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  • “Right Rule and Conduct”:Aristotle and Charles V’s Politics of Language
  • Stephen G. Nichols (bio)

Oresme’s translations of Aristotle’s worksmade Aristotle’ thinking serve as a model forthe prince’s right rule and conduct.

Claire Richter Sherman

As students, we were taught that the earliest manifestations of the French language were to be found in the Strasbourg Oaths, a treaty concluded between Charlemagne’s grandsons, Louis the German and Charles the Bald in Strasbourg in the year 842 C.E. Slightly later (fig. 1), came the haunting Séquence de Sainte Eulalie appended to a Northern French manuscript around 880 C.E.

Buona pulcella fut Eulalia,Bel auret corps, bellezour anima …1

Then came the Vie de Saint Alexis towards 1060 C.E., followed shortly by the Chanson de Roland, around 1080 (fig. 2), but not discovered until 1832 in a manuscript dating from c. 1160–1180. [End Page 713]

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Figure 1.

“Song of Saint Eulalia” (the earliest known literary work in Old French). MS. Bibliothèque municipale de Valenciennes 150 (Olim 143), fol. 141v. Abbey of Saint-Amand, c. 880-884 CE.

[End Page 714]

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Figure 2.

Chanson de Roland, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Digby 23, Part 2, f. 1r (Anglo-Norman, twelfth c., second half?).

[End Page 715]

All of those texts have played an important role in the history of the French language. Or I should say that they are major witnesses supporting that master narrative. But, as Bernard Cerquiglini has recounted in Une langue orpheline, and La Naissance du français, if that narrative had its roots in the Middle Ages, it was indubitably conceived in the nineteenth century, in response to historical and linguistic hypotheses then in circulation.2 While I have no particular animus against the somewhat frenetic search for origins encouraged by this master narrative, I do think that it would appear to our medieval forebears at the very least as irrelevant, and possibly bizarre. It may even strike some of us as an odd coincidence that all the works cited above were ignored in the Middle Ages, only to be found precisely at the moment when scholars felt the need to document the origins of French as a national language. Without regretting that our philological predecessors did discover these works, we tend to feel impatient with the account of origins that heralded their reappearance. Nowadays, we are not so certain that advances in science and technology warrant our having a view of medieval history that ignores what the people themselves thought.

Instead of worrying about when French was first spoken or written, we prefer to focus on the fact that there never was a time when medieval French thinkers, poets, historians, and writers were not aware that they were using a language—which they called roman—which differed from learned languages like Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. The latter had institutional support and thus the prestige that accrues from the hierarchies such top-down structures tend to generate.

We know from poets of langue d’oc and langue d’oil, such as Guilhem IX, Count of Poitou, or the troubadours Marcabru, Arnaut Daniel and Bernart de Ventadorn, or the Anglo-Norman poet, Marie de France, or Chrétien de Troyes, that they were aware of their language as inchoate, like clay waiting to be shaped by the potter. With unprecedented energy twelfth-century poets pushed linguistic experimentation to the limits while creating new forms of song, new kinds that melded voice, music, and thought to shape a new language. And they continued in the following centuries to experiment with language: romance, sacred and secular jeux, farce, lyric, even combining genres in fascinating ways. Always, they drew inspiration from nature, human nature, and from the social and cultural environment that was rapidly forming around them thanks to the rise of urbanism, economic growth, and [End Page 716] literacy. They improvised from the terroir, from the ground up, as it were, a fact that attracted a public appreciative of the vibrant literary and musical modes springing up.3

This situated quality of Old French constitutes what we...


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