues: Merchants, Multilingualism, and Medieval Literature by Jonathan Hsy
This book makes a solid contribution to the increasingly crowded discussion of language contact and conflict in the later Middle Ages, and [End Page 317] it shares with many recent works a particular focus on England. The terminology of such discussion—bilingualism, diglossia, multilingualism, code-switching, contact zone—has become familiar, and the accretion of books and essays on the subject has generated a more and more complex, sophisticated treatment of it. Jonathan Hsy’s book does not match its most notable predecessors in range and amplitude: Ardis Butterfield’s The Familiar Enemy (2009), and the French of England project, especially as it is embodied in the scholarly work of Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and the collection of essays she edited on Language and Culture in Medieval Britain (2009). But it does, in a series of concise and interesting chapters, fill in details in a usually convincing and often quite illuminating fashion.
The book’s punning title, as Hsy says in his introduction, “illustrates how profoundly commerce in medieval contact zones, particularly in cities and coastal environments, shapes how language is used in literary texts.” It also means to illustrate how medieval writers traded tongues “by moving across languages—and combining them—in the texts they created,” including the languages of law and commerce, using “different languages to develop distinct expressive registers, to stylize certain types of speech, or to evoke a vivid sense of place” (5–6). As a preface to his consideration of major texts, Hsy discusses two short works in which macaronic verse captures the variegated multiplicity of London: The Stores of the Cities and London Lickpenny, which “associates different linguistic communities with particular urban spaces: Latinate and French-speaking legal professionals work in Westminster; Flemish vendors outside the gates of Westminster Hall negotiate two related Germanic vernaculars; and retailers in Chepe and bargemen in Billingsgate cry out in Middle English” (16). For this picture of a polyglot London, Hsy cites and echoes the work of Laura Wright on “medieval Thames vocabulary,” and more generally that of Ardis Butterfield and Christopher Cannon. In his view, London Lickpenny anticipates Walter Benjamin’s account of the modern city as a “theatre of new, unforeseen constellations,” a space for linguistic and literary experiment (21–22).
The second chapter looks at Chaucer, overlapping—though only minimally—with Mary Catherine Davidson’s recent book on Medievalism, Multilingualism, and Chaucer (2010). Hsy focuses on The Shipman’s Tale and The House of Fame, unsurprising choices because of their shared concern with commerce and the city. This chapter takes a while to get going, and on the whole its readings seem less memorable than those [End Page 318] in the rest of the book, perhaps because Chaucer fits Hsy’s argument less well than, for example, Gower does. Hsy makes a suggestive comparison of the dreamer’s Aldgate house, where the Eagle accuses him of too much study, “inhabiting a world of silence despite his apparently noisy urban surroundings,” with the silent space inside Fame’s discordant palace (30); and he also compares the merchant of Saint Denis in The Shipman’s Tale to the dreamer of The House of Fame, like him a bookish, “solitary figure curiously isolated from the busy world that surrounds him” (52). This tale, more than The House of Fame, is certainly tailor-made for a discussion of mercantile language and exchange, though I’m not persuaded that the Shipman’s undoubted familiarity with the patois of “sea-terms” explains Chaucer’s assigning the tale to him.
The following chapter opens with a brief account of the anonymous lyric “Dum ludis floridus” in which “By traversing three languages, the Harley lyricist conveys a speaker who is fixed in his thoughts of love even as he is physically in motion. At the same time, the poet’s frequent and abrupt code-switching dramatizes the distress and disorientation that the lover feels” (62). Hsy’s focus then shifts to the story of Constance, “a seafaring female protagonist” (65), as it is told by Nicholas Trevet, Gower, and Chaucer: Constance, in this reading, is similarly fixed while perpetually on the move, and her “maner Latyn corrupt” is the lingua franca of merchants’ speech. The chapter ends with Charles d’Orléans, an English poet while in England but one who left English—and his manuscript written in English—behind when he finally returned to France after his long exile.
The third chapter examines “Translingual Identities in John Gower and William Caxton,” and is perhaps the best in the book, showing how each writer “invests a considerable amount of thought into how his own translingualism informs an ever-shifting literary persona” (92). Both, much more than Chaucer, are writers concerned with London; both are writers who “trade in tongues” by focusing on merchants, and in Caxton’s case by being himself both author and printer (128). Chapter 4 discusses The Book of Margery Kempe as “an intricate work of travel writing,” which “explores translingual and intercultural modes of perception and understanding” (132), including Margery’s “seaborne prayers” (146). The texts examined in Chapter 5, “Merchant Compilations,” include a farrago of prose and various verse forms, in Latin, French, and English, making these collections “not only multilingual but also [End Page 319] multifunctional” (158). These compilations, by the draper Robert Fabyan, the grocer Richard Hill, and the mercer John Colyns, show the “wide-ranging interests” and “diverse linguistic capacities” of their authors (191), as mercantile producers with aesthetic as well as practical concerns.
The book’s “Coda” returns to Charles d’Orléans, as he negotiates the divide in status between French and English to achieve, in Susan Crane’s formulation, “an early, elite version of post-colonial hybridity” (quoted on 195). Hsy explicates the intriguing image on his book’s cover, reprinted on 208, which is from British Library, MS Royal 16 F.II, a manuscript of Charles’s French and English poetry. It shows Charles writing in captivity in the Tower of London, surrounded by the boat-filled Thames and the London cityscape, with Charles himself, a “poet in perpetual motion,” represented three times: writing his text while seated at a long table; at a window of the Tower looking out; and standing outside, handing his text to a kneeling recipient. All of this “evinces the poet’s parallel existence on solid ground and water; his capacity to think across terrestrial and fluid domains of linguistic difference” (207–9)—and the image serves as a fitting reprise of Hsy’s argument.