What did the French learn from us? Taking insular French (back) across the channel

Lecture in memory of David Trotter (1957-2015) given at the University of Aberystwyth

First of all, I am very grateful for the invitation to give this lecture in honour of an esteemed colleague. The name David Trotter resonates with anyone who has worked on the French of medieval England and the Anglo-Norman Dictionary puts Aberystwyth at the heart of research in this subject. I owe my familiarity with the department to David in fact, as it was he who appointed me as external examiner here – and I have just come to the end of my four-year tenure of that role – so it is also a real pleasure to have this reason to be back among friends here.

On Thursday 5th August this year (2019) a Times Leader began:

A vast number of words have crossed the channel separating England and France and insinuated themselves into the national language They’ve served to flatten sophisticated grammatical distinctions in the systems of case endings and gender. This linguistic imperialism must be curbed.

That at any rate, is what the common people of England might have been forgiven for thinking after the Norman Conquest in 1066. Norman French became the language of the court while English survived as the vernacular, and eventually the vocabularies became inextricably mixed…’.

This was in response to a French government concern about the use of English in French advertising and specifically in social media – turning the French complaint on its head by taking a longer-term approach. The Leader is of necessity an oversimplification of the relationship between the two languages and their speakers in the Middle Ages – a relationship which was both complex and long lasting.

At the Thirteenth-century Conference in 2009, speaking about cross-channel communications after the English loss of Normandy in 1204, David asserted that ‘there simply was not a separation of England and France after 1204…contact and communication across the Channel was extensive, constant and probably increased throughout the [thirteenth century]’. He outlined the diverse areas in which the contact took place and the evidence ‘recorded in treaties, private letters, diplomatic documents, military records, chronicles [and] in the continuing transfer from France to England of literary texts copied into insular manuscripts’. This was the starting point for the research which underlies today’s lecture. Reading David’s comments made me think not just about what was coming from France to England, and thence to other parts of the British Isles, but also of two-way traffic, what was going in the other direction – and this is the subject of tonight’s lecture.

We are generally aware of what the French did for us in terms of the changes in English – and that one of the main factors was the Norman Conquest. The events of 1066 have sufficiently permeated popular culture that we can use the Bayeux tapestry to make jokes, and for advertising:

I deliberately said ‘languages’ as French was a contact language, not just for English, but for Welsh, Irish Gaelic, and Old Scots. Though 1066 was an important date for those interactions, and is embedded in our collective memory, 1204, David’s starting point for the paper quoted, is perhaps less well known. Many of us are familiar with the idea of  ‘bad king John’ if only from Disney cartoons and Horrible Histories, or, if we are a bit older, the Ladybird history books – the date when he lost Calais to the French is not imprinted on our minds; perhaps this is partly because this was not definitive. The borders between lands ruled by the Kings of England and those ruled over by the kings of France, would remain in flux until the end of the Hundred Years war in 1453. David’s comment was in part in response to the idea that 1204 was a watershed date which changed everything. His study prompted a reflexion in me which led to the research behind tonight’s lecture.

I will look at ‘what the English gave the French: Anglo-Norman on the continent’ in three parts. I will consider first how insular literary practice (that is the literature of these islands, mostly but not entirely English) may have affected French language writing elsewhere – and some of this I admit is speculative. I will then move on to looking at how some specific texts and narratives which originated in England crossed the Channel to take their place in a wider European francophone culture, and what happened to them there; I will finish with some examples of manuscripts – material text crossing the channel, or manuscript witness to text and narrative crossing the channel. This allows us to finish with the positive perspective of looking at one of my favourite manuscripts.

Insular Literary practice and Continental French

The idea that Insular literary practice affected how continental French writing developed has been more controversially expressed as The English Origins of Old French Literature (the title of a book I’m not so much recommending as shamelessly exploiting for its title). It’s a controversial title, because we tend to think in terms of national literatures – I am sure it was meant to be provocative.

