For Rothwell (1998: 156) ‘words of ultimately French origin became part of the lexis of English as a result of the myriad daily contacts between Anglo-French and Middle English in the minds and under the pens of a whole literate class’. Although such contact interfaces between Francophone and Anglophone speakers clearly must have existed, not enough is known as to the means by which French-origin lexis was borrowed and diffused. I argue that a principal agency of contact-induced lexical change in Middle English was the clergy in their everyday role of spiritual guidance, whether or not they themselves composed religious texts. French loans in works of spiritual guidance are known to be common from the thirteenth-century Ancrene Wisse onwards (Trotter 2003a). According to contemporaneous sources, English clerics received a Francophone-medium school education (Orme 1973), which would have familiarised them with the French vocabulary used in religious instruction in chantry schools and beyond.
The various manuscripts of the Cursor Mundi, a work of lay religious instruction probably composed around 1300, also offer a revealing window on the process of lexical innovation and replacement instigated by the clergy. An analysis of variant lexical forms, native and French-origin, found in the first 10,000 lines of this work shows that the latter would go on to replace native items the majority of the time. The loss of many native variants, e.g. niþ, mensk and þole, and their replacement, respectively, by envy, honour and suffer, can be attributed to the role played by the clergy in diffusing French-origin items in the domains of discourse they dominated. Rather than merely reflecting the pre-existing lexical knowledge of monolingual English speakers, the clergy's use of such items initially introduced and then maintained French-origin lexemes in at least the receptive competence of such speakers. Their regular and widespread contact with the population at large would have enabled the take-up of lexical innovation via the spoken medium, thus motivating the use observed in homiletic and devotional written texts of extensive French-origin lexis.