Figuring Out What’s What in Medieval French

I’ve been reading The Story of French by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow on and off for a while now.  Picked it up from the library about a year or so ago and never got past the introduction; got it out again recently, and have been browsing through it in spurts.  Pleasantly surprised tonight to discover I have one more renewal left before it goes back, so I may yet make some headway.

I should say right now that if you pick up this book, go straight to a chapter that interests you.  I had to slog through the introduction (I’m not saying *you* shouldn’t read it, just saying, don’t judge a book by its intro), but was rewarded in chapter one with a great lesson on the basics of what-was-what in medieval french languages.

So far I’m up to p. 100 in the cover-to-cover reading of the book, but I’ve also skipped ahead and read some bits farther along, and it was all good.  Assuming you have at least a smidgen of background on the topic, you can pretty safely just pick up and read wherever you like, and come away entertained and educated.  You do not, by the way, need to know French — English translations provided for all the non-obvious French words tossed out as linguistic examples, and some of the obvious ones, too.  (Say you couldn’t figure out that the word zéro meant, er, zero?  Don’t worry, there’s a translation there for you on p. 30.)


What struck me in reading the chapter on medieval ‘french’ is just how busy a time it was, linguistically.  By the year 800 a language distinct from latin had emerged, to the point that the church had to require homilies be given in the vernacular.  But this new language was both very local — not so much a unified language as a collection of more or less mutally understandable regional dialects — and vigorously international.  In addition to the exportation of Norman French to England with William the Conquerer, there was the development of the lingua franca, an italian-french dialect used in the mediterranean.

(Why did French become the, er, lingua franca of this region?  It was the dominant foreign culture.  Not unlike how the Amish call the rest of America ‘the English’, or a non-hispanic American might be called an ‘Anglo’, the Arabs apparently call all the crusaders, regardless of country of origin, ‘French’.)

–> And still more going on in addition to all that, over the five or so centuries that are especially middle of the middle ages.  Borrow the book and read Chapter 1 to get the introductory course.

There’s something worth understanding here.  When we think about language and geography and politics and culture, we Americans come from a perspective of a single highly standardized common language that has been fairly stable since as long as we can remember.  It is important in looking at medieval history and culture to understand that it was not this way then.  By getting a grasp of what was going on linguistically, we can avoid some common blunders in our historical analysis, and even hope to understand why certain elements of medieval society worked as they did.  Good stuff.  Well worth your time.

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