French as a Mother-Tongue in Medieval England

Jacquie Heys

Copyright 2001


The Norman Conquest of 1066 by William the Conqueror marks the beginning of an era of French influence in England[1]. However, despite logical reasoning, French did not become either the official or unofficial language of England. William was not combining the lands of Normandy and England, and had no wish to replace language or culture. Latin and English were used for most documents and formal proclamations by William, and the English legal system was renewed, not replaced. After all, William was claiming legitimacy to his succession. Nevertheless, the upper class was almost completely taken over by (French speaking) Normans, and although the system was English, many of the legal proceedings and documents were in French.


It is important to know that there were various dialects of French being spoken on the continent at this time and throughout the middle ages. Norman French was distinct from Parisian or Continental French, and, with time, the French spoken in England by the Norman landed gentry became distinct. Scholars refer to the particular dialect of French as spoken by England-dwelling native French speakers as Anglo-Norman or Anglo-French.


One interesting question is how long these aristocrats kept Anglo-Norman as their mother-tongue. William’s wish to preserve English as the national language was successful and no doubt is directly (though not solely) responsible for the inhabitants of England speaking English to this day. Additionally, despite taking over the upper class and the legal system, the Norman descendants speaking Anglo-Norman were still completely outnumbered by the masses of English speakers in every other class. Modern scholars estimate that the initial migration of Normans into England after the Conquest was no more than 20,000 people including the army, a number that was roughly 1.3% of England’s population (Berndt 1965, quoted in Kibbee 1991). So how long did it take for the native Anglo-Norman speakers to give up their language in favour of English?


There are no sure answers, of course, and the matter is confused by later infusions of French-speaking high nobility like Henry II’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, and later Henry III’s marriage to Eleanor of Provence. These later influences, of course, did not add to the Anglo-Norman speaking population since they brought with them different dialects of French. Furthermore, there is much debate between scholars from the first half of the twentieth century (and the subsequent work which is based upon these scholars) such as Legge, Kibbee, Vising, etc. and those scholars in the last twenty years or so (e.g. Rothwell, Dahood). There is much questioning of the early scholars’ objectivity and new evidence is continually being found that contradicts earlier work, such as Rothwell’s extensive disavowal that the Norman descendents remained bilingual for centuries after the Norman Conquest. However, most scholars now agree that by the early 13th century, “French as a native language is definitely on the decline, even among nobility of Norman origin” (Kibbee 4). Both Rothwell and Dahood lean more towards mid to late 12th century, saying that “by 1173, and for an indeterminate time before then, members of the baronage spoke English” (Dahood 54). Rothwell reminds us that we must also take into consideration that there were geographical variations and that parts of England remained French and Anglo-Norman speaking because they were closer to the shore of Normandy and maintained distinct familial ties across the English Channel. However, by the 14th century, the Anglo-Norman of these people is riddled with Middle English vocabulary, phrases, and forms that clearly indicate that Anglo-Norman is slowly progressing towards a total takeover by English.


Throughout the middle ages it was common for native English speakers to be fluent in French as a second language. Scholars such as Kibbee and Legge attempt to infer from written texts whether the writer is a native English or native Anglo-Norman speaker. This method is not completely unreliable, but in the end it may only indicate the mother tongue of the scribe and not necessarily the speaker. In fact, a large gulf must be bridged between the spoken language, and the only medium of historical records that remain to answer this question: written records. Some work has also been done by Cecily Clark and D. Postles on the analysis of surnames and nicknames found in taxation rolls and other records. However, this is more of an indication of how much Anglo-Norman has mixed into the English culture and it cannot be relied upon for discerning a mother-tongue. Anectodal and hagiographic writing is also used by Vising and Legge to pinpoint exactly how long Anlo-Norman remained a spoken language, but Dahood’s article raises important questions about how far we can use anecdotal and religious writings as conclusive proof of spoken English among the Norman nobility.


In the 13th and early 14th centuries there was an escalation of French literature and prestige. French became swank and was a distinct marker of ambition and class. However, the parallel growth industry of teaching French (French textbooks and teaching manuals) tells us that most French speakers were not, in fact, native. Middle and upper class students who wanted to join the prestigious ranks of politicians, lawyers, judges, and diplomats would learn (continental) French to help secure their futures. Therefore, although bilingualism became popular among the elite, it was not until well after Anglo-Norman had ceased to be spoken as a mother-tongue.


A statute written in 1362 saying that all governmental and legal affairs must be conducted in English tells us a couple of things. Firstly, that the language of the government was not the language of the people, and ergo, that French, even as a second language, had fallen out of fashion and remained the language of only a few. Secondly, since this statute (and, subsequently, many more) was written in French, obviously French remained the language of the law. However, 14th century Oxford students in legal and business studies were required to take a supplementary French course which Kibbee takes to mean that even lawyers were not native speakers of Law French or even knew French as a second language. In fact, French was (officially) the language of English courts until 1731, which proves that officiality does not always reflect practice.


