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Linguistic Boundaries in Multilingual Miscellanies: The Case of Middle English Romance

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 March 2023

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Summary

Although it has now become a commonplace to say that late medieval England was a multilingual culture, the extent to which this multilingualism penetrated different cultural fields and practices is harder to determine. We have been working in collaboration with scholars in London, Utrecht and Vienna as part of a research project, The Dynamics of the Medieval Manuscript, funded by HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area), which is examining miscellany manuscripts from France, Germany, the Low Countries and England. At the University of Bristol we have focused on manuscripts containing romances in English. (From now on we shall simply refer to these as ‘romance manuscripts’: the label is a convenient shorthand and is not intended to characterize the general contents of any manuscript thus designated.). The rationale behind our focus is that almost all Middle English romances have come down to us in manuscript miscellanies. Manuscript anthologies consisting exclusively of romances do exist, as witness British Library, MS Egerton 2862 (c. 1400) and Bodleian Library, MS Douce 261 (dated 1564), but they are rare and atypical.

Romance manuscripts, then, are miscellaneous in content. In this regard, at least, they are not unusual. As Ralph Hanna and others have emphasized, miscellaneity is really the norm rather than the exception in British medieval book production. And since many insular miscellanies contain texts in more than one language, multilingualism can be a crucial aspect of their miscellaneity. Indeed, reading recent work on trilingual manuscripts from medieval England, one might easily come away with the impression that multilingualism was all-pervasive. Understandably, scholars have been drawn to those manuscripts which are most outstandingly and intriguingly multilingual. In the context of Middle English romance that manuscript is of course British Library, MS Harley 2253, which has occupied ‘a privileged space amongst both literary historians and connoisseurs of literature’, and includes the romance of King Horn amongst its diverse contents. Its bravura display of multilingualism might lead us to assume that scribes and readers of Middle English romances were happy to switch languages in a romance context, for here is a manuscript which, in Thorlac Turville-Petre’s words, epitomizes ‘not three cultures [English, French and Latin] but one culture in three voices.

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Middle English Texts in Transition
A Festschrift Dedicated to Toshiyuki Takamiya on his 70th birthday
, pp. 116 - 124
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2014

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