Art and architecture

The beginnings of literature in French

In the 12th century the court of the Anglo-Norman kings became a very active seat of learning and literature. Alongside traditional writing in Latin in which all manner of subjects were covered, both secular and religious, according to the models taught in schools, new forms of expression in the vernacular tongues of Anglo-Saxon, Middle English and Old French began to develop. With a wide public in mind, these works were written by clerics, who freed themselves from the yoke of Latin formats and from the norms imposed by the church.

A vernacular literature had developed faster in Anglo-Saxon England than on the continent. At the end of the 9th century King Alfred the Great had collaborated in an ambitious programme of translating the great works in Latin of Bede, Boethius, Augustine and Orosius into Anglo-Saxon. He had also instigated the compilation of a chronicle by clerics in the indigenous language: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This literature in Anglo-Saxon played an important role in the emergence of a literature in French when the Normans had conquered and pacified England.

Through the intermediary of the Anglo-Norman kingdom, Europe discovered the Arthurian legend: Geoffrey Gaimar, between 1135-8, translated into French the Historia regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth, which narrated the history of the Britons up to the disappearance of King Arthur. The court of the Anglo-Norman kings thus encouraged the development of a new form of literature: the romance, in other words the poetic translation into the "romance" language (in this case French) of historical works written in Latin. The chroniclers Geoffrey Gaimar, Wace, and Benedict, who undertook the narration of the history of ancient or modern peoples, saw themselves as being both historians, in accurately describing the events of the past, and poets using an elegant literary form in harmony with the subject. These romances were intended for a wide public who could thus have access to a new culture and conferred upon the spoken language (the vernacular) the status of a literary language.


Pierre Bouet
ouen - Office universitaire d'études normandes
Université de Caen


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