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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Description This project has validated the starting premise that each version of Walter de Bibbesworth's Tretiz is sufficiently distinct to make individual editions necessary. As hoped, the provision of a full edition for each version shines a light on differences and distinctive passages that were not properly appreciated by the piecemeal (and inaccurate) presentation of the text in the earlier critical edition of Annie Owen (1929). We have corrected faulty readings in all extant editions (including the widely consulted editions of Rothwell 2009), and collated lexicographical information that we will pass on to the Anglo-Norman Dictionary and Middle English Dictionary so that relevant entries can be corrected, updated or enhanced as appropriate. Furthermore, close examination of the manuscripts has revealed aspects of the different pedagogical methods through which individual teachers used the Tretiz. We anticipate that the edition will be publicly available later in 2023.

Alongside the edition, the PI's work on the origins of the Tretiz have uncovered several Latin sources and clarified the nature of the Tretiz's relationship to Latinity; this work will also improve our understanding of the Latin education available to a gentleman such as Bibbesworth in thirteenth-century England. Meanwhile, the PDRA has worked on the Tretiz's influence on later pedagogical materials, and has uncovered an unknown language-learning text which draws directly on the Tretiz. Two articles arising from this research are currently in preparation and will be submitted to journals within the next 12 months. In addition to this, five publications by the PI (four book chapters and a journal article) arising from the study of the text in its different manuscripts are either at the proofs stage or undergoing peer review and most of these should be publicly available by the end of 2023 or early in 2024.
Exploitation Route Once the edition goes live, research on the Tretiz will be able to take into account evidence from its entire, varied manuscript tradition, enabling a more flexible understanding of the Tretiz. Numerous fields of study, for which the Tretiz constitutes significant primary material, will be positively impacted: language history, history of education, lexicography, cultural studies, and also digital humanities (especially digital editing), since the XML source code of our editions will be freely available for others to build on. By clarifying the sources, transmission and influence of the Tretiz, the project will have contributed to a better understanding of how the teaching of French in Britain evolved in purpose and nature from the 13th to the 15th century. I myself have secured funding for a major project (an ERC Consolidator Grant, probably to be funded ultimately by UKRI) informed by this project's approach and outcomes, taking a more comprehensive look at the materials used to teach French in medieval Britain.

The KS3 French lesson I have developed with collaborators at St James School, Exeter, will act as a pilot that may help contribute to curriculum development in Modern Languages in a wider range of schools (initially, through St James's relationship with fellow schools in the Ted Wragg Academy).
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://tretiz.exeter.ac.uk
Description Being Human workshop: Medieval Books in the 21st Century 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The project PI and RA led an online workshop introducing attendees to the variation of texts in medieval manuscripts and the ways in which digital resources are changing editorial practice and allowing new questions to be asked of edited materials. The ensuing Q&A was lively and covered a lot of ground. Feedback after this event was very positive - several attendees said they found it unusually interactive for an online activity, and one emailed me to say it was worth getting up for at 6am San Francisco time! Several commenters mentioned that their understanding of medieval books had been changed as a result. A noticeable by-product was increased engagement with the project Twitter feed.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://beinghumanfestival.org/event/medieval-books-in-the-21st-century/
Description Exetalks: Dr Thomas Hinton & Dr Edward Mills 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The PI and PDRA recorded a video for the University of Exeter's 'ExeTalks' series, a public-facing TED-talk style format showcasing the university's research activities. The aim was partly to publicise the project and promote its argument about the long history of British multilingualism; partly to advertise the university and Modern Languages to prospective undergraduates; and partly to promote Exeter's research culture to a wider public.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpgN7q89X8E
Description Radio interview (BBC Radio Devon) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Following a press release sent out by the University of Exeter, our Press Officer was contacted by BBC Radio Devon, who invited me for a 10-minute radio interview on 26/05/2020. The interview focussed on the role of French in medieval England and the existence of a bilingual minority which extended beyond the upper nobility. The interviewer, Pippa Quelch, expressed on air her surprise about the multilingualism present in medieval British society; increasing awareness of this aspect of life in medieval Britain is one of the LFIME project's main impact and engagement goals.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://twitter.com/medievalfrench/status/1265227288683188224
Description Twitter account 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We set up a Twitter account, @medievalfrench, to engage with academic and non-academic audiences via social media. For the first 18 months of the project, the PDRA posted weekly updates under the heading 'Tretiz Tuesday', along with occasional extra information, including advertising our other outreach activities; from summer 2021, posts became more sporadic and reactive, since the main work of publicising the project's existence and aims had been achieved. This activity led to a number of detailed interactions with interested members of the public, asking us questions about French in medieval England or about medieval manuscripts. The extra visibility it afforded the project is also evidenced in PGRs and academics contacting us via Twitter to ask a question about the Tretiz.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021,2022
URL https://twitter.com/medievalfrench
Description When the British spoke French (Agile Rabbit talk) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I was contacted by the organisation Agile Rabbit who organise public engagement events for researchers to present their work to non-academic audiences, and we put on a public talk in June 2020 about the project, and the use of French in medieval Britain in particular. The talk was followed by a Q&A involving questions pre-submitted by the registered audience. There was a large number of questions covering many aspects of the question, suggesting that the topic had struck a chord with the audience.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://www.agile-rabbit.com/event/when-the-british-spoke-french-online-event/