Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York

  The French of England:
Multilingualism in Practice, c. 1100-c. 1500

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Why Historians Of The Early Common Law Need To Study French

Paul Hyams, Cornell University

Where do we get our words for Trespass, Treason, and Felony? Lots of really important legal terms of art from today’s Anglo-American Common Law turn out to be French by origin. So are many more obscure ones. Quite a number still lurk within our everyday language. An investigation of how they got there stands to teach us quite a bit about medieval English Law and dispute resolution. French linguists may gain something too, since the explanations generally require some knowledge of how the men and women of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries waged (French!) their disputes and prosecuted their lawsuits.

I had put myself on record already in 1982 as holding that the Common Law, as English as roast beef, owed a very great deal to its ‘French Connection’. I was then only following the trend by which medieval English historians were showing themselves much more aware of the Europeanness of their subject matter than most of their modernist colleagues. The conversion of literary and linguistic scholars to a multilingual England after the Norman Conquest soon followed, progressively inducing historians too to take much more seriously the notion of an England within the Francophone sphere and its culture. To these trends the Law was no exception. In some ways, it even led the way, for twelfth-century law remained largely oral, in that men legislated and pleaded first by word of mouth and only translated these into writing late and incompletely.


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