We also tend to think in terms of literature and culture emanating from a centre and being transferred to more peripheral zones. Thus, we in Britain tend to think of literature from our former colonies as somehow ‘peripheral’, compared to books written in Britain and published through British publishing houses. In France, there has historically been a tendency to think of Paris as the centre of culture. For medieval francophone literature this is not true – and it is perhaps better to think of a network of places of literary production, which would include Troyes in Champagne, Arras in Northern France, Venice and parts of Italy, and, of course England.

To gage the importance of England for the development of French literary culture, it is worth going back to that key date 1066 – while bearing in mind that though this was a watershed date, the Norman conquest was not the first important contact between England and Normandy. In the mid-eleventh century French was not a literary language. There are a couple of pieces of text in romance vernacular emanating from France in the ninth century: the Strasbourg Oaths, a political utterance recorded in a Latin chronicle, written by a scribe who was more accustomed to writing Latin (the way the words are written suggests that he had little idea how to write French); and the nearest thing we have to an example of ‘French’ literature, the Sequence of St Eulalia, a short (29 line) verse text from about 880, a kind of hymn of praise for the saint; again the language suggests a ‘scribe still unfamiliar with writing in French as opposed to Latin’ (Ayres-Bennett, 1996, pp. 16-39).   From the tenth century we have a few more religious texts/fragments: some notes in a mixture of mixture of French and Latin for a sermon on Jonah, a Passion from Clermont, and a Saints’ life, La Vie de Saint Leger.

By contrast, in England by the middle of the eleventh century there was a flourishing literary culture in the vernacular (that is, in English), a literary tradition going back to the seventh century, with production not limited, as appears to have been the case in France, to religious material, but rather extending across the genres. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dates back to the time of Alfred the Great, the oldest surviving manuscript, held in the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College Cambridge dating from the 9th century (https://parker.stanford.edu/parker/catalog/wp146tq7625) . The chronicle begins as a series of annals, and in that early manuscript some years have no entry by them, but it soon developed into something we would undoubtedly label ‘literature’, crafted text. One of the most famous pre-modern texts in English, the epic Beowulf, survives in a manuscript from around 1000, but the text itself is likely older (Orchard, 2013). We have Anglo-Saxon biblical texts, such as the Wessex Gospels of which 7 manuscripts survive. Nor is insular literary culture in the vernacular limited to England; the earliest literature in Welsh may date back to the ninth century (Fulton, 2019). When the Normans came to England, they encountered this insular literary tradition.

From the late eleventh-century on literature in French flourishes, and many of the earliest texts survive only in Anglo-Norman copies – that is in the form of French which developed in medieval England following the Conquest. How far can this development be ascribed to contact with a culture where there is already a flourishing literary tradition in the vernacular?  I described this section as speculative and it is – and we must be careful. David Howlett, in The English Origins of Old French Literature expressed his understanding of this in highly persuasive rhetoric:

…the oldest charter […] the oldest laws, the oldest historical writings, the oldest romantic pseudo-histories, the oldest history written by an eye-witness, the oldest pseudo-historical propaganda, the oldest hagiography in both prose and verse, the oldest collections of miracles of the Virgin, the oldest plays, the oldest adventure narrative, the oldest lais and fables, the oldest fabliau, the oldest romances, the oldest glosses on Biblical texts, the oldest adaptations of Biblical texts, the oldest translation of a monastic rule, the oldest wisdom literature, the oldest scientific literature, the oldest technical treatises… [in the French language] …[survive in Anglo-Norman copies] (Howlett, 1996, p. 162).

