Learning French in Medieval England: The Manuscripts of Walter de Bibbesworth's 'Tretiz'

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Modern Languages


In the mid-thirteenth century, an Essex knight named Walter de Bibbesworth composed a remarkable French vocabulary in rhyming couplets, known to scholars as the 'Tretiz'. In this work he set out the vocabulary for a variety of topics, including childbirth and infancy, the names of various flora and fauna (which features an entertaining section on animal noises), or occupations such as cart-making and beer-brewing.

Sixteen manuscripts of this work survive, proof of its wide currency across the country. These date from the late thirteenth to the early fifteenth century (see Visual Evidence attachment for further details). These copies vary in length and content, in some cases significantly, and each one has its own set of Middle English translations of individual French terms, written either in the margin or above the line. The popularity of Bibbesworth's work is further attested by the influence it appears to have exerted over later French language-learning material circulating in Britain, including the fifteenth-century adaptation 'Femina Nova' which includes a full English translation and pronunciation guide.

The manuscripts of the 'Tretiz' therefore stand as rare and precious documentation of how French was transmitted and acquired between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, and also (since its main sources appear to be Latin) of what Latin educational materials were in use in thirteenth-century Britain. Each manuscript has its own tale to tell about its users, their linguistic skills and needs, and the often contrasting ways in which they read Bibbesworth's text.

Surprisingly, then, the 'Tretiz' remains little studied, a state of affairs which this project will remedy. Its central aim is to edit all sixteen manuscripts of the text and make these available to scholars and general users in the form of a website. This digital edition will allow users to engage with the material, by comparing readings from individual manuscripts, isolating the English and French from each other, and searching the textual record by date, place or theme. Editing and studying the complete textual record will make it possible to assemble a detailed picture of the evolving status and role of French in Britain, with each manuscript opening a door onto individual users, whose occupation, social standing or personal interests, for diverging reasons, required mastery of French. Alongside this online edition, additional outputs will offer a definitive account of the 'Tretiz' from start to finish: how it was created, how it was read, and how it influenced later works on the French language. The cumulative result of this research activity will be to place the 'Tretiz' at the heart of debate about the position of French in medieval Britain, a topic of great current interest to scholars.

The project's wider intention is to increase public awareness that Britain, often thought of as a singularly monolingual country, has a long and ongoing tradition of multilingualism - and to find ways of exploiting that tradition for the benefit of its modern population. The case of medieval French is exceptional in certain ways, notably in the uninterrupted native transmission of a second mother tongue by a minority of the population for around 300 years; yet it draws attention to the normality and the desirability of mastering more than one language. Workshops with school teachers will aim to develop resources and strategies for encouraging secondary-age children to engage with multilingualism in their own classroom environment, and to consider what Modern Languages in schools and universities can offer in terms of widening horizons and creating opportunities for their personal futures. A series of public engagement activities (including public talks to targeted heritage groups and organisations and print and radio media work) will take the story of medieval British multilingualism to a variety of new audiences.

Planned Impact

The main impact aim of this project is to increase public awareness of the long history of multilingualism in Britain. Specifically, it aims to promote the social and economic benefits conferred by multilingualism (in medieval Britain, primarily those who had French or Latin). This focus addresses a dual purpose: to counter the widely-held notion of the UK as a monolingual country by drawing attention to the historic and ongoing complexity of our shared linguistic environment, and to promote the study of Modern Languages in schools in order to reverse the trend of recent years away from study of languages.

This impact agenda will focus on communication with three distinct categories of non-academic interlocutor:

1) School teachers
I am in contact with a local specialist in planning and delivering educational workshops. Together we will develop workshops for school teachers around two themes. Drawing on the experience and pedagogical expertise of teachers representing the disciplines of French, English and History, these workshops will aim to produce resources to be used in class, covering the following topic areas:
- the long history of British multilingualism, especially the influence of French on the development of modern English
- cultural and economic benefits of language study, then and now
- how multilingualism in the classroom can enrich monolingual as well as multilingual members of the class (including those who may not valorise their multilingual background)

The resources will be made available for use by teachers nationwide, and I will monitor how engagement with them impacts on teaching practice, and attitudes toward multilingualism in the classroom. A variety of different school types will be targeted; I already have a letter of support from St James' School in Exeter, a mixed secondary academy which has been named one of nine national hub schools for ML by the UK government. An article about the endeavour in TES will serve to promote the materials.

A subsidiary aim of these workshops will be to raise awareness among secondary-level teachers of what university-level Modern Languages study involves, so that they can draw on this knowledge when advising pupils on subject choices; better understanding of the cultural-historical breadth of topics studied under the aegis of an ML degree, transmitted within an environment committed to the valorisation of multilingualism, will encourage the study of Modern Languages at GCSE and A Level.

2) Community and heritage groups
Where investigation of a manuscript reveals a concrete connection to an area or existing organisation, I will assess the potential for initiating contact about collaboration. The focus of such collaboration would be a public engagement activity such as a lecture, in which I would speak about a specific manuscript and its history, within the broader context of the transmission and acquisition of French in medieval Britain, and the legacy of medieval multilingualism for modern English. Preliminary research has allowed me to identify two manuscripts with Devon connections, (specifically, Buckfast Abbey and the Cathedral); I am already in contact with the Devon and Exeter Institution with a view to giving a talk about these.

3) The general public
The website will include pages making the textual material more accessible and comprehensible to interested members of the general public, including a blog. I will also propose an episode of the BBC Radio 4 programme 'In Our Time' on Anglo-French. To coincide with the launch of the website, I will host a public talk and panel discussion at Exeter Cathedral, involving teachers participating in the activities listed under point (1).

Through the activities listed under (2) and (3), I hope to enrich interlocutors' sense of 'British culture' to include multilingualism as a historic norm; changes in attitude and world-view will be tracked via invitations to qualitative self-evaluation.


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