Writing French in English

Helen Cooper

  • The Familiar Enemy: Chaucer, Language and Nation in the Hundred Years War by Ardis Butterfield
    Oxford, 444 pp, £60.00, December 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 957486 5

Some 25 years after Alsace had been returned to France at the end of the Second World War, I took an opportunity to work there for a few months, in the belief that it would improve my French. A few bare facts about the contested history of the region had stayed with me from school history lessons, but they couldn’t have prepared me for what I walked into. The mix of languages was the most immediately obvious: the stay did almost as much for my German as for my French. Education was in French, and the younger generation all spoke it fluently, but with their families many of them still spoke the local Germanic Alsatian dialect. On the streets and in the shops, I could usually get by in French; but some of the older generation spoke only German plus the local dialect, and some the dialect alone. The town’s one Protestant church held two services on a Sunday, one in French and one in German. For its annual celebration of confirmation, a day given the same prominence as the Catholic First Communion, only one service was held, with hymns chosen that had sets of words in each language, so that you could sing whichever you were happier with. There were also two sermons: one in the Reformation language of Luther, stress-heavy and hard-hitting; the other in the rational French of Calvinism, full of rhetorical questions and their self-evident answers that gave an illusion of argument rather than the substance. The region also preserved some local laws, not least to do with hunting, which were at odds with France’s national legal code, and all the more fiercely protected for that. More controversial was the war cemetery with its rows of white and black crosses: white for those who had died fighting for France, black for the boys who had been taken off in lorries from their classes one day for conscription into Hitler’s armies and had never returned.

It was a scenario that would have made an early medieval monarch proud, and given the long history of dispute over Alsace, no doubt similar conditions frequently did just that. To rule over an abundance of tongues and laws showed that you were more than just a local ruler: an increase in diversity signalled an increase in power. More lands meant an increase in the number of potential fighting men for further conquests, and when war was a matter of glory, of allegiance to one’s immediate overlord, and of loot, the pain of betrayed patriotism that marks more recent disputes was barely an issue. The subject peoples, with their various languages and laws, were not always accorded the respect that their existence reflected on their lord. Rival allegiances were always a problem, and conquest could easily be followed by outright political oppression. Difference from the political elite could very easily be interpreted as inferiority: when habits of dress as well as language or law marked a people as distinctive, as happened with the Welsh, they could invite ridicule from the English in a way that reinforced political dominance. Even if a language was notionally the same, certain dialects of ‘French’ or ‘English’ were all too easily confused with issues of political or cultural inferiority. French as the language of the Ile-de-France, and therefore the only correct form of French, imposed itself across most of present-day France only in the course of the 20th century, and, as in Alsace, its dominance is not yet total.

There seem to be no fixed rules for what happens to language after invasion. The areas of continental Europe occupied longest by the Romans adopted Latin, and adapted it into the various Romance languages of French, Provençal, Italian and so on; how far Latin replaced British as the vernacular of Britain is unclear, but whatever language was commonly spoken here in the early fifth century, it was almost completely displaced by the tongue of the invading Saxons. By contrast, when the Norsemen established themselves in Normandy and gave it their name, they wholeheartedly adopted the local French vernacular of the people they conquered. The language that so swiftly dominated the Vikings in France, however, had nothing like so complete a triumph when they brought it over the Channel. French became the language of the new social elite, the court, the barons and the knights among whom the newly conquered country was divided up. Anyone with ambitions for a secular or religious career needed to speak French, as did the increasing number of merchants involved in trade with the Continent, and it rapidly established itself as England’s second vernacular – but never as the first. It kept its dominance at court for more than 300 years, but the thinner spread of the language across the rest of the country soon turned it into a tongue that had to be learned. English never lost its hold as the primary language of the population at large; but it rapidly began to simplify its complex grammar and to absorb the new French vocabulary. By the late 14th century, French words (or Anglo-Norman, or Anglo-French, to mark the difference between the French of England and the French of Paris) were pouring by the thousand into the vocabulary of English. The fusion not only of languages but of literary cultures also made possible an entirely new kind of poetry: poetry that, in contrast to alliterative stress-based Old English verse, followed a metrical pattern loosely based on syllable count and that was structured primarily by rhyme. The third language of post-Conquest England, Latin, which retained more or less its original classical form, had its own demarcated area as the language of learning and the Church, and remained largely distinct, aided by its international base and its substantial written record stretching back over many centuries; but that too contributed generously to English’s enlarging vocabulary.