Let’s not carried away by the rhetoric. It is unfounded speculation to assume that all these genres, as written text, originate in Anglo-Norman. All the oldest chansons de geste, French epic poems, survive in Anglo-Norman copies, but it is unlikely that the genre originated here; linguistically these seem to be Anglo-Norman copies of continental material. Howlett is selective in the texts and genres he discusses; for example, he ignores the romans d’antiquité and classifies the Lai du cor as a fabliaux in order to claim it as the oldest fabliaux (Howlett, 1996, pp. 123-25); his argument that the early insular French works were ‘written by authors who expect not a line or word or syllable or letter of their works to be altered in transmission’ (Howlett, 1996, p. 163) is also unsustainable. Medieval manuscript texts were inherently unstable; the nearest we have come to such fluidity and instability of text since the invention of mechanical printing and the beginning of copyright laws, has been with the establishment of the wiki in the digital age, text which can be edited and altered by others. I think it is over speculative to talk of the insular origins of Old French literature, but reasonable to speculate on the impact of insular vernacular writing on Old French. Anglo-Norman writers had the advantage of pre-existing vernacular models, offering the idea of both entertaining and instructive texts being produced in the vernacular. Certain genres thus do seem to spring from an insular base, notably historical writing, and translation into the vernacular of serious scientific and didactic literature. The pre-existing literary traditions of Anglo-Saxon England may well have accelerated the use of French on the continent for such purposes. The use of French for practical, legal purposes which is also initiated in England (the earliest an administrative document in the French language dates from an 1170 Inquest of Sheriffs, TNA c 146/10018), may have arisen for a different reason, a more socio-linguistic one. France had one written vernacular, which existed in a range of dialectal forms. England had two main vernaculars, English and French, of which French had the higher status; written Anglo-Norman was also largely standardised; it was thus a logical move to start recording certain procedures in French. However, the older tradition in England of drafting legal documents in the vernacular may also have been a factor.

Tempting though it may be to think of ‘English origins of Old French Literature’, let us consider rather that insular French may have accelerated the production of certain kinds of text on the continent. The close contact of two cultures was bound to have impact in both directions.

Cross-channel Exports: Transfer of Narratives from England to the Continent

I noted earlier that for medieval francophone literature it is deceptive to think of a centre of production with peripheral zones, that we should rather be thinking in terms of multiple centres of production. These different centres are not cut off from each other. A recent, very successful, research project on Francophone Literary Culture outside France took six well known and widely diffused narrative texts and plotted their dissemination across Europe on the basis of extant manuscripts – here you can see the map generated for the Prose version of the Tristan Legend (the medieval French narrative of the love triangle between King Mark, his queen Yseut and his nephew Tristan:


The different points represent the provenance and origin of particular manuscripts. The team consider that one of the main axes of diffusion of French literature in the Middle Ages was a northern route that stretches from England across the Low Countries to Burgundy and the Rhineland. Informative though this project is, it is only a part of the story as none of the six texts examined was actually composed in England. My research into the diffusion of Anglo-Norman texts across Europe complements this. There are different kinds of diffusion which could be said to represent different levels of appropriation

  • Anglo-Norman manuscripts taken across Europe by and with their owners –
  • Texts of insular origin copied on the continent
  • Texts of insular origin copied and adapted on the continent

The first group tells us little, except that those such as royal brides kept at least some books from their homeland with them when they left.  A good example would be the Lichtentahl Psalter, a sumptuous Psalter, with text in French (Office of the Cross) as well as Latin, which ended up in a convent in Lichtentahl (Sandler, 2004).

The second group is where I have expended most of my energies; these are the complement to the texts imported from France which David referred to in his 2009 paper. There are perhaps self-evident methodological issues in investigating Anglo-Norman texts copied on the continent. There is first of all the difficulty of determining what we mean by Anglo-Norman? Which texts do we include? Is Wace, a Norman chronicler from Jersey writing in England, to be included? He belonged to the environment of the Angevin court and many of his writings have an Anglo-centric base, so I am comfortable considering him Anglo-Norman. More problematically, how do we determine whether a text which exists in both insular and continental manuscripts or versions was originally an insular or a continental composition?

There are no easy answers to these questions, and I will consider some of these issues as I go through this lecture and as we look at specific texts and genres. Even where we can be certain that we are dealing with an insular composition we cannot necessarily know that signs of picard or francien in the hand or graphies of a scribe necessarily means it was copied in the North of French or around Paris; people moved as well as texts and a Parisian scribe could be working in London.

Two brief examples will serve as case studies to demonstrate the methodological challenges:

The only complete MS of the romance Amadas et Yvoine (Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, fr. 375, folios 315ra – 331va) is Picard, so from Northern France, but analysis of the language makes us confident that it was indeed of Anglo-Norman origin. Here the evidence that the text was known outside England is not limited to the existence of a continental manuscript; this is supported by the fact that the lovers in the twelfth-century romance are often cited outside of England in much the same way as Roland and Oliver are cited to represent friendship.

