Language and Political Communcation in France and England (XIIth-XVth centuries)

Jean-Philippe GENET



Political structures and communication systems are mutually dependent, and language is among the key components of any communication system. It gained a particular significance when, from the end of the thirteenth century, taxation regimes became increasingly subject to the approval of wider political elites in the western kingdoms (France, England, Castile, Aragon, Portugal, Navarra, Scotland) and the autonomous cities of Europe. England and France offer a good case for comparison, not least because they were engaged in a fierce struggle, with each polity constantly reacting to the other’s moves. However, in terms of language, they shared several characteristics that were in fact common to the whole of Latin Europe. Two points have to be emphasised for the period under investigation:

First, Europe displays a general dichotomy between two main types of language: Latin had become the standardized language of learning and, at least until the beginning of the XIIth century, the language of administration and justice, especially its written variant. The range of Latin “styles” had been sharply reduced with the replacement (completed between the VIIth and the IXth centuries) of its popular derivations by vernacular dialects. The second type of language are precisely these vernacular dialects. In some cases, their evolution towards a regular vernacular language has been precipitated by the existence of a specific social milieu that favoured a rapid regularisation of their architecture: the status of Occitan in the southern courts from Aquitaine to Sicily, for instance, or the use of French in the feudal courts of north-western Europe helped these languages to develop early as consistent vernaculars. But when at the end of the eleventh century lay powers started to develop their own administrative agencies and to govern by writing, they based their administrations on the example set by the Church and recruited ecclesiastical staff. In most cases they used Latin first, moving only slowly towards the vernacular languages.

Second, this linguistic dichotomy was paralleled by social divisions. Those who spoke and wrote Latin were the clerics: even a person who was socially a laicus became a clericus by the simple fact of using Latin. This was not a real problem during the early Middle Ages, but two phenomena created new tensions in the twelfth century: the Gregorian Reform gave a new meaning to the distinction between lay people and clerics, while the vigorous growth of the European economy combined with the transformation of the educative institutions (ironically initiated by the Church) multiplied the number of lay clerics, thus endangering the Church monopoly on the Bible.


This was the situation in which the French and English monarchies, during the process of developing the political structure of the modern state, had to generate a large-scale consensus on their fiscal policies, which necessitated negotiating with different linguistic communities. They dealt with this challenge in different ways. The English king had at his disposal a highly centralized administrative and political apparatus, which he used to create a new and highly efficient legal system, the Common Law. This system was run in French, the language of the native aristocracy for whom it had chiefly been devised. At the same time, the French king, whose administration was just beginning to appear, benefitted from the position of the French language in the feudal courts (mostly those of the king of England and of the counts of Champagne) which had already produced an important literature; the French of the courts became the French of the royal court and this helped to associate it with the French of Paris. The gradual emergence of French as the language of the French polity is a social movement from below, even if the French kings were conscious that they had to promote le français du roy, which they did by sponsoring translations or promoting the language of their administrative correspondence.

The English king in the end did even less. Socially speaking, Common Law had nonetheless an essential, if indirect, consequence for the development of English: it created from scratch a lay social elite, which was not schooled in Latin in universities – which were clerical institutions – but in lay schools of their own making. The language of the Common Law remained French but lawyers as the other social elites of England turned to English. If it is the conjunction of the court with Paris that made le français du roi, it is the conjunction of the lawyers with London when the King’s courts became sedentary and when terms rotation and the Inns of Court were established that made the King’s English.


Yet the political problem we have mentioned at the start would not be solved by the emergence of elites, whatever prominence is given to their role. It needs a general answer, both social and linguistic. This answer may be found in two related cultural processes, which are similar in both polities despite displaying differences especially regarding the order of their occurrence. The first is the extension of literacy which, as Michael Clanchy and Richard Britnell have demonstrated, is both a response to the state’s needs and a powerful factor for hastening its transformation. When people master literacy, they can use it for things other than business. This resulted in the development of a lay culture, in vernacular at first, but eventually extending to Latin, while its themes were vulgarized in songs, ballads and theatrical performances to reach the illiterati.

The other process has recently been aptly described by British historians as “vernacularity”. This concept differs from Dante’s vulgari eloquentia, which is well suited to the rhetoric of the Italian city state but does not easily apply to the courts and bureaucracies of the French and English monarchies or explain the social expansion of the vernacular despite the existence of sharply differentiated classes and even ordines. The existence of a generalized communication network (using several languages both in France and the British Isles) through different styles and codes appears therefore as a fundamental element of the development of the modern state in Europe. For a comparative approach, it is important to recognize that this is not due to state action, but rather a development that  occurs parallel to that of the state, at the same time permitting and nourishing it.

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