Scholars studying the emergence of national vernaculars have generally identified the early modern period as a crucial moment in the development of linguistic nationalism. From Italy to England, humanist-trained men of letters in the Renaissance set out to remake vernaculars in the image of the great languages of Antiquity and thus bring glory on their princes. While some toiled at transforming the internal linguistic workings of vernaculars, others sought to reconstruct their histories. The search for linguistic origins was of genuine philological concern, since it provided a means to reconstruct the etymology of words and to better understand grammatical structures. But it was also an means to legitimate vernaculars as languages of literature and learning. A noble language necessarily had a noble lineage, and historians sought to tease out this filiation. And given that humanists believed history to be useful as a source of models of action for their own political leaders, such discussions have much to tell us about what contemporaries thought their princes should – and should not – do concerning language. The reconstruction of the history of vernaculars, then, was as much a part of the project to elevate them as the constitution of a well-regulated grammar or a copious lexicon.
I propose in this paper to consider one particularly rich episode in the Renaissance exercise in reconstructing the history of languages. While most focused on Antiquity in order to establish a filiation between their vernacular and prestigious Latin, Greek or Hebrew, others scrutinized the medieval record for signs of their idiom’s greatness. For French and English scholars alike, the linguistic history of England after the Norman Conquest furnished considerable food for philological thought. I argue that an examination of this form of erudite inquiry illustrate how the historical excavation of a particular language’s origins represented one of many learned battlefields in the wider struggle to assert the prestige of one’s vernacular. History and philology alike were mobilized to construct usable narratives of the past in the service of specific political and cultural projects.
For many scholars in France, the Norman knights who brought French with them to England in 1066 were worthy of praise as exemplars, models for French kings to plant their language everywhere their armies took them, just as the ancient Romans had done. The long persistence of French England, first among the Anglo-Norman elite, and subsequently in English tribunals, was sometimes interpreted as a source of pride and a mark of the once and therefore future glory of the French tongue. But others in France drew profoundly different conclusions from the vitality of French in medieval England, arguing that Edward III’s decision in the fourteenth century to draft legal decisions in English rather than French as a model for an entirely different type of royal language policy: that rulers should not impose their tongues on subject peoples, but rather adapt the linguistic practices of their administration to accommodate their subjects. Certain French jurists studied medieval England’s complex polyglossia in order to justify François I’s 1539 Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts’s injunction to employ French rather than Latin in royal tribunals’ decisions not as an instance of linguistic imperialism in a polyglot kingdom, but rather of accommodation of an increasingly non-Latinate elite.
English scholars thought about the linguistic ramifications of the Norman Conquest in entirely different terms. For English men of letters engaged in the project of elevating the English language, it was crucial to demonstrate that English had a noble linguistic genealogy. For many, then, the tenacious survival of French in medieval England as well as the large numbers of French loan words in English were relics of a sad episode when England had fallen under foreign domination. It was necessary, then, to minimize or even dissimulate all traces of England’s servitude under the Norman yoke like the use of French as a judicial tongue. Some loudly condemned the Normans’ nefarious linguistic influence, and set out to extirpate all linguistic and lexical traces of their presence in the English linguistic landscape in favor of a glorious Saxon linguistic past. Others minimized the Normans’ linguistic impact altogether. Still others turned the Norman Conquest’s linguistic morality tale around against France, by pointing out that the fact that the Anglo-Normans had ultimately abandoned French while in England was a sign of their inconstance. In contrast, strong, virtuous and admirable peoples – like the Greeks, Romans or English – remained profoundly attached to their vernaculars.
The persistence of French in medieval of England, then, represented a particularly vital object of reflection for Renaissance men of letters in both France and England. On both sides of the Channel, learned discussion of the linguistic history of medieval England represented nothing less than laboratory within which to debate royal language-planning policies, the specific ways vernaculars’ internal linguistic structures should be reformed, and the very form English or French identity should take.