Another problematic text is a fabliau, Le chevalier qui fist parler les cons. This demonstrates two issues – historic attitudes to Anglo-Norman which may prejudice research, and the difficulty of determining whether an Anglo-Norman or continental text is the ‘original’. I’m not going to translate the title of the fabliau by the way: fabliaux are short, comic verse tales which usually deal with deception and trickery, and they are not all for polite society. The fabliau specialist Roy Pearcy published a study of three Anglo-Norman fabliaux in 2000, a study which sought to address the judgement of the influential mid-twentieth century French critic Jean Rychner of certain Anglo-Norman fabliaux with continental analogues which he dismissed as ‘versions orales dégradées’ (cited in Pearcy, 2000, p. 227). The fabliau survives in five continental manuscripts and one fragment as well as one Anglo-Norman manuscript. Pearcy analyses the rhetoric of the Anglo-Norman in some detail and demonstrates (convincingly to my mind) that the continental version is a muddled variant of the Anglo-Norman (Pearcy, 2000, p. 227).

In drawing up my list of texts exported I erred on the side of caution – in fact, my original list did not include that fabliau. I began compiling my database of insular texts which exist in continental manuscripts by trawling through a printed list in Ruth Dean and Maureen Boulton’s invaluable Guide to Texts and Manuscripts in Anglo-Norman, published by the Anglo-Norman Text Society. I included only texts which Dean and Boulton considered to be probably of insular origin, with a further list of texts of unresolved origin which I have left out of consideration – the risk here is that I underestimate the transfer of texts to continental France but I considered that better than overestimating it.

Much of the French production in England was of local importance only, not just charters, letters and documents, but lives of local saints and chronicles attached to one particular family, even devotional texts written for a named patron. Literary texts, however, often travelled widely. At first, I drew up a simple list (I call it a database to sound more academic). The list proved extensive – with of all major genres where a text composed in England crossed the Channel and is now found in a continental copy: epic, romance, hagiography, historiographical works and lyric poetry, scientific works and devotional material. Among the most interesting are texts which one might expect to be of more insular interest only. For the remainder of our time I will concentrate on the narrative traditions of the Brut, of Bueves de Haumtonne and Gui de Warewic; All three are narratives which we might expect to be of peculiarly insular interest, yet all travel extensively -we can only speculate why – but a good story will translate. Having begun with a concept of ‘texts’, I am also now deliberately casting this in terms of narrative traditions.

The Brut narrative is a foundation myth of Britain and as such we might expect it to have the least continental distribution of all the narratives under consideration here today, yet we all know this was not the case. Behind all its many versions lies the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth and his chronicle History of the Kings of England (Historia Regnum Britanniae), written in the 1130s. The verse Brut of the 12th-century Jersey chronicler Wace is perhaps the best-known redaction, but this tale is found is different forms. In recent years the American scholar Julia Marvin’s work on the prose Brut has been a major catalyst for research on the Bruts of Europe, which has included a two-volume multi-contributor exploration of the tradition in both Latin and in the vernaculars (Tetrel  and Géraldine Veysseyre, 2018). While the vernaculars of medieval England offer the largest number of adaptations and copies, the editors, Hélène Tetrel  and Géraldine Veysseyre list redactions in Middle Welsh, Old Icelandic, The French of the North, particularly Anglo-Norman, English, Castilian, Catalana, Italian … and Dutch. What we find as we look across the translations and adaptations is free movement of form. A narrative widespread in Latin prose, is retold in Norman verse by Wace, adapted and abbreviated by Anglo-Norman verse writers, sometimes with continuations added on the end, and then recast in French prose. What the researchers observe in terms of the reception in England and elsewhere is that it is in England that the texts are more often found in bilingual or multilingual codices, while on the continent texts are more often in a monolingual context, the vernacular not found alongside the Latin. Six manuscripts of the prose Brut were examined for the Bruts en Europe volumes; these include the copy contained in the sumptuous BL Royal 19 C IX (https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=5735&CollID=16&NStart=190309), from Central or Northern France or South Netherlands and the very plain Bibliothèque nationale de France fr. 14640 (https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b9061409c.r=Brut%2014640?rk=21459;2); the  catalogue gives no provenance for this Brut manuscript and dates it broadly 1201-1400, though it must date post 1272. These are just two examples from different dates and at different ends of the market, both continental. The flexibility of the tradition and the degree of reworking it has undergone as it has been disseminated, are only beginning to be understood.

