Seminar CC: Old English administration after the Norman Conquest

Moving now toward the end of March 2014 in the seminar report backlog, on the 26th of that month I was back in London for the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, because Professor Julia Crick was speaking. My work crosses very little with Professor Crick’s but despite this she has made a point of remembering who I am, I was still teaching Anglo-Saxon stuff at this point even if from much earlier and, after all, when one sees a paper title like “Who Were the Writers and Readers of Administrative English in the Century after the Norman Conquest?” it implies that there might be an answer and I wanted to know what it was. This was not least because, as Professor Crick made clear at the outset, the answer has until quite recently been basically negative: there were effectively none after about 1070, when central government switched from Old English to Latin for its writing. She exemplified this point of view with three quotes, one of which I’ll re-use:

“After the Norman Conquest the use of English for official, civil and ecclesiastical purposes was generally abandoned in favour of French and Latin, and the status of English as a literary language rapidly declined. Consequently, works from the twelfth century composed in English are exceedingly rare.”1

But the trouble with this statement is that increasingly it looks untrue. Palæographical and prosopographical work, including computer-aided work in both cases and much of that, I have to give them their due sometimes, from KCL’s Department of Digital Humanities, has identified more than a thousand scribes writing in Old English at some time in the eleventh century, by no means all of them in the first half, and several new Old English texts from both eleventh and twelfth centuries.2 What has been counted so far has largely been literary or homilectical (preaching) work, however, and Professor Crick was interested in those bits of this corpus that could be called administrative, glosses in working texts, memoranda, notes and occasional property records. We don’t, in fact, know who most of these writers were, but by their works we can know them at least a little bit.

The so-called Ely Farming Memoranda, British Library Additional MS 61735

An obvious, if early, example of the kind of marginal writing we’re talking about, the so-called Ely Farming Memoranda, British Library Additional MS 61735, complete with bonus portrait of Christ.

Saying anything useful about the quantity of this is quite tricky, because it’s one of these things like powerful medieval women where there’s quite a lot of it but proportionally to the rest it’s still negligible (the last fact, I have to say, only becoming clear in questions). It was widespread but rare, common but unusual and these other paradoxes that dog the study of marginal behaviours in the Middle Ages (er, no pun intended). One thing it does show, however, as Professor Crick pointed out, is that the idea that written Old English entered an immediate and terminal decline as soon as the Normans took over has to be abandoned; whatever it was being used for, that didn’t stop till the twelfth century. Perhaps we should have known this: the scribes who put together the legal assemblage known as the Textus Roffensis could copy and translate Old English quite happily and, as Professor Crick pointed out, there is only one twelfth-century cartulary which doesn’t contain any Old English, even if the main text and business is in Latin in all of them.3

Fo. 59r of the twelfth-century portion of the Cartulary and Register of Evesham, London, British Library, MS Harley 3763

Fo. 59r of the twelfth-century portion of the Cartulary and Register of Evesham, London, British Library, MS Harley 3763, with glosses at top right that could be in Old English? They’re so abbreviated I find it hard to tell, but I can’t easily read the abbreviations as Latin…

So what was keeping this going, when the centre was no longer interested in Old English administration? Professor Crick suggested that it might have been the use of the vernacular in court, when witness testimony was required to confirm boundaries, when oaths were made or writs and so forth were read out, when presumably after the switch to Latin they were translated. This would not be at the royal courts, but at hundred and shire courts. This would, Professor Crick argued, keep the language in use at a legal, and thus sort of official, language, though Susan Reynolds contended in questions that the hundred and shire courts were assemblies, not law courts, so not quite that kind of officialdom.4 I don’t think that would stop this being important, however.

St Petroc or Bodmin Gospels, London, British Library Additional MS 9381, fo. 13r.

Closing page of the canon tables from the St Petroc or Bodmin Gospels, London, British Library Additional MS 9381, fo. 13r., with a manumission record (in Latin, but it’s a good image) distributed between the leftover spaces.

