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Manuscript text with picture of battling knights in armor
Detail of a page from Chrétien de Troyes, Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart, 1470-75. Bibliothèque National.

Discovering Worlds Old and New with Medieval French

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This is a guest post by Alec Bennett, Intern, Latin American, Caribbean & European Division (LAC&E)

In the fall of 2017, I embarked on a linguistic adventure. At nineteen years old, I enrolled at the University of Lille, located on France’s border with Belgium in what used to be Flemish territory. The school is known across the French-speaking world for its excellent literature faculty, which includes its modern literature department, where I studied.

Right away, I was in over my head. Just like anyone else fresh out of high school, I faced all the regular challenges of college—adjusting to a new environment, learning to make friends, juggling a busy schedule with a social life—except I was doing it all in a foreign language and culture, without my support network from back home. I had learned French mainly from books and the radio, and when I first came face-to-face with real, live French people, I struggled to follow a conversation. The language took on the broad strokes and imperfections of local accent and casual speech, and it took me some time to adjust.

In French universities, students do not get to choose their course schedule: their program of study determines which courses they take and when. In my program, students registered for ten classes per semester, with each class meeting twice a week for two hours each. Each class would have a “pause” in the middle during which students would step out, either for a tiny pink cup of espresso from the vending machine, or for a cigarette.

Classmates and professors alike were puzzled by my presence. They would ask if I was on an exchange program (I wasn’t) or if my parents were francophones (they aren’t). When I turned in my first paper, for a class on nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, my professor remarked in front of the class that she was surprised an American could write so well in French. All students were required to take classes in English, which led to the bizarre situation wherein I found myself attending a beginner-level English class each week. Explaining to one of my English professors that I was a native speaker and didn’t belong in the class only led him to defer to me when it came to questions of usage—I became the American-in-residence.

Photograph of large cobblestoned city square, people and horse-drawn carriages within, flanked by houses and monuments
The Grande Place, the main city square in Lille. Today, the square is filled with upscale shops and restaurants. La Grande Place, Lille, France, Detroit Publishing Co., 1890-1900. Prints and Photographs Division

Exams were held in lecture halls, the entire class attending at once. We were handed official sheets of bifold exam paper—similar to the Blue Books of old—on which we were to write either a commentaire composé, a short essay on a specific passage in a text, or a dissertation, a longer analysis of a whole work or several works. We were given two hours for a commentaire and four hours for a dissertation, and I frequently used all the time available to me. In the silent hall, I would flip furiously through my little stack of assigned books, scribbling down my essay, manually counting the words. Pencil was not allowed.

Just as I was beginning to grow used to these customs, the university threw me another curveball: as a second-year student, I was required to take classes in medieval literature. We read the Chanson de Roland, Reynard the Fox, and Tristan and Isolde. Although we did have access to modern, bilingual editions of the Old French texts, especially the older ones, most of these medieval literature classes required us to read the original ancien français. This was a daunting enough task for a native speaker (as I gathered from the groans of my classmates), let alone for someone whose second language is French. In addition to classes in medieval literature and history, we also had classes on the phonology, vocabulary, and grammar of Old French itself.

At first, I was uncertain whether I could even pass these classes. My Old French professor in particular was exacting in his expectations of our Old French pronunciation. Soon, however, medieval literature became one of the highlights of my week, and I loved reading the Old French passages aloud, as we did each class, with their singsong rhythm and colorful rhymes.

One of the first tasks our Old French professor introduced us to was historical phonetics, the (approximate) pronunciation of words as they transformed from Latin to the present day. This was painstaking work that required the memorization of linguistic changes occurring across two millennia. Then there was lexicology, for which we had to trace the definitions of words from their Latin roots to modern French. Although this entailed a lot of rote memorization, it provided a good deal of cultural background to the texts we studied.

Woodcut of scribe at desk surrounded by manuscripts
Medieval scribe Jean Miélot, sitting at a desk, making a copy of another book. Engraving, 1885. Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Our main subject of study was Chrétien de Troyes, a twelfth-century writer who popularized stories of King Arthur and his knights, such as those of Lancelot, Gawain, and the Holy Grail. At the University of Lille, we focused on one of Chrétien’s works in particular, the first of his five romances: Érec and Énide.