My other two case studies, Bueve de Haumtonne and Gui de Warewic, are often treated together, because of their traditional (though now often rejected) designation as ‘ancestral romances’ and a historic association with specific places and families of medieval England. Both have been subject to multi-contributor volumes: Gui of Warwick, Icon and Ancestor, edited by Ros Field and Alison Wiggins (2007), and Sir Bevis of Hamton in Literary Tradition edited by Jennifer Fellows and Ivana Djordjević (2008). What is striking about both these projects is the very limited space given to the continental French – in fact I was the only French specialist to contribute to the Gui volume, and myself and Judy Weiss, an English and Anglo-Norman specialist, were the only scholars to write on the French in the volume on Beuve; the continental French is not touched on at all in either volume. The continental reception of these two texts is very different.

The Anglo-Norman romance of Gui de Warwic is generally dated to the early 13thc. Much scholarship on Gui has focussed on its ‘Englishness’. Djordjević and Fellows state in their introduction to the Beuve volume (p. 3) that ‘the story of Guy…did not spread very far beyond the area of English cultural influence’, though the ‘area of English cultural influence’ is not in itself un unproblematic concept. As Fellows and Djordjević put it ‘while some manuscripts of the French romance did make it to the Continent, they left no progeny’, i.e. they were not copied on the continent. Yet, there is one significant continental development: the combined tale of Gui  and his son is put into prose on the continent as the romaunt de Guy de Warwik et de Herolt d’Ardenne (Heraud being Gui’s companion and his son’s mentor). One copy of this text is found in the Shrewsbury Book, British Library MS Royal 15 E VI (https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/results.asp), compiled and copied in Rouen; the other BnF 1476 (https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b9009485k?rk=21459;2). There were also several copies printed in Paris in the 16thc (Doutrepont, 1939, p. 295). The mise en prose in general can be taken as evidence of wider popularity of the legend, beyond this island. Both the manuscripts of the prose text are what Georges Doutrepont called ‘livres princiers’; although his categorisation of manuscripts has been criticised by modern scholars, these were manuscripts for rich patrons (Tania van Hemelryck, 2010).  Two manuscripts of a prose version and a reference to what may be third – or possibly a different, now lost, prose redaction, are found in the library of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy from 1419 – 1467. Burgundy was certainly an ally of England – but the presence of a manuscript of the text in his library also suggests that we should perhaps not see ‘areas of English cultural influence’ too narrowly – that indeed ‘cultural influence’ in the medieval francophone world was multidirectional. Rendering the text into prose may be seen as one way in which the narrative moving across borders developed. Prose versions of medieval romance were as popular in England as on the continent  – and we have already seen the significance of the prose Brut both in insular and continental context – but the process of mettre en prose – of putting a prose romance or chanson de geste into prose is much more widespread on the continent, and particularly in Burgundy (M Abromowicz, 1996). Many Middle English prose translations of narratives, especially the early printed texts, were in fact translated from continental models, even if the narrative circulated in French verse in medieval England.

Boeve has a more complex and much broader diffusion and here we see a range of formal changes as the text moves around. An Italian redaction, Bova d’Antona, would be instrumental in disseminating the narrative into Eastern Europe and as far as Russia (Fellows and Djordjević, 2002). In fact, the narrative was so widely disseminated that earlier scholars debated at length whether it originated in England, Germany, France or even in a 10th-century Viking saga (Fellows and Djordjević, 2002, p. 2). The consensus is now that it is in essence an Anglo-Norman text in origin; the extant Anglo-Norman text has been dated to the first half of the 13th century (ed. Martin, p. 20). It spread quickly and gave rise to no fewer than three different French redactions, surviving in seven manuscripts, including BnF 25516, copied in the North of France; the BnF catalogue gives the date 1275-1290 for the copying (https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b84516032.r=bueve?rk=21459;2).

