Developing Dialogue

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In a manner of speaking…

The Manieres de langage are the earliest surviving model conversations for English learners of French. They were compiled in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, when French was no longer a mother tongue in England but remained an important language to master if you wished to pursue a career in law, business or administration.

Much like the medieval manuscripts that preserve the Manieres, this anthology comprises a selection of model conversations taken from various sources. Like at least two medieval compilers of these texts (see Cambridge University Library, MS Ii.6.17, and Lincolnshire Archives, Formulary 23), we have added English translations to the French text. Our renderings are a collective effort, the product of fortnightly sessions of the Oxford Anglo-Norman Reading Group in Michaelmas Term 2017. Individuals have taken the lead on each model conversation, however, and have contributed their own translation styles.

Thanks go to Oxford University’s Medieval Studies Programme for sponsoring the reading group, to the Leverhulme Trust for enabling us to hold a workshop entitled ‘In Dialogue with the Manieres’ in November 2017, and to the Anglo-Norman Text Society for allowing us to reprint the French text of Andres Kristol’s edition (Manières de langage (1396, 1399, 1415), London: ANTS, 1995).

Oxford was a particularly important centre for the teaching and learning of French in the later Middle Ages, and seems to have played a key role in the dissemination of the Manieres. Reading these little texts more than 600 years after they were first compiled – sitting a stone’s throw from the former site of the Molyn-sur-le-hope inn (see p. 15) – we students of French have found that they still have the capacity to instruct and entertain. We hope that our translations will be of interest and use to those in Oxford and elsewhere.

Pietro Sacco da Verona (c. 1379-1432)

Paris BnF fr. 726 is a large, late-13th-century volume made up of a biography of Julius Caesar (Li Fet des Romains), Brunetto Latini’s encyclopaedic Tresor, and a copy of the Dyalogue du pere et du filz – all copied in a rather small script. Its contents may be in French, but this is an Italian production. In fact, it was one of numerous manuscripts produced by Pisan prisoners who were set to work by the Genoese in the wake of the Battle of Meloria of 1284.

Paris BnF fr. 726, ff. 2r, 5r, 6r, 8r (details) (Source: / BnF)

We don’t know who the original owners of Paris BnF fr. 726 were. In the early 15th century, however, the volume fell into the hands of Pietro Sacco da Verona, who (helpfully for us) wrote his name across the bottom corners of ff. 2r, 5r, 6r and 8r. The date ’22. aug. 1420′ on f. 199v may also be in his hand. Pietro had left Verona to study in Paris as early as 1392, and by the end of the century he seems to have become heavily involved in the book trade there. Buying and selling books could be a risky enterprise, though. Pietro’s clients included Louis, Duke of Orléans, and some rather prestigious English bibliophiles (King Richard II included). This eventually proved a problem in Burgundian-ruled Paris. In 1415 he was brought before magistrates on espionnage charges (he was let off).

We don’t know for sure how Paris BnF fr. 726 reached Paris, but given that Pietro had dealings in northern Italy throughout his later life, it’s at least plausible he himself was responsible.



Avril, François, & Marie-Thérèse Gousset, with the assistance of Claudia Rabel, Manuscrits enluminés d’origine italienne. Vol. 2: XIIIe siècle (Paris: BnF, 1984)

Meiss, Millard, French Painting in the Time of Jean de Berry: The Late Fourteenth Century and the Patronage of the Duke (London: Phaidon, 1967)

Rouse, Richard, & Mary Rouse, Manuscripts and Their Makers: Commercial Book Producers in Medieval Paris 1200-1500 (Turnhout: Harvey Miller, 2000)

Joannes, abba(s) canon(icorum) (?) (15th c.?)

Lyon BDL 43 is a volume of pious material in French, including extracts from the Gospels and a copy of the Dyalogue du pere et du filz. A note at the base of the opening folio tells us it entered the library of the prestigious Collège de Tournon in 1728. At the time, the Jesuits who ran the Collège were acquiring books from far and wide as most of their collection had been destroyed by a fire in 1714.

Entrance to the Lycée Gabriel Faure (formerly the Collège de Tournon)

But where was the manuscript before arriving in Tournon? There is little doubt it was produced in Italy, probably in the 14th century. The script is an Italian rotunda, with the limb of ‘h’ resting on the baseline, ‘u’ instead of ‘v’ at the beginning of words, and uncrossed tironian et signs. And it’s not difficult to spot Italianisms such as che (for que), per (for pour), maniera, spaventer, or çustice. The text of the Dyalogue in this manuscript is also closely related to Paris BnF fr. 726, which is thought to have been produced in Genoa at the end of the 13th century.

