Medieval Writing
Vernacular Languages (2)
Travelling entertainers like the troubadours of southern France and the Minnesinger of Germany carried vernacular poetry and song around the courts of Europe, but this was almost entirely an oral tradition. A written form which appeared in the French vernacular was the romance, undoubtedly derived from this earlier oral tradition.
The oldest manuscript of the famous Chanson de Roland, describing some adventures of Charlemagne, dates from the 12th century. Legends of King Arthur of England appear in French romances. The mammoth French romance Le Roman de la Rose was composed in the 13th century and over 200 manuscript copies of this work survive. Latin texts were also translated into French. The motivation for the production of these often lavishly illustrated works was their flaunting in the libraries of wealthy French aristocrats. (See de Hamel 1986)
The earliest works in the German language were in fact recorded by Anglo-Saxon scribes in the missionising monasteries of the 8th century. However, an expansion of German vernacular literature occurred much later when the French epic and romance tales were adapted into German. Around 1200, original poems and tales of this nature were composed in the German language, including the famous Nibelungenlied.
Vernacular songs in the Galician dialect were written by King Alfonso X of Spain in the mid 13th century. Lavish manuscript copies of some of these survive. (See Bischoff 1990)
In the 14th century the use of vernacular languages in literary forms became well established. In England, the works of Chaucer were significant in establishing Middle English as a language of literature. Many works of prose and poetry appeared in the vernacular. While spelling still had no standardisation, the development of a literary tradition was a major step in developing a standardised form of the language, comprehensible to people from various dialect areas. (See The Geoffrey Chaucer Website from Harvard.)
The earliest known portrait of Chaucer, from a manuscript of Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes (British Library, Harley 4866, f.88). By permission of the British Library.
In Italy, Dante’s insistence that his monumental experiential religious journey from the depths of hell to the heights of heaven should be produced in the Italian vernacular similarly established a literary form of the language. Certain aspects of his literary style still permeate the more elaborate forms of the language. (See the Digital Dante web site from Columbia.)
Ireland was recovering from Anglo-Norman invasion and settlement at this time. A consequential dearth of Irish literature during the 13th century was followed by a conscious revival of Gaelic literature and of the older form of Irish scripts in the 14th century. (See Byrne 1979)
Wycliffe The formal literature of the church, including the Bible and works of liturgy, remained in Latin during the course of the middle ages. English language Bibles, known as Wycliffite Bibles after John Wycliffe who inspired the work of translating them, were denounced and eventually banned as a result of their association with violent heretical movements. However, the appearance of vernacular works designed for the religious instruction of the laity, or for their moral improvement, may testify to an increase in vernacular literacy in the later part of the middle ages.
The increasing use of the vernacular form from the 14th century onwards shows in manuscript material of many types, including legal documents. In England, English had overtaken French as the language of all social classes and it was increasingly used for legal transactions, although royal documents of the time of Henry V can be found in French. He had become king of France, of course, and language and politics are ever intertwined.
warrant of Henry V
Beginning of a warrant of Henry V, from a document in the National Archives, London (C81/662/483), by permission of the National Archives.
Henry V notwithstanding, English became the language of prose and poetry, history and chronicles, medical and practical texts, wills, charters and private letters. By the time of Shakespeare, he could have a character in Richard II, condemned to exile, moaning piteously about how he would have to spend his life deaf and mute in the absence of his native tongue; a condition that might have applied to the time of Shakespeare but not to that of Richard II, when a member of the aristocracy might well have been just as at home with French.

The development of the languages of English, French and German occurred after the fall of the Roman Empire, and the politics of war and conquest had much to do with their progress. The languages change greatly during the course of the middle ages, and there were many dialect differences within them. Languages such as Breton, Basque, Cornish, Welsh or the Gaelic of Scotland survived as pockets from earlier traditions, but they are represented in only minority form in the literate tradition. Irish, however, developed its own vernacular literature. Texts in even the more familiar languages of French, German or English may look very unfamiliar, and it may be necessary to utilise an array of dictionaries and linguistic aids in order to tackle them.

There are assorted historic dictionaries for all these languages, in print as well as online. The Oxford English Dictionary, in either the two volume shorter form or the multivolume complete form, contains many antique words and their derivations.

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