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Conference Dissects the French Texts of Medieval England


Fordham University’s Center for Medieval Studies drew more than 115 scholars and graduate students to at its 27th annual conference at the Lincoln Center campus on March 31 that focused on “The French of England: Multilingualism in Practice from 1000 to 1500.”

Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Ph.D., professor of English at the University of York, and co-director of Fordham’s French of England Project.
Photo by Michael Dames

“The French of England is not a coterie of literature but a large elephant in the living room of Middle English,” said Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Ph.D., professor at the University of York and co-director of Fordham’s French of England Project, who delivered the opening address. “And it’s a large elephant in the outhouse of Continental French.”

“The French of England” is a term that describes French texts that circulated in medieval England. In fact, French was a major language of literary, cultural and other pursuits in England for more than 400 years, yet it remains a relatively under-researched field.

Fordham launched the French of England Project, which is also co-directed by Thelma Fenster, Ph.D., professor of French at Fordham, in 2001 and it’s now co-sponsored by Fordham’s Center for Medieval Studies and the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York in England. The project was created to increase awareness of and access to the francophone texts of medieval England.

Maryanne Kowaleski, Ph.D., professor of history at Fordham and director of the Center for Medieval Studies
Photo by Michael Dames

Maryanne Kowaleski, Ph.D., professor of history at Fordham and director of the Center for Medieval Studies, said the conference showcased “the innovative curriculum, graduate student research and website development connected to the French of England project at Fordham.”

Keith Busby, Ph.D., professor of French at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, offered the conference’s opening lecture on the circulation of French literature in medieval England, including its existence beyond London city limits, outside of the upper class and within English monasteries.

He also gave attendees a glimpse into one of the many manuscripts he is attempting to decipher — a list of titles found in the Shrewsbury School manuscript 7, page 200.

“I’ve spent many years puzzling over this thing,” he said. “What is this list? Please tell me!”

Busby, however, believes he has uncovered the meaning of several items on the list. “This appears to be French poems on pure Irish topics, and the finger of suspicion points to Irish monks,” he said. “This is the only real evidence we have of poems in old French that deal directly with the history of Irish mythology.

“This raises the whole question of the transmission of Celtic material into French,” he said. “It affords us a tantalizing glimpse into the transmission and mechanics of old Irish texts in French.”

For Wogan-Browne, knowledge and understanding of the French of England along with other closely related areas of research can provide a window on how the West developed.

“The French of England is itself one example of the overlaps and coexistences of different languages in medieval cultures,” said Wogan-Browne after the conference. “We could also talk about the French of Scotland, of Wales, of Ireland, of northern Italy and of Sicily, for instance. The French of England is one part of a wider and dynamic reappraisal of the Middle Ages currently happening in our culture as we seek to understand the formation of the West in medieval Europe and the history of the West’s relations with the wider world.”

A sister conference focusing on linguistic accommodation and culture hybridity will be held at the University of York in July.

By Maja Tarateta


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