The opening folio of Lyon BDL 43 also provides another clue, in the form of a name that appears to read ‘Joannis abba cano.’. Was this John perhaps abbot of a congregation of canons regular? His name also appears in a note in the margin of f. 89v, which reads ‘Joannes | abbalatra’. The text of the Dyalogue at this point compares priests to dogs who guard the Church (Q.37), so perhaps John is affirming his barking credentials (‘latra’ is Italian for ‘bark’).

Noise wasn’t always appreciated by medieval annotators, however. On f. 98v of Avignon BM 344, for example, someone has written ‘frere Guilliaume’ beside mention of the importance of holding one’s tongue (‘garder la langue’).

Berthault de Villebresme (late 15th c.)

Paris BnF fr. 1546 is a large volume of pious texts in French (including the ‘abridged’ Bible en françois). The bulk of it was produced towards the end of the 13th century, but someone must have thought there was scope to make the tome even more pious since a Life of St Julian the Hospitaller was added in the early 14th century.

Paris BnF fr. 1546 f. 221v (Source: / BnF)

At the back of the volume (on f. 221v) we find not one but two late medieval ownership marks. If my transcription is correct, the later one reads: ‘Ce liure (?) est a bertault de villebresme demourant abloys’ (This book belongs to Berthault de Villebresme, who lives in Blois).

Berthault belonged to an up-and-coming bourgeois family based in Blois in the Loire Valley. A lawyer by profession, he became an advisor and emissary to Charles, Duke of Orléans and, in 1461, provost of Blois. After Charles’ death Berthault remained in the service of the duke’s third wife, Maria of Cleves.

L’hôtel de Villebresme in Blois, built in the late 15th c.

Berthault seems to have participated enthusiastically in literary activities at the court of Blois. He took part in the so-called ‘concours de Blois’, and several of his poems have survived to this day. But he is also known as the author of the Geste du Chevalier au Cygne, a prose retelling of earlier chansons de geste about the Swan Knight, legendary ancestor of the crusader hero Godefroy de Bouillon. Berthault dedicated the Geste, which he composed in around 1470, to Maria of Cleves, who herself traced her ancestry back to the Swan Knight.

We don’t know how Paris BnF fr. 1546 came into Berthault’s hands (we’ll save the other ex libris for another time…), but on his frequent trips to Italy on ducal business perhaps it gave him some solace to recall his manuscript with the tale of St Julian, patron of hospitality.



Champion, Pierre, La Vie de Charles d’Orléans (Paris: Champion, 1911).

Emplaincourt, Edmond A. (ed.), La Geste du Chevalier au Cygne (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1989).

Workshop: In dialogue with the ‘Manieres de langage’

24-25 November 2017 (Jesus College, Oxford)

This workshop will explore how model dialogues were used in language instruction in the late Middle Ages. Our primary focus will be on the Anglo-French Manieres de langage of the late 14th century / early 15th century.

Once cited as evidence that French in England was in its death throes at the turn of the 15th century, the Manieres are today more likely to be viewed as testifying to the continued vitality, at least in some quarters, of late varieties of Insular French. Twenty years since Andres Kristol’s edition of the Manieres appeared in the ANTS series, now seems like a suitable time to share current research on these intriguing dialogue texts and to consider directions for future work and collaborations.

Questions we intend to consider include:

  • Do manuscript contexts have further light to shed on the circulation of these texts and on the pedagogical settings in which they were used?
  • To what extent do the Manieres enter into dialogue with other French teaching materials with which they are bound in extant manuscripts (e.g. nominalia, Bibbesworth’s Tretiz, model letters)?
  • What do the Manieres tell us about the sociolinguistic status of Insular French(es) in relation to Continental varieties, English and Latin?
  • To what extent and how do the Manieres attempt to represent everyday speech?
  • How do the authors of the Manieres exploit comedy as a pedagogical device?

There will be presentations by Geert De Wilde (Aberystwyth University), Emily Reed (University of Sheffield), Huw Grange (University of Oxford), and Rory Critten (Université de Lausanne). The full programme is available here.

All are welcome to attend, but for catering purposes particpants are asked to register their interest by emailing by noon on 16 November 2017.