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14 - Dutch, French and English in Caxton’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 December 2023

A. S. G. Edwards
Affiliation:
University of Kent, University College, London, and King's College, London
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Summary

This essay pursues two interests that have been at the heart of Elizabeth Archibald’s research: medieval multilingualism and medieval romance. Her pioneering 1992 article on macaronic poetry anticipated the surge of interest in medieval multilingual writings, and it is not surprising that she has repeatedly been asked to cover the topic in survey works. Her other abiding interest has been medieval romance, and the text to be discussed in this essay, Caxton’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (HT), constitutes an important milestone in the evolution of that genre, for it is the first printed book in English. The French-language edition which Caxton published a year later was another milestone: setting aside some fragments, it was the first printed book in French.

Both HT and its French source, Raoul Lefèvre’s Recoeil des histoires de Troyes (c. 1464), are probably more often mentioned than read, and historic misconceptions about the two abound. Some of these can be cleared up quickly, but the myth that will occupy us longer is the idea that Caxton’s publications ushered in standard English. If we examine HT, nothing could be further from the truth: it is written in the kind of English that might be expected from someone who spent some thirty years working abroad in the Low Countries. The language is perhaps best characterized as a peculiar blend of English, Franglais, and what for lack of an existing word I shall call ‘Vlengels’ (Vlaams-Engels). Our excellent historical dictionaries, The Middle English Dictionary (MED) and The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), know surprisingly little of this – as we shall see, many borrowings from French and Dutch in HT have not been recorded. The abundance of French loans is unsurprising: Caxton was translating from a French original, and taking over its diction was the path of least resistance. The influence from Dutch, however, has nothing to do with expedience, but suggests that, even while translating from French into English, Caxton was often thinking in Dutch. We know, of course, that Caxton had Dutch as well as French (and some Latin), but the extent to which Dutch was hardwired into his brain and interfered in all kinds of ways (vocabulary, semantics, orthography and syntax) with his English has not been fully appreciated.

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Medieval Romance, Arthurian Literature
Essays in Honour of Elizabeth Archibald
, pp. 205 - 226
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2021

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