Medieval Writing
Vernacular Languages
The use of vernacular languages for the written word had something of a fluctuating history, with a general tendency to increase towards the later part of the middle ages. Languages are the most powerful symbol of ethnic identity. The encouragement or repression of vernacular literacy has tended to coincide with the expression or suppression of national or ethnic boundaries.
The use of vernacular languages in written works of any type cannot be divorced from events and politics. The adoption of forms of Roman civilisation by the Ostrogoth conquerors of Rome resulted in the production of Bibles and other Christian texts using the Gothic language. These are now mainly known only from palimpsests.
Literacy was re-established in Anglo-Saxon society through the church and was therefore grounded in Latin. However, a cultural and ethnic revival in the 9th century under the influence of Alfred the Great resulted in the production of works in Old English. These included Biblical texts, histories and religious commentaries and were, in fact, Latin works translated into English rather than a recording of the cultural heritage of English oral tradition. The famous manuscript of Beowulf, an epic saga from oral tradition, is in fact known from only one copy produced probably hundreds of years after the composition of the tale. (See the Electronic Beowulf web site)
Beginning of the preface to St Gregory's Pastoral Care in Old English (Bodleian Library, Hatton MS 20, f.1) with reference to Aelfred kyning. (From New Palaeographical Society 1903)
Saxon king

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a historical text in Old English chronicling events in England up to and shortly after the Norman Conquest. There are several copies in slightly variant versions, varying mainly in the additions at the end of the time period. This can be seen as an attempt to transform an oral tradition into a literary format; the new beginnings of literary history. (Text versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle can be found on the web here or downloaded from Project Gutenberg here.}

The use of Old English in literary or religious works largely ceased after the Norman Conquest. The later Anglo-Saxon kings had issued writs in the vernacular. After the Conquest, royal charters were occasionally issued in bilingual form, duplicated in Latin and Old English. Each language was written in its own particular script. Less solemn legal transactions may sometimes be found in the vernacular. Vernacular terms were also included in Latin charters to describes rights or privileges known in Anglo-Saxon law.
samples of bilingual texts and their scripts
In a Latin charter of Henry I to Westminster Abbey (Westminster Abbey Muniments No.XXXI). (From New Palaeographical Society 1903)
The rights and privileges which were confirmed in the example above included infangenetheof and flemenefyrmthe among other Old English mysteries.
England was, of course, linguistically divided at this time. English was the language of the lower classes and of the conquered, while Anglo-Norman or Norman French was the language of the conquerors and those who wished to be counted as the aristocracy. Anglo-Norman is rarely encountered in formal documents, although it can be found in Parliament Rolls, Privy Seal documents and private correspondence predating the 15th century, as well as in some historical works. (An Anglo-Norman manuscript of The Life of Edward the Confessor has been placed on the web by the Cambridge University Library.)
Scandinavian vernacular saga texts were also only recorded in manuscript form centuries after their composition. In areas peripheral to the establishment of literate Latin based engines for the main motivating forces of society, such as Iceland, manuscripts with many formal qualities in common with those of mainland Europe recorded sagas from oral tradition in the late middle ages and into the 17th century. ( A Scandinavian saga manuscript is one of many displayed on the web by Det Arnamagnæanske Institut.) Viking boat
Irish was also written as a vernacular language in the earlier medieval period. The existence of secular schools of versecraft, historical and genealogical lore and secular law is known from the 7th century, but their original manuscripts do not survive. However, 8th and 9th century Old Irish glosses and commentaries on Latin texts from the monasteries are known. (See Byrne 1979)
Irish monastic scribes of the 11th and 12th centuries recorded secular material such as saga texts in the vernacular. Such work disappeared from the monastic corpus with reform of Irish monasticism and the introduction of orders such as the Cistercians and Augustinians.
Abbey of Bective
Ruins of the Irish Cistercian Abbey of Bective.
Reading Manuscripts
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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last modified 11/1/2005.