Chaucer was one of the poets who profited from those changes. As the son of a London wine merchant employed at court from his teens, he probably grew up bilingual in Anglo-French and English. His much vaunted status as the father of English poetry was initially based not on the idea that he was the first to produce it, but that he embellished it, made it rhetorically and lexically respectable; and that added value came from French. Some recent critics have livened things up by arguing that to think of him as an English poet verges on the inaccurate so far as language is concerned. Ardis Butterfield once said on Radio 4’s In Our Time that he was in effect speaking French in English; and at a recent conference Elizabeth Archibald suggested that he was writing macaronics – those poems that combine two or more languages within a single verse form – only in a single language. Most of us will be most familiar with macaronics through a carol such as ‘In Dulci Jubilo’, where the languages not only alternate but interlock grammatically (‘Our delight and pleasure/Lies in praesepio’); medieval England regularly offered a much denser mixture, not in poetry so much as in the most quotidian records. The basic language of any particular record was most commonly either French or Latin, but the languages occasionally appeared in such a mix with each other and with English that identifying a ‘basic’ language can be near impossible. It was most common just to insert familiar terms for difficult words, especially technical words, regardless of the language. Chaucer, taking over as clerk of the king’s works, was given an inventory of dead stock at the Tower of London that included ‘i ramme cum toto apparatu excepta i drawying corda que frangitur et devastatur, i fryingpanne, i lathe pro officio carpentarii’: a battering-ram with a winding-cord too damaged to be usable, a frying-pan, a lathe for a Latinised carpenter. There was probably minimal incomprehension caused by the different languages here, just as those of us who can remember pre-decimal days still, I think, automatically read off the records’ figures for money in English, so ‘vj d’ would be converted into ‘sixpence’ without any conscious translation. Even a single word could be macaronic: the hall screens appear in one Cambridge record as leskreneum, a French article plus an English (though perhaps French-derived) substantive with a Latin ending.

The surviving record of such language mixture is inevitably a written record. We have no evidence of how closely it reflected the spoken language; even court testimonies spoken in English were regularly translated into the more official languages by the clerks. The assumption has tended to be that the languages remained largely distinct except for the borrowing of individual words (as in the record quoted above, or, as a spoken example, the recent television series about Indian railways, where the English technical terms for parts of the engine or the management hierarchy were clearly distinguishable within the local languages); Butterfield suggests that the spoken language, like those records, merged whatever was on offer, so that the idea of distinct languages is a modern misapprehension. Moreover, the history of post-Conquest English wasn’t just a matter of gradual assimilation of the language of the Normans into the English mother tongue until it fell out of use as a separate language. The French element kept getting renewed, with the Channel serving not as a barrier but literally as a channel of communication. All the post-Conquest English monarchs down to Henry VI married Frenchwomen, or women from one or other of those not quite so French areas such as Flanders. Within a century of the Conquest, England had become a mere subsidiary element in Henry II’s Angevin empire, with both the king and many of his barons and administrators holding land on both sides of the Channel and regularly crossing between the two.

Much of the earliest literature in French was written in England, including some of the most famous: Thomas of Britain’s Tristan, and, very possibly, the lais of Marie de France. More was written under the broad aegis of the Angevin courts, of Henry II and the various powerful women connected with him (his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, her daughter Marie de Champagne), and circulated freely on both sides of the Channel. Where we have a name for a writer, such as Chrétien de Troyes or Hue de Rotelande, we have at least an indication of their origins – one safely French, one from the marches of Wales (modern Rhuddlan) – but when a work is anonymous, such as the favourite Amadas et Ydoine that circulated widely in French-speaking areas, it is hard to be quite sure of its origins. The French of England was sufficiently different from the French of Paris to be the butt of jokes by the 13th century, but similar jokes can be found about the French of Picardy. Merchants from both sides of the Channel were in constant contact throughout the Middle Ages, in ways that limited the degree to which the dialects could grow apart; one London merchant, Henry Waleys, was at various times mayor of both London and Bordeaux. He was one of the earliest members of the poetry society founded in London on the model of those already existing on the continent, known as puys. Those members who brought a song of their own composition to the annual supper, both words and music, got their meal free, and the one judged the best was further rewarded. The songs were, inevitably at this date (around 1300), composed in French. The London puy shows no signs of having survived into Chaucer’s lifetime, but it may still have offered a model for the storytelling competition of The Canterbury Tales. Butterfield suggests too that these societies offer a context for the poetic exchanges between a number of late 14th-century French poets, perhaps extending as far as Chaucer’s relationships with those of them who spent long periods at the English court: Froissart, Graunson and, more briefly, Deschamps.

