Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Treatise of Walter of Bibbesworth

Prospect books sent me 'The Treatise of Walter of Bibbesworth ' a month or two back - my initial response was one of slight trepidation, but I have fond memories of Chaucer from 'A' level days so decided I was up to the challenge. Chaucer turned out to be utterly irrelevant,  the Treatise itself translated by Andrew Dalby for Prospect is however is oddly beguiling. 

The history of the treatise is fascinating; written by Walter of Bibbesworth (a Hertfordshire gentleman) sometime in the 1230's probably as a wedding present for his friend Dionisie de Anstey when she made her second marriage, and with it a considerable step up in the world. Both Walter and Dionisie came from minor landed families, Walter was something of a soldier and poet - both of which presumably improved his French. 

Dionisie, as an attractive young widow, caught the eye of Warin de Munchensi - who seems to have owned a considerable chunk of southern England, he was also a widower having been married to a sister of the Earl of Pembroke, hereditary Marshal of England. Dionisie's step children were connected with, and would be on visiting terms with, the royal family, the little girl - Joan - would grow up to be the most eligible heiress in the country. As part of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy the de Munchensi children would need to speak French and it would be Dionisie's job to teach them though at the time of her second marriage it seems that she was by no means bilingual and this is where Walter's Treatise comes in to play; it's a long poem in Anglo-Norman French designed to explain the grammar, names of things, and how to avoid mixing up similar sounding words, and meant to be read by Dionisie with the children.

Anglo-Norman is not something I knew much (anything at all) about before reading the excellent introduction to the Treatise, but I'm interested by it now, just as I am by the idea that there are dialects in America that are closer to Elizabethan English than anything now to be found in the UK, (or the tantalising loss of the old Norn language from Shetland, Orkney, and Caithness by the mid 19th century). The French spoken in England was based on the language as it existed in Normandy at the time William came and conquered, after that Anglo-Norman and French diverged, by the time the treatise was written it couldn't be taken for granted that noble families would be naturally bilingual - French needed to be taught, and at the same time words are being borrowed and assimilated into both languages.

Unlike reading Chaucer - who has a story to tell rather than a language to teach, the Treatise loses quite a lot if you only read the translation. There are bits that don't make much sense if you can't see the French version and appreciate the rhymes and homonyms that would have made the lessons both easier to remember and so important. There are however plenty of bits that stand up by themselves - mostly the descriptions of food (Haggis gets a mention!), feasting, and brewing, but also a lovely section on the sounds that different animals make. 

All in all it's a fascinating read; there is so much detail about medieval life, but also the undeniable charm that comes from it being a book meant as much for children as their educators - something which gives scope for jokes and a general light-heartedness. Forgotten about for a long time before being rediscovered in the nineteenth century the Treatise certainly deserves to be better known and more widely enjoyed.