Although Middle English (and therefore Present Day English) owes a great debt to French and Norman for a large number of loan words, Anglo-Norman was only ever the mother-tongue of a few generations of England’s elite. From the Conquest of 1066 to the early 13th century, Anglo-Norman was the mother-tongue of the upper class. Many historical events, both major and minor, affected French as a mother-tongue in England, from royal marriages and the Hundred Years War to the geographical groupings of Norman immigrants and descendants. After a relatively short time, however, Anglo-Norman was totally replaced by Middle English, a language that easily reveals its close and prolonged exposure to Anglo-Norman.






For Further Reading



Dahood, Roger. “Hugh de Morville, William of Canterbury, and Anectodal Evidence for English Language History.” Speculum 69 (1994): 40-56.

-     Dahood deals primarily with one anecdote that is often used by modern scholars for dating the end of spoken Anglo-Norman found in William of Canterbury’s Life of St. Thomas. While effectively questioning the value of drawing conclusions from this source on many fronts, Dahood ends the article with a valid hypothesis for dating the switch from Anglo-Norman to English in the upper class of England.


Kibbee, Douglas A. For to Speke Frenche Trewely: The French Language in England, 1000-1600: Its Status, Description and Instruction.  Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1991.

-         This is a well-organized book that breaks up six hundred years into five periods that helps put changes into historical perspective. Kibbee also organizes each section in a reader-friendly way so that it is easy to get specific information from a particular period at once, or compare the same elements from period to period. He also does a good job of evaluating the work of others, and outlining some of the major debates between old scholars and new.


Legge, M.D. and R. Allen Brown. “Anglo-Norman as a Spoken Language” in Proceedings of the Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies II, 1979. Ed. R. Allen Brown. Woodbridge, Eng. : Boydell & Brewer, 1980. 108-17.


Rothwell, W. “Arrivals and Departures: The Adoption of French Terminology in Middle English.” English Studies 79 (1998): 144-165.

-         This is an important essay that challenges many long-held assumptions by all the major scholars who have written about French in medieval England. Although it does not specifically address the issue of native French speakers in England, it does explain and highlight the distinction between continental and Anglo-French and rightly questions the shaky evidence that most scholars claim as proof. He also refutes the entire c-/ch- distinction which is supposed to distinguish Norman from continental French. Rothwell has also written a number of other articles on this particular subject (only some of which are listed below) that are worth investigating.


--. “The Role of French in Thirteenth-Century England.” Bulletin, John Rylands Library 58 (1975): 445-66.

-         Rothwell provides good basic information in this article that anyone studying this topic will need to know, but many of his conclusions are amended and focussed in his subsequent articles.


Vising, Johan. Anglo-Norman Language and Literature. London: Oxford UP, 1923.

-         This is an old book that is based on 19th century scholastic texts and was reprinted right up until 1970. For good reason, it has recently come under heavy fire, thereby undermining most subsequent works that took Vising’s findings as reliable. Most encyclopedias and dictionaries still harbor theories put forth by Vising.


For Studies of French Names in England


Clark, Cecily. “Thoughts on the French Connections of Middle English Nicknames”, Nomina 2 (1978): 38-44.

-         Clark has a series of studies in this vein that are all worth looking at.


Postles, D. “Noms de personnes en langue francaise dans l’Angleterre du Moyen Age”, Le Moyen Age 101 (1995): 7-21.


The End of French Popularity


Cottle, Basil. The Triumph of English 1350-1400. London: Blandford Press, 1969.

-         This is not a totally reliable text, but it does provide greater social and historical perspective of the resurgence of English in England, and gives lots of textual evidence.


Anglo-Norman in a Larger Context


Anglo-Norman Dictionary. Ed. W. Rothwell, et. al. London : Mod. Humanities Research Assn., 1992.


Blacker, Jean. The Faces of Time: Portrayal of the Past in Old French and Latin Historical Narrative of the Anglo-Norman Regnum. Austin : U of Texas P, 1994.


Clark, Cecily. “The Myth of 'the Anglo-Norman Scribe'” in History of Englishes: New Methods and Interpretations in Historical Linguistics. Eds. Matti Rissanen, Ossi Ihalainen, Terttu Nevalainen, Irma Taavitsainen. Berlin, Germany : Mouton de Gruyter, 1992.


Crane, Susan. “Anglo-Norman Cultures in England, 1066-1460” in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. Ed. David Wallace. Cambridge, England : Cambridge UP, 1999. 35-60.


Kibbee, Douglas A. “Historical Perspectives on the Place of Anglo-Norman in the History of the French Language”, French Studies: A QuarterlyReview 54:2 (Apr. 2000): 137-53.


Rothwell, W. “The 'faus franceis d'Angleterre': Later Anglo-Norman” in Anglo-Norman Anniversary Essays. Ed. Ian Short. London, England : Anglo-Norman Text Society, 1993. 309-26


--. “Glimpses into Our Ignorance of the Anglo-Norman Lexis” in Medieval French Textual Studies in Memory of T. B. W. Reid. Ed. Ian Short. London : Anglo-Norman Text Soc., 1984.


Short, Ian. “Bilingualism in Anglo-Norman England.” Romance Philology 33 (1979): 467-79.


[1] Actually, William’s cousin Edward the Confessor, son of Emma of Normandy and Aethelred was raised in Normandy after the death of his father at age nine. When he succeeded to the throne, he brought with him considerable Norman courtly influence. He died in 1066.