A comparison of the Anglo-Norman and continental French versions of this narrative is very revealing. Much of the work on texts which are found on both sides of the channel, including my own research, focuses on the particularity of Anglo-Norman: we know that some texts when transferred from the continent to England underwent a process of redaction. Boeves, like other poems of the genre is written in a form peculiar to the chanson de geste, the Old French epic (see Ailes in Fellows and Ivana Djordjević, 2008, pp. 9-24). My own work on the chanson de geste in England highlights the fact that the texts in chanson de geste form composed in England tend to be shorter than those originating in France. The chansons de geste form is one which uses a flexible form of versification called a laisse – a strophe of uneven length, with lines united by a single rhyme or assonance, Anglo-Norman copies of these texts tend to have shorter laisses, at a time when the laisse in continental texts was getting longer and longer; they also to use a more scholarly rhetoric, mixed with the traditional discourse of the chanson de geste; some chansons de geste of continental origin which cross the channel underwent changes which brought them into line with this, the most dramatic example of this being Fierenbras, the Anglo-Norman abbreviated redaction of Fierabras. So, I was interested to see what changes could be found in Boeves, a text using this chanson de geste form, when it was copied and adapted on the continent.

I need to do more detailed research on the language of the text to be confident about the changes in the rhetoric – but general elaboration of the text is evident in the length of the three continental versions  which run from 10,000 lines to 20,000, compared to the AN 3850. Another aspect of this which is also in line with differences between AN and continental redactions of continental chansons de geste is average laisse length. You can see from this table the significant difference:

The difference in laisse length is perhaps most obvious in the opening laisses. In all redactions the text repeatedly apostrophises the audience over the first three laisses.

In the Anglo-Norman text these are all short punchy laisses; indeed, the first 20 laisses average only 6.25 lines per laisse. This contrasts with the continental redactions – note the whopping 54.55 lines per laisse in the third redaction. This is rather a blunt measurement of changes of tempo and discourse – but it is consistent over the three continental redactions – and is the inverse of what we find when continental texts are redacted in Anglo-Norman versions.

In this case there is also ‘progeny’ to pick up the phrase used by Fellows and Djordjević as two chansons de geste from the continent also appear to have been inspired by our text: Daurel et Beton, an Occitan text of the late 12th c., which appears to have been inspired by an older version of Boeves and Orson de Beauvais,  a chanson de geste which survives in only one manuscript, copied according to the BnF catalogue in the 14th century (https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b53000321m.r=Daurel%20et%20Beton?rk=21459;2). This in turn had ‘progeny’; the narrative of Orson found its way into the romance Valentine and Orson and into the Histoire de Charles Martel by the Burgundian writer David Aubert. This appropriation is very much evidence of the ability of Anglo-Norman literature to expand, adapt and be appropriated across the medieval francophone world, in the same way as texts originating in what is now France. There are also two surviving prose versions: BnF 12554, a modest 15th-century paper MS also associated with the Burgundian court – it belonged to Monseigneur de Crequy, an advisor to Philip the Good, and BnF fr 1477.

Manuscript witnesses

I want to finish with a brief examination of two specific manuscripts as illustrations of the ongoing transmission of texts across the Channel from the thirteenth century on.