I thought I would find nothing to relate to in a text so far removed from my own life, but Érec and Énide proved to be so delightfully strange and timeless that I quickly became engrossed. The main conflict in the story comes up almost halfway through the poem: Érec has been so wrapped up in his love for Énide that he’s neglected his knightly duties. Énide despairs as, in her eyes, this lessens his allure and his reputation in the court. She then urges Érec to get back out there and seek adventure in order to restore his pride. This tale of love within marriage struck me as surprisingly contemporary for the twelfth century.

Aquatint of white gothic-style tomb and two pilgrims at prayer surrounded by trees
The tomb of famous medieval lovers Abelard and Héloïse, in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. John Hill, W. D. Fellowes, Abraham Small, Philadelphia, 1800-1830. Prints and Photographs Division.

At the same time, Old French is not a language found only in centuries-old tomes. At the end of my second year, I took a class on dialects in France. Specifically, we focused on a language called Picard, also called ch’ti in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region where Lille is located. French, perhaps surprisingly, was not widely spoken as the vernacular outside of the Île-de-France region until the late nineteenth century. This was after the Jules Ferry laws mandated public education in France and prohibited regional languages from being spoken in schools. In our class, we learned that Picard is still spoken by a small, rapidly shrinking population of native speakers. Nonetheless, the language has made a comeback as favor has shifted towards promoting regional color rather than national unity at all costs.

Black-and-white, head-and-shoulders photograph of man in half-profile facing right
Photographic portrait of Jules Ferry, French Republican statesman and namesake of the Jules Ferry laws. Prints and Photographs Division

Our final project was a linguistic survey for which we interviewed a classmate’s grandmother, who grew up speaking Picard at home. We asked her about common words, most of which were similar to modern French, but some of which bore more of a resemblance to Old French—Picard uses some holdovers from vulgar Latin that are no longer used in French. My classmate’s family welcomed us in for a traditional midmorning lunch with rillettes, endive salad, and beer. Her grandmother bristled when we referred to her language as Picard, saying, “I’m not from Picardie. I speak ch’ti.” Yet she became emotional as she recalled words from her childhood that she thought she had forgotten, having grown up in a society that largely rejected her native language. She questioned why we were even interested in such a thing and how it could possibly be a subject worthy of academic study.

Of course, the dialect merits study on its own. But there is also some evidence that the language written by Chrétien de Troyes may not be mainstream French as it was spoken in the capital region, but closer to a dialect like Picard. At the very least, what we call Old French is not a monolith. Nor is it a dead form of the language: it lives on, in many cases unchanged, in at least one of France’s dialects still spoken today. The Library of Congress has a guide on regional languages in France, linked below, where you can read more.

So I’ve described how Old French persists in contemporary French society. But what can American readers and researchers at the Library of Congress gain from learning about Old French? Besides discovering the origins of culturally important stories such as the quest for the Grail, familiarity with Old French texts opens up other, unexpected avenues.

One of my final classes at the University of Lille was entitled “Images of the Middle Ages.” It dealt primarily with illuminated manuscripts of religious texts, such as the Gospels, then moved on to Arthurian texts from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. The most interesting subject to me was the connection to cinema, which often manifested in unexpected ways. There were the better-known parallels, like Ingmar Burman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), Éric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois (1978), or David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021), all of which draw inspiration from the stories and especially the images of the Middle Ages. But there was one less obvious example: George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977).

The film that would later be renamed Star Wars: A New Hope is the story of Luke Skywalker, a man of obscure birth, raised apart from civilization, who joins an order of knights dedicated to restoring order to the galaxy. He learns that despite his humble origins, he is destined for a quest that will decide the fate of his world. This aspect of the story is very similar to Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval, the Story of the Grail. In a class about the Middle Ages, an exam question about Star Wars was the last thing I expected to see.

 

Color promotional movie poster depicting scenes and characters from Star Wars, with listing of cast and production credits below
The Jedi knight Luke Skywalker features prominently in this promotional poster for Star Wars. Tom Jung, Star Wars, Motion Picture Poster, USA 1977. Prints and Photographs Division.

Here I’ve attempted to capture some of my personal experience with Old French and open it up to some avenues of further study. To a newcomer, these old texts written in a defunct language may appear dull, but if the vibrant illustrations that accompany them are any indication, within these texts are rich stories that have continued to be passed down and retold through the ages.

Below you will find links where you can learn more about medieval French literature and Old French through the resources of the Library of Congress and other libraries.

Library of Congress Research Guide – Regional & Minority Languages in France

Bibliothèque nationale de France – Archives et manuscrits

Bibliothèque nationale de France & the British Library – medieval manuscript collection

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