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How medieval English literature found a European audience

At some point in the year 1430, a scribe working in the city of Ceuta on the north African coast put the final touches to a story collection. The collection had travelled a great distance: through two languages and across well over a thousand miles. The original author was the English poet, John Gower (d. 1408), and the collection was known as the Confessio Amantis (The Lover’s Confession). In the early fifteenth century, the work reached Lisbon. There, a clergyman translated it into Portuguese and this translation was copied as far afield as Ceuta, then under Portugal’s control.

The Confessio Amantis is just one of dozens of works in English that were translated into other European languages during the Middle Ages. On the face of it, this is surprising. After all, the English language had little international currency or prestige in this period.  English political power was also rather limited. There are good reasons why histories of global English usually begin in the early modern period, with expansion into the New World. Nonetheless, the story of how colonial incursions and international networks spread English literature to other parts of Europe at a much earlier point is little known and worth telling.

As in the early modern period, colonisation had a role to play in the transmission of medieval English texts. Many of the surviving translations from English are from Wales and Ireland, where there were established, though limited, communities of English speakers. The earliest Welsh translations were of political prophecies relating to the future of the island of Britain, a topic in which the Welsh had as much of a vested interest as the English. In Ireland, translations from English tended to reflect more international preoccupations. A number of romances, some religious works, and travel narratives were translated from English into Irish in the late medieval period. These texts could move very quickly. The first book printed in English was a set of stories about the city of Troy produced by William Caxton around 1474. Within a few years, this print made its way to Ireland and into the hands of a translator.

But political expansion is not the only force at work here. Texts also travelled across international networks. Religious groups may well have been more important than colonial incursions in bringing English writing to the Gaelic-speaking regions of Ireland. An Irish translation of the crusade romance Sir Bevis of Hampton seems to have been commissioned by a family with connections to the Knights Hospitaller. The layman who translated The Travels of Sir John Mandeville into Irish may have worked from manuscripts in a local Franciscan Friary. Ecclesiastical links also took texts from England to Iceland. A large number of exempla—stories for use in sermons—were translated into Icelandic in the fifteenth century, a period in which several Englishmen were appointed to Icelandic bishoprics.

Sometimes these networks intersected. Fifteenth-century Iceland also had close commercial ties to England. The flourishing stockfish trade prompted English fishermen to settle in Iceland. It seems probable that the English exempla were originally brought to Iceland for use in preaching to these communities.  Commercial connections between printers in England and in the Low Countries may also account for a number of translations from English into Dutch in first decades of the sixteenth century.

Links between courts had a role to play too. The Portuguese Confessio Amantis may well have been commissioned by John of Gaunt’s oldest child, Philippa of Lancaster, who had married the king of Portugal. English-language works were also available at the Scottish court. At the end of the thirteenth century, a Norwegian diplomat visiting the king of Scotland came upon an epic story of familial strife set in the Carolingian period. He had the work translated from English into Old Norse and it went on to circulate in Norway and Iceland as part of a cycle of Charlemagne narratives.

Have we, then, underestimated the international profile of English literature in the medieval period?  The existence of these translations suggests that medieval English texts were a good deal more mobile than we generally assume. However, availability and status are quite different things. There is little evidence that works in English were considered particularly prestigious at this point in time. Medieval translators working from high-status languages, like Latin and French, often go out of their way to mention the language of their source. By contrast, translators working from English very rarely state that they are doing so. Apart from the political prophecies, the sources of these translations tend not to be distinctively English in form or content. Rather, they tend to reflect international interests. Tales of chivalry, saints’ lives, exempla, and works of religious instruction account for most of the translated texts. Their source language may be English, but the culture these translators are absorbing into their own tradition is often more broadly European.

Featured Image credit: “Books” by Gellinger. CC0 via Pixabay.

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