First: Tours Bilbiothèque municipale 927: this paper manuscript, dating from the second quarter of the thirteenth century, contains several texts which are either Anglo-Norman in origin or have significant Anglo-Norman links, but the manuscript itself was copied in the South, possibly in the Touraine. It contains ten items, all of a religious or didactic nature – texts which may be of Anglo-Norman origin appear in the list below in bold:

Jeu d’Adam and the Quinze signes du Jugement ff. 20r – 40 r

La Vie de Saint George ff. 47-60

Wace’s Conception Notre Dame 61r-108 v

Vie de Saint Gregoire ff. 109-184

Cato, ff. 185-204

Wace’s Vie de Sainte Marguerite 205r-215v

Le Miracle de Sardenai ff. 216-228

Four quatrains of the Occitan Épître de Saint Étienne


Of particular interest here are the texts by Wace. Françoise Le Saux, professor emerita at Reading University, has discussed Wace’s Conception Notre Dame in her Companion to Wace (Le Saux, 2005, pp. 30-51).  It is a very vigorous testimony to the export of both literature and observances from the English side of the Channel to the French. Of the twenty extant manuscripts, the largest number are from Central France, with a few exhibiting Picard or eastern features (Le Saux, 2005, p. 33). Wace’s minor sources for this text point to strong English connections; in particular the works of Eadmer of Canterbury…His Tractatus de conception sanctae Maria, written in 1141, is possibly the first clear and systematic defence in writing of the .doctrine of the Immaculate Conception…’ , so it is possible to argue that it is not just texts but theology that is being exported. According to Le Saux, observance of the feast of the Conception of Mary passed from England to Normandy, in the early twelfth century – and from Normandy eastwards (Le Saux, 2005, p. 31). This text is then testament to the Channel as a means of communication, for the export of insular texts – and perhaps also practices – to the continent.

The preponderance of Anglo-Norman texts might suggest Tours 927 was copied from an Anglo-Norman original, but it is impossible to know how many intermediaries there were. In the 13th century we have what you could call a ‘dynamic’ situation regarding the lands held by the king of England in France, but there were ongoing and strong links and the trade between France and England through, e.g. Bordeaux, confirmed as being held legitimately by the English kings the treaty of Paris in 1259 and add to that the significant links there still were between English and French Benedictine houses, we can assume considerable cross channel communication.

Finally I want to return to a manuscript already mentioned, one of the most famous fifteenth-century manuscripts, the Shrewsbury Book, BL Royal MS 15 E VI, made in Rouen for John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury as a wedding gift for Marguerite d’Anjou and Henry VI in 1445 – a  manuscript made in Lancastrian Normandy with an English patron, a gift  for a French princess and her English king – which rather sums up the difficulty of talking about France and England. The contents of this manuscript are a mixture of texts of clear continental origin and texts of insular origin:

The Roman d’Alexandre en prose (ff. 5-24v)

Simon de Pouille, Aspremont, and Fierabras (ff. 25-85v) – the livre de Charlemagne;

Chanson d’ Ogier (ff. 86-154v) ;

Quatre fils Aymon (ff. 155-206) in prose;

Pontus and Sidoine (ff. 207-226v);

Guy de Warwik (ff. 227-265); Heraud d’Ardenne (ff. 266v-272);

Chanson of the Chevalier au Cygne (ff. 273-292);

L’arbre de batailes (ff. 293-325v);

Livres du gouvernement des rois (ff. 327-361);

Chroniques de Normandie (ff. 363-401);

Alain Chartier, Breviaire des nobles (ff. 403-404v);

Christine de Pisan, Les fais d’armes et de chevalerie (ff. 405-438);

Statutes of the Order of the Garter (ff. 439-440v).


The three texts of the ‘livre de Charlemagne’, second on the list, form an interesting collection of chansons de geste which appear to be offering an exemplum of medieval kingship through Charlemagne. It has been argued that Aspremont was written in Italy for the Angevin court (that is the court of Richard I) as part of the run up to the Third Crusade; it survives in a significant number of manuscripts, of which no fewer than seven are in Anglo-Norman; it is, however, generally considered a continental text with extensive dissemination in England. The next two texts (Ogier and the Quatre Fils Aymon) are also Charlemagne texts, but of the rebellious barons cycle, offering a warning, perhaps, of what may happen when a king behaves unjustly. These are continental texts; no Anglo-Norman version of Ogier survives, though it was known to Matthew Paris in the middle of the thirteenth century. Of the Quatre Fils Aymon only three substantial fragments – or rather episodes – in Anglo-Norman dialect and hand are extant (bound together in Bodleian Library MS Hatton 59). This is a continental text, but the earliest known reference to it was in Alexander Neckham’s de naturis rerumGui de Warwick and the story of his son Hernaud d’Ardenne, in this manuscript are in the continental French prose version, but are, of course, insular narratives in the first place. Clearly the workshop in Rouen was able procure both insular material such as The Statutes of the Order of the Garter for copying and continental texts.

