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

27th Annual Conference of the Center for Medieval Studies, Fordham University
Friday, March 30 - Sunday, April 1, 2007
At the Lincoln Center Campus of Fordham University

Uses of the French Language in Medieval English Towns
Richard Britnell, University of Durham

French was a subordinate language in the administration of English medieval towns. Court records, accounts, grants of properties and liberties, memoranda, were usually written in Latin. There is no reason to suppose that clerks found it easier to compose in French; the converse is more likely to be true. But French had the advantage over Latin of being a currently spoken language, even if only a minority of the population were taught to read and speak it. The communal organization of English boroughs in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries made urban authorities answerable to some degree to burgesses, and they needed from time to time (annually in some places) to proclaim publicly formal administrative acts of general concern, such as new bye-laws. As a spoken language, French was often adopted for this purpose, even if the texts in question then had to be explained in English. Surviving French texts are often those of regulations, constitutions or other formal documents that needed to be read aloud. In the fifteenth century borough authorities were more likely to use English for this purpose, and so presumably avoided the need to have texts glossed after they had been proclaimed. 


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