More debated, perhaps, were the suggestions Professor Crick made based on her observation that quite a lot of this Old English extranea is to be found in Gospel Books. She thought that this might be partly down to the better preservation of Gospel Books than estate archives, but that it still needed accounting for. The problem I saw, and raised in questions, is that it is by no means just an English practice or a post-1066 one to write documents and administrivia in Gospel books, not even in the vernacular: the earliest written Scots Gaelic is in the Book of Deer, the earliest written Welsh is supposedly that in the Lichfield Gospels that I’d seen earlier that month, we could add Bavarian examples of Old High German too…5 To this Professor Crick answered that the Old English examples are largely in books much older than the writing, so it is obviously new to the English, but that, while true and something I’d never noticed, still needs some explanation, I thought. Professor Crick also saw the Gospel books as repositories for oaths and similar because those oaths would have been sworn on altars, where the Gospels were kept, so it made sense as a way to immortalise testimony (and perhaps new precisely because the change of language at law had removed whatever previous process for this had been employed, I might subversively suggest). Professor Crick saw here a tension between legal practice, conducted in the vernacular, and the liturgy with which these books and ‘Scripture’ more generally were associated, definitively in Latin, but Chris Lewis suggested that there was probably more cross-over of capability here than we might expect. What there isn’t, at least—Stephen Baxter asked and was answered—is any sign of written French in such contexts: whatever was going on here was at least a way of involving the natives, not the incomers. My sense here is, therefore, that Professor Crick has pointed out something large, variegated and potentially quite revealing and informative, but that characterising and explaining it is going to be a work in progress for quite a while still.6

1. Patrick P. O’Neill, “The English version” in Margaret T. Gibson, T. A. Heslop & Richard W. Pfaff (edd.), The Eadwine Psalter: texts, image and monastic culture in twelfth-century Canterbury (London 1992), pp. 123-138 at p. 136.

2. Here was cited Peter A. Stokes, “The problem of Grade in English Vernacular Minuscule, c. 1060-1220″ in Elaine Treharne, Orietta Da Rold & Mary Swan (edd.), Producing and Using English Manuscripts in the Post-Conquest Period, New Medieval Literatures Vol. 13 (Turnhout 2011), pp. 23-47.

3. The stock reference for Old English in manuscripts, so stock it’s not even in Professor Crick’s otherwise comprhensive handout, is Neil R. Ker, English Manuscripts in the Century after the Norman Conquest (Oxford 1960), which is obviously the survey from which the negative picture with which the audience began largely comes but still might be all right for the cartularies. We now have to add to it, however, David A. E. Pelteret, Catalogue of English Post-Conquest Vernacular Documents (Woodbridge 1990), but as he himself freely acknowledged in questions, this is no longer adequate to cover the sample, and Donald Scragg, A Conspectus of Scribal Hands Writing English, 960-1100 (Cambridge 2012) is where most of the evidence presented in this paper could ultimately be found.

4. I would still tend to refer to Henry R. Loyn, The Governance of Anglo-Saxon England, 500-1087 (London 1984), but I should probably cite something more modern like John Hudson, “Order and Justice” in Julia Crick & Elisabeth van Houts (edd.), A Social History of England 900-1200 (Cambridge 2011), pp. 115-123; also probably worth mentioning in this connection are Elaine Treharne, “Textual Communities (vernacular)” and Julia Crick, “Learning and Training”, ibid. pp. 341-349 & 352-372.

5. Arkady Hodge, “When Is a Charter Not a Charter? Documents in Non-Conventional Contexts in Early Medieval Europe” in Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout 2013), pp. 127-149, DOI:  10.1484/M.IMR-EB.1.101680.

6. Other references that seem worth emphasising from the handout are Mark Faulkner, “Archaism, Belatedness and Modernisation: ‘Old’ English in the twelfth century” in Review of English Studies New Series Vol. 63 (Oxford 2012), pp. 179-203; Kathryn A. Lowe, “Post-Conquest Bilingual Composition in Memoranda from Bury St Edmunds” ibid. 59 (2007), pp. 52-66; and Elaine Treharne, Living Through Conquest: the politics of early English, 1020-1220 (Oxford 2012), and not from the handout, Julia Crick, “The Art of Writing: scripts and scribal production” in Clare A. Lees (ed.), The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature (Cambridge 2013), pp. 50-72.

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