The Hundred Years War served to strengthen, not weaken, the links across the Channel. First Edward III, then Henry V, attempted to establish an English empire to cover much the same area as the Angevin had done, or indeed, with the conquest of Paris, to swallow up the political heart of the realm of France as well. The influx of French hostages after the battles of Poitiers and Agincourt helped to keep continental French a living presence at the English court. In the course of his 24 years as a prisoner of war, Charles of Orleans learned enough English to compose poetry in both languages, but few other hostages seem to have shown any desire or need to learn the mother tongue of their captors. Their captors, by contrast, had additional incentives to keep their French up to scratch, not only at court but in the occupied (or, from the Angevin perspective, reoccupied) areas of France, which required large numbers of military leaders and administrators. Some could be supplied from the local population, who were often far from hostile – the Gascons in particular favoured comparatively distant English rule over tighter French control – but many English lords, gentry and clerics divided their time between continental France and their homeland. At a lower social level, the war kept a good number of English soldiers in France as well, by no means always for official reasons – though whether the marauding bands that persistently plagued the country bothered to learn much French, or bring it home with them, remains unknown. Butterfield notes that Shakespeare’s Pistol and his French prisoner continue a long tradition of mutual incomprehension. If Henry V had not died young, France might indeed have become the subsidiary realm of an English king, as the long continuing inclusion of France in the English monarch’s titles wishfully asserted. The prospect invites counterfactual speculation about what might have happened to England culturally if it had become the overlord of France. Would political dominance have been matched with cultural dominance, or would French culture have triumphed? Would Shakespeare have written more like Racine, or Racine more like Shakespeare? Or would both of them have been inconceivable in the forms in which we have them? The fortunes of the French language in Normandy and England offer very different answers, and Chaucer is something else again.

A key part of Butterfield’s richly complex and detailed book is to remind us of the dangers of hindsight. The triumph of English, at least in a French-modified form, can seem inevitable, because that is what happened. To those living through the centuries after the Conquest, the outcome was as open as the consequences of a hypothetical English takeover of France are to us. There have been many studies of cross-Channel relationships in the Middle Ages, but the most extensive have been produced by historians. The close study of Anglo-Norman as a variety of language in its own right, rather than a subdivision of the French of Paris, has developed only in the last few decades, and much of its literature has received little attention compared to Middle French or English. The generous contribution of translation from French to Middle English literature has often been noted, but there is little to match Butterfield’s big picture of the linguistic and literary consequences of the Conquest, though we are still profiting from them. Literary analyses of post-Conquest England in recent years have often approached the topic by way of postcolonial theory, with English as the colonised, subaltern language. Butterfield prefers scholarship and close analysis to theory, but she finds a telling analogy for her arguments in Derrida, the Algerian to whom French was always an alien, imposed language even while it was the one that enabled him to speak.

Butterfield’s title, ‘the familiar enemy’, indicates the starting-point for her study. French is not the language of ‘them’ rather than ‘us’, but is already lodged within the household – Latin familia. ‘That sweet enemy, France’ was how the Earl of Surrey described the Tudor relationship with the neighbours over the Channel: a mixture of recurrent political hostility and beguiling cultural dependence, as versions of French texts fuelled the English print market, and France’s humanist fashions in poetry set new literary standards. Butterfield sets out the context for the complexities of cross-Channel cultural relationships, and isn’t afraid to upset a few received opinions along the way. She revisits the whole question of the emergence of nationhood, and has new and well-judged things to say about it. Her main focus, as the subtitle indicates, is the age of Chaucer, and the extraordinary phenomenon he represents. The Victorians delighted in him as an embodiment of manly Englishness, who had to work through an early ‘French’ period before he emerged into the true dawn of the road to Canterbury; Butterfield’s Chaucer is always a French product, starting his career with poems that were little more than centos of Machaut and Froissart and never fully breaking away. She explores at length his literary relationships with French writers, not as a phenomenon in itself but as an aspect of their relationships with each other, or his own with John Gower, who wrote in all three of England’s languages. Chaucer’s historical context, especially Richard II’s fraught relationships with the city of London, has been much explored in recent years; Butterfield promotes instead the more general context of the capture of Jean II as underlying ‘The Knight’s Tale’, and the practices of diplomacy behind Troilus. Her method is always to open up: the often limiting particularities of New Historicist criticism have little place here, even while the historical condition of the England of the Hundred Years War is evoked persistently and sharply.

Butterfield finishes with the end of that war and its literary aftermath, by way of the phenomenon of Joan of Arc. Joan’s presence in the book is justified on the grounds that she was caught between various languages and their rival ideologies. Her trial was conducted before the combined authorities of England, France and the Church. The Latin trial record notes her reply to a question about the language in which St Margaret spoke to her: French, of course – ‘Why should she speak English when she is not on the English side?’ Her words were spoken in French and recorded in Latin. But even during the trial, the proceedings were disrupted by complaints that the records being made by English notaries were not accurate. The ‘true’ story of Joan is irrecoverable, and its playing out over different languages and their need for different interpretations of her means that it was always necessarily so. Shakespeare’s unsaintly Pucelle therefore comes under the spotlight too, along with Henry V: a play, Butterfield suggests, that makes ‘the balance of linguistic power between French and English’ more of an issue than jingoism, and in which Katharine’s attempts to learn English replay some of the jokes current in the 13th century about the English who attempt to learn French. That ability to reach so subtly and thoughtfully across five centuries and the whole geographical and linguistic complex of England and France gives the book its importance.