"Un faus franceis sai d’Angleterre:"Œ

The Teaching of French in the Medieval English period

Shannon MacRae

copyright 2001


Unfortunately, comparatively few records explicitly detail the pedagogical form of teaching French during the Medieval English period. Few copybooks, workbooks, lecture notes, or tracts, akin to the contemporary "textbook," from Medieval Oxford hav e survived to contemporary days (Richardson 269-70; Rabade 185); however, a number of practical (i.e. non-scholarly) guides to learning French have survived. Perhaps most surprisingly, however, is that the teaching of French was not restricted solely to th e gentrified classes, but trickled downwards through to other classes who required a solid understanding of the language in order to operate in such functions as lawyers, merchants and lower civil servants. The style and manner in which French was taught varied widely according to the need of the student, and again naturally varied depending on whether the learning was centred in a formal classroom situation or if the education was taken on as a self-directed or family pursuit.

Teaching French from 1100-1152:

As few records survive, the presence of French in a formal curriculum cannot be firmly established for this period. In the period just before and immediately following the Norman Conquest (1100-1152), Douglas A. Kibbee notes that only a single Engl ish-French legal glossary has been discovered to have been written and used during the period. However, Kibbee also notes that there is "no evidence of any formal instruction in French in any school" (12) during the period, indicating that the glossary wa s used like a crib sheet for those engaged in the legal profession. In contrast, however, Luis Iglesias-Rabade argues that "French must have been the medium of teaching at all levels of instruction" (186) given his position that he believes Norman French to have been the language of the clergy who largely ran the smaller schools for the elementary and intermediate level students (186).

What is clear, however, is that regardless of the contentious issue of formal instruction for classes lower than the aristocracy, French was taught to the "second-generation" of the upper classes—the Anglo-Norman children—through a variety of private arrangements. For example, Kibbee notes that children were frequently sent to their cousins’ homes or to Norman monasteries to improve upon and practise their French under the threat of an expanding colloquial English (11-2).

Attempts to Counter the "Barbarous Dialect", 1152-1258:

The following period, that of 1152 through to 1258, saw a rise in the use of spoken and written French with the influx of Norman immigrants accompanying Henry II, and perhaps even an increased disdain for the "pidgin French" the Anglo-Norman aristo cracy were speaking given the variety of both French and English literary works which parody the "barbarous dialect" of Norman French (25) . Whether these two factors influence the rise in the formal teaching of French is arguable, however, as the majority of French instruction remained either by private tutoring or self-instruction during the period (26). There is some mention during the pe riod of French convents to which English girls can be sent for improvement of their French (Williams 73). It is not until the year 1258 through to the invocation of the statute requiring all legal business to be conducted in English (1362), that the rise of French education in the classroom was fully felt. Much like the period of 1100-1152, few records support the actual pedagogy or method of French instruction in the classroom. Perhaps the most important surviving "textbook" of French to be used was Walt er of Bibbesworth’s vocabulary, the Tretiz de Language (41). The publication date of Bibbesworth’s text is hotly debated; however, it is generally accepted that the treatise was written in the middle part of the 13th century (4 1) and was initially intended for the education of his patroness’ children (42). Luis Iglesias-Rabade argues that because Bibbesworth’s treatise "has survived in a great number of manuscripts [. . . it] suggests that the treatise was largely use d at school [elementary and intermediate levels] in the fourteenth century" (186).

Bibbesworth’s treatise, in Walter Rothwell’s words was "a handy manual—in verse to help the memory—covering the necessary vocabulary for country pursuits, natural phenomena, parts of the body, and so on" (38); he also argues that th e intention of the Tretiz de Language was that of a manual with a dual purpose—a glossary of English and French was provided for the benefit of Bibbesworth’s patroness, who would then be expected in turn to use this is a source book for i nstruction of her children with other non-glossed material from the treatise (38). As such, Rothwell does not believe, as Iglesias-Rabade does, that Bibbesworth’s treatise would have been used in a formal educational setting but would, instead, be th e textbook through which the aristocracy would hone their language skills and, in turn, train their children in the skill of the language. These varying opinions perhaps suggest that the Tretiz may well have been the source for both aristocratic "s elf-education" and the formal education of those children whose families were legally permitted to, and could afford to, send them to school.

