Q&A with Rory Critten on French Lessons in Late-Medieval England

Q. What got you interested in French teaching in medieval England

Before I started working on the history of French teaching, most of my work had dealt with medieval English literature. I had just written a book about self-publishing in the fifteenth century. A statement that kept coming up in the scholarship I was reading was that, even late into the Middle Ages, English authors and readers “knew French.” My first degree was in French, and I had worked for several years as an EFL teacher, so I knew that learning a language can take time and effort. I wondered how medieval English people learned their French, and that’s what set me off on the research that has resulted in this book.  

Q. What did you find?  

Very quickly, I discovered a sizable body of French teaching and reference texts written in England for the English. There are word lists and verb tables, treatises on spelling and pronunciation, guides for letter-writing, grammars, and conversation manuals. What’s striking about these materials is the high level of French that they expect of their users. Where some have argued that the advent of French teaching at the end of the Middle Ages suggests a loss of French proficiency amongst the English around this time, what these materials clarified for me was just how good some people’s French must have been well into the fifteenth century.  

Q.Can you tell us a bit about the two manuals you chose to edit and translate? 

The Liber donati and Commune parlance both survive in a mid-fifteenth-century manuscript now in Cambridge University Library. The Liber donati gives a good sample of the kinds of teaching and reference materials available, touching on conjugation, spelling, pronunciation, and vocabulary, as well as having an entertaining series of dialogues set within England. The Commune parlance is an extended series of dialogues, some of which are quite complex. There are dialogues that show us the French you can use to comfort a sick friend or to excuse your late arrival at work after you’ve spent the night carousing with prostitutes… There are also samples of French song and story that learners might be expected to learn. When Jocelyn Wogan-Browne and Thelma Fenster got in touch to ask me to contribute a volume on French teaching to their French of England Translation Series, I knew I wanted to present these two manuals.   

Q. What does French Lessons do with these manuals?  

The book presents updated French texts of the Liber donati and Commune parlance alongside a modern English translation—the first of its kind. My introduction looks at the tradition of French teaching to which these manuals belong and at who the learners and teachers of French were. The introduction also considers the interactive ways in which the manuals might have been deployed. Here I’ve drawn on my own experience of language teaching as much as on the French materials themselves, which are almost silent on the topic of their use. I’ve also written an extended commentary on both works that pinpoints their interest for people researching French and English language, literature, and culture.  

Q. What impact do you hope French Lessons will have? 

The book has been designed to make the Liber donati and Commune parlance more accessible to a broad readership, including historians of languages education as well as English and French medievalists. I’m also keen to popularize the excellent scholarship that has already been undertaken on these manuals but whose audience has been restricted to a relatively small group of specialists. I wrote French Lessons in Late-Medieval England in the conviction that my materials and this subject might interest a broad range of people, from historians to twenty-first teachers and learners of French. I hope that it reaches as many of these potential readers as possible! 

Q. Where can we get French Lessons

The book has been published Open Access thanks to a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation. It can be downloaded here. Available to buy here.

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