Medieval Multilingualism

Shelagh Sneddon reports on the ‘Medieval Multilingualism in the British Isles’ conference that took place on Saturday 21st July in Magdalene College, Cambridge.

About thirty participants gathered to hear papers covering a wide range of languages spoken in medieval Britain. The timetable was ambitious for a one-day conference, with eleven papers on a wide variety of subjects.

The day started with the plenary lecture by Dr Tony Hunt, who spoke about the languages of medicine in medieval England. Looking especially at the medical receipts which are among the earliest vernacular texts after the Norman conquest, and which contain Latin, English, and Anglo-Norman (and, later, continental) French, he gave us a brief but masterly overview of the issues and problems raised by this complex trilingualism, and made an impassioned plea for more comprehensive word-histories.

The remaining papers (mostly by young scholars) covered a range of periods and languages, including various forms of Latin, English, French and Welsh. Papers concerned with Latin invoked texts as varied as Byrhtferth’s Enchiridion, Richard fitz Nigel’s Dialogue of the Exchequer, Henry Daniel’s Uricrisis, the English translations of hymns and liturgical texts by William Herebert, and John Gower’s poetry in three languages in Mirour de l’Omme, Vox Clamantis, and Confessio Amantis. All tended to suggest that the traditional assumptions about audiences for Latin and vernacular texts are, at best, over-simplistic, and that the interaction between Latin and the vernacular is extremely complex and nuanced. It was very gratifying to hear the DMLBS often praised for its scholarship and for the help it had given speakers: Sara Harris, in her paper on Richard fitz Nigel, was able to make especial use of it to show just how innovative his language is, finding the first occurrence of several technical terms in his work.

The attractive modern setting of the Cripps Building formed an excellent backdrop to this conference, the catering and general organisation were excellent, and we were all made to feel most welcome. All in all it was heartening to find so much interest in so many aspects of the various languages spoken in medieval Britain.

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