This manuscript was commissioned and produced in ‘Lancastrian’ Normandy for an English patron, probably using some insular and some continental source texts. Texts and manuscripts cross the Channel in both directions.

Royal MS 15 E vi and Tours 937 are from different periods and seem to have been copied in different parts of what is now France. Together they are evidence of what Trotter referred to as ‘extensive’ and ‘constant’ traffic in manuscripts and texts across the Channel.

Consequences and Conclusions

So, what did the French take from the English? It seems then that we can build on David Trotter’s assertion of the ongoing traffic from France to England after 1204 and talk of traffic in both directions across the Channel.  Good stories, even ones which seemed of most insular interest, travelled. In at least some cases these texts were adapted to the tastes and interests of the different region. There are consequences which arise from not taking this into account. If we ignore the fact that there were ongoing interactions between the literature of the French of England and the literature of the continent (in both directions) then we are producing a very partial, dare I say ‘insular’ picture.  The two-way traffic across the channel indicates that this is what it should be considered – a channel of communication rather than a barrier. We fail to understand Anglo-Norman French literature when we separate it from the rest of medieval Francophonia. We also undervalue Anglo-Norman Literature and weaken our understanding of medieval French literature and limit its scope if we exclude from the study of medieval French Literature texts produced outside of what is now France, and specifically literature produced in England.


Editions of texts

Beuve de Hamptone, ed. Jean-Pierre Martin (Paris : Champion, 2014)

Der festlandische Bueve de Hantonne, ed. Albert Stimming (Halle: Niemeyer, 1911)

Secondary material

Ayres-Bennet, Wendy, A History of the French Language through Texts (London: Routledge, 1996)

Dean, Ruth and Maureen Boulton, Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts in Anglo-Norman (London: ANTS, 1999)

Abramowicz, Maciej, Réécrire au moyen âge : mises en prose des romans en Bourgogne au XVe siècle (Lublin: Wydawnictwo UMCS 1996)

Doutrepont, Georges, Les Mises en prose des épopées et des romans chevaleresques du XIVe au XVIe siècles (Brussels: Académie Royale de Belgique, 1939)

Field, Ros, and Alison Wiggins (eds), Gui of Warwick, Icon and Ancestor  (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2007)

Fellows, Jennifer, and Ivana Djordjević, Sir Bevis of Hamton in Literary Tradition (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2008)

Fulton, Helen, ‘Britons and Saxons: The earliest Writing in Welsh’, in Cambridge History of Welsh Literature, ed. Geraint Evans and Helen Fulton (Cambridge: CUP, 2019), pp. 26-51

Howlett, David, The English Origins of Old French Literature (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1996)

Le Saux, François, Companion to Wace (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2005)

Marvin, Julia, The Construction of Vernacular History in the Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2017)

Orchard, Andy, ‘Beowulf’, in The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature (Cambridge: CUP, 2013), pp. 137- 158.

Tetrel, Hélène, and Géraldine Veysseyre, L’Historia Regum Britannie et les ‘Bruts’ en Europe ed (Paris: Garnier, 2018)

Trotter, David ‘Sociolinguistic Realities of Cross-Channel Communication in the Thirteenth-Century’, Thirteenth-century England XIII: Proceedings of the Paris Conference, ed. by Janet Burton, Frédérique Lachaud, Philippe Schofield, Karen Stöber and Björn Weiler (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2011), pp. 117-132

Van Hemelryck, Tania, ‘Le livre mis en prose à la cour de Bourgogne. Réflexions pour une approche codicologique d’un phémonmène littéraire’, in Mettre en prose aux XIVe et- XVIe siècles ed. Maria Colombo Timelli, Barbara Ferrari and Anne Schoysman (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010)