The Introduction of T.H.’s Orthographica Gallica, 1300 and French at University:

Kibbee and Rabade agree, however, that a second text, the Orthographica Gallica, produced by 1300, was intended for the formal classroom (Rabade 187; Kibbee 50-5). The only key to the authorship of the Orthographica Gallica are the in itials T.H., who purports to be a Parisian student but whom many agree to rather have been an Englishman educated in Paris (Rabade 187; Kibbee 48). That T.H.’s self-identified as a Parisian perhaps points to the overwhelming sense that the continenta l French was superior to the insular Anglo-Norman French. As such, the Orthographica Gallica, in which T.H. boasts that he has based his work on "secundum usum et modum modernorum" (qtd. in Kibbee 48), the "modern practice and use" in both F rance and England (despite the fact that it was written in Latin), could very well have aligned itself with the desire to standardize and raise the status of Anglo-Norman in comparison to the continental "pure French." The Orthographica Gallica, wh ich was split into two sections, was largely comprised of instructions in the pronunciation of French letters, advice to Anglo-Normans as to which letters to "drop" in "correct" French, vocabulary, and the proper use of capitalization and abbreviations (K ibbee 48-53). The 1st section of the Orthographica Gallica was used at Oxford for the supplemental course in business, the "tables for the conversion of pence into shillings and marks into pounds" (Richardson 271) being especially useful f or that pursuit. The more advanced portion of the text, the 2nd group, was also used for legal training at Oxford as the features of it "relating to written form [for example, correct grammar and syntax] rather than orthography or pronunciation , reflect the formal precision of the legal writ" (Kibbee 53).

The situation at university was perhaps unique in that French might be picked up or improved upon without necessarily attending formal classes in the language. Rabade posits that French was "colloquially reinforced" (189) at both Oxford and Cambridge g iven that both institutions "housed an important number of French students who were most likely taught in Latin and French" (82). Rabade also notes that documents exist describing the exchange of both students and professors between the universities of Ox ford and Paris during the 14th century (82). He also claims that "a survey of the schools and universities’ ordinances [. . .] seems to confirm that French was the only vernacular permitted [. . .] until 1400" (82).

Post-1362: The Decline of French Instruction and the Invention of French as a "Specialist" Language:

Following the 1362 statute which banned French in governmental and legal affairs, it might be expected that the teaching of French would have been completely discontinued. However, Kibbee aptly notes that this statute was itself written in F rench (58), and, that while French usage was generally on the decline, it could still an important language to have depending upon how a student intended to be employed; for example, it was still deemed necessary to the legal professions and, additionally , among merchants who may pursue trade on the continent (78). As such, schools associated with Oxford provided "supplemental" courses taught by Thomas Sampson which provided a full introduction to French. However, Joseph M. Williams notes that there was s ome concern over the loss of French as, sometime before 1380, Oxford ordered that masters require their students to "construe in both French and English" (74), indicating that the practise may have been falling out of favour. Additionally, Kibbee notes th at it was virtually eradicated as a taught subject in the numerous grammar and guild schools created in the 15th century (74). Again, this issue is contentious—Rabade posits that evidence suggests that French was retained in the grammar sc hool system until at least "the second half of the fourteenth century" (187). He also cites William Harrison, who referred to his children’s French lessons at a grammar school in the 16th century, and which suggests that French was still f lourishing as a subject in at least one grammar school during the period. In a letter, Harrison wrote that: "Our children were by an especiall decree taught first to speake the same [French], and therevnto inforced to learne their constructions in the Fre nch, whensoeuer they were set to the Grammar Schoole" (193). While Kibbee and Rabade disagree on the exact times at which French instruction was removed from the formal educational system, they both agree that it is during this period that the rigorous te aching of French began its decline until its resurrection as a taught "foreign" language in the Renaissance.



Œ This citation is from the Vie d’Edouard le Confesseur (1163-9) which is cited in Ian Short’s article "On Bilingualism in Anglo-Norman England." Romance Philology 33, p. 473.

 Kibbee lists several texts which parody the Anglo-Norman dialect in this period; they include the Blonde d’Oxford (13th century); and various letters from William of Canterbury, Giraldus Cambrensis and Gervase of Tilbury (25).

For Further Reading:

Sources dealing explicitly with the instruction of French in the Middle English period:

Kibbee, Douglas A. For to Speke Frenche Trewely. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co., 1991.

Rabade, Luis Iglesias. "Multi-Lingual Education in England 1200-1500." Studia Neophilologica 67 (1995): 185-195.

Rothwell, William. "The Teaching of French in Medieval England." Modern Language Review 63 (1968): 37-46.


Detailed sources dealing with the teaching of French/command of French in specific courses of study or occupations:

Brand, Paul. "The Languages of the Law in Later Medieval England." Multilingualism in Later Medieval Britain. Ed. D. A. Trotter. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000. 63-76.

Merrilees, Brian. "Donatus and the Teaching of French in Medieval England." Anglo-Norman Anniversary Essays. Ed. Ian Short. London: Anglo-Norman Text Society, 1993. 273-291.

Richardson, H.G. "Business Training in Medieval Oxford." The American Historical Review. 46 (1941): 259-278.

Trotter, D.A. Ed. Multilingualism in Later Medieval Britain. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

General sources which provide limited information on the teaching of French in the period:

Short, Ian. "On Bilingualism in Anglo-Norman England." Romance Philology. 33 (1980): 467-479.

Williams, Joseph M. Origins of the English Language. New York: The Free Press, 1975.