March 17: Why did English have such a large Impact?

In the second chapter of OEMUM, Romancing the Book, the author spends a lot of time discussing the probable owners of the Aucinleck manuscript. One idea that she throws into the mix of possibilities is the idea that this manuscript was meant for lower class citizens, contrary to the usual high class ownership of manscripts in the Middle Ages. One of her major reasons for this idea is the use of English in the manuscript, which was different than the usual latin or french.

What information does this give you about the English language in the Medieval Period? How did the public look at English compared to French or Latin? Talk about the benefits of English to this time period and why it may have been preferred to the public over French or Latin.

3 thoughts on “March 17: Why did English have such a large Impact?

  1. This reveals English as what I can describe as the “people’s language”; used for commoners and understood by the gentry. Lower class citizens would’ve been much more connected with the Auchinleck Manuscript because of its usage of English. However, because it was so common for manuscripts to belong to the wealthy, many of them would feature French or Latin. This could reveal, also, that English was a more underdeveloped language without many strict guidelines that would make it uniform. In other words, it would’ve been sort of like a “slang” that varied from region to region and made it more difficult to understand across a variety of manuscript readers. While in comparison, Latin and French belonged to the educated and wealthy. Latin was the language used by the clergy; it was widely understood across Europe between different foreign lands because of its usage in the church. Thus, it typically made its way into manuscripts at least in a multi-lingual fashion appearing with other dialects. French was typically used in court settings, making it the “proper” language for the wealthy and aristocratic peoples. The uniformity in these languages would’ve aided in various groups understanding the manuscript across Europe.

    One of the benefits of the Auchinleck being written in English, however, is its focus on nationalism. As Olson states on page 100 of OUMEM, the “English identity is repeatedly questioned, defined, and celebrated through chivalric encounters and conflicts with a variety of French and ‘Saracen’ soldiers.” In other words, by choosing to focus on the English language, the Auchinleck helped define what it meant to be French vs. English during this time. This would’ve given its readers something more specific to them to identify with. In short, the common people were able to see themselves in the stories presented in the Auchinleck due to its usage of the English language.

  2. It is important to note that Olson describes that the royal class and the top tier of the upper class did not read medieval manuscripts, so it is relatively safe to exclude them from the list of possible audiences of the Auchinleck. While the fact that it is written in English isn’t the only reason that the manuscript is speculated to be directed towards the lower class, it is telling. This could reveal that the lower class didn’t have access to the education of Latin and French like the upper class did (not to be too obvious). But, this could also reveal that perhaps languages weren’t taught formerly, and people picked up/learned languages from their surroundings and parents. Religious members could have taught themselves Latin from reading religious documents, the upper class could have learned French from their elders, or because they were among the only few people to possess literature in French, and the lower class could have learned English from their peers. This then suggests that writing a manuscript in English like the Auchinleck could have been a deliberate choice by the author to exclude the royal and upper class from reading the manuscript, therefore giving the author more freedom in what to include; perhaps an author could even disguise their critiques of the upper class in English. Lastly, it could also reveal that English was a less advanced language at the time, perhaps equivalent to a dialect of slang that can only be learned from experience and time.

  3. The idea of the Auchinleck manuscript as a production intended for the lower class certainly makes sense because it is heavily influenced by the English language. As the vernacular language, and not French or Latin which were associated with higher classes, English would be very appealing to lower classes for obvious reasons.
    I think it is also important to consider however, that (as per the reading) the English language was not strictly associated with peasantry and/or poverty. The author of Chapter 2 notes that during the time of the Auchinleck’s production, English was gaining popularity and respect as a legitimate national language: “by the 1330s…many English nobles may have chosen for political reasons not to speak French anymore” (105). As England began to establish a distinct–if not independent–identity from its original French and Latin roots, many nobles possessed a natural inclination to reject foreign influences and instead embrace the vernacular. The author seems convinced that “in the Auchinleck MS being a ‘monoglot nobleman’ becomes not a matter of shame but of pride, and the virtually exclusive use of English, ‘an expression of the very character of the manuscript, of its passion for England and its pride in being English'” (105).

    For these reasons noted in the reading, I think it is important to consider the manuscript as not just a production that common folk could identify with, but also as a political symbol that pointed to the growing national solidarity within England.

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