Cover image for The Vulgar Tongue: Medieval and Postmedieval Vernacularity Edited by Fiona Somerset and Nicholas Watson

The Vulgar Tongue

Medieval and Postmedieval Vernacularity

Edited by Fiona Somerset, and Nicholas Watson


$82.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02310-6

$30.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-05851-1

296 pages
6" × 9"

The Vulgar Tongue

Medieval and Postmedieval Vernacularity

Edited by Fiona Somerset, and Nicholas Watson

The Vulgar Tongue uses the theme of vernacularity in imaginative ways to generate dialogues between medievalists and those working in other disciplines. The essays are brought together by two outstanding medievalists who rank among the scholarly leaders in their field.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Deeply embedded in the history of Latin Europe, the vernacular ("the language of slaves") still draws us towards urgent issues of affiliation, identity, and cultural struggle. Vernacular politics in medieval Latin Europe were richly complex and the structures of thought and feeling they left behind permanently affected Western culture. The Vulgar Tongue explores the history of European vernacularity through more than a dozen studies of language situations from twelfth-century England and France to twentieth-century India and North America, and from the building of nations, empires, or ethnic communities to the politics of gender, class, or religion.

The essays in The Vulgar Tongue offer new vistas on the idea of the vernacular in contexts as diverse as Ramon Llull’s thirteenth-century prefiguration of universal grammar, the orthography of Early Middle English, the humanist struggle for linguistic purity in Early Modern Dutch, and the construction of standard Serbian and Romanian in the waning decades of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Here Latin, the "common tongue" of European intellectuals, is sometimes just another vernacular, Sanskrit and Hindi stake their claims as the languages of Shakespeare, African-American poetry is discovered in conversation with Middle English, and fourteenth-century Florence becomes the city, not of Dante and Boccaccio, but of the artisan poet Pucci. Delicate political messages are carried by nuances of French dialect, while the status of French and German as feminine "mother tongues" is fiercely refuted and as fiercely embraced. Clerics treat dialect, idiom, and gesture—not language itself—as the hallmarks of "vulgar" preaching, or else argue the case for Bible translation mainly in pursuit of their own academic freedom.

Endlessly fluid in meaning and reference, the term "vernacular" emerges from this book as a builder of bridges between the myriad phenomena it can describe, as a focus of reflection both on the history of Western culture and on the responsibilities of those who would analyze it.

The Vulgar Tongue uses the theme of vernacularity in imaginative ways to generate dialogues between medievalists and those working in other disciplines. The essays are brought together by two outstanding medievalists who rank among the scholarly leaders in their field.”
“The collection’s breadth of information and the expertise of its contributors ensure the ongoing usefulness of The Vulgar Tongue.”
“This is a rich, ambitious, and provocative book. It should interest any reader concerned with the ways in which intellectuals, past and present, help shape both definitions and social evaluations of the vernacular.”

Nicholas Watson is a Professor in the Department of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. He is the author of Richard Rolle and the Invention of Authority (1991) and co-editor of The Idea of the Vernacular: An Anthology of Middle English Literary Theory, 1280–1520 (Penn State, 1999).

Fiona Somerset is Associate Professor of English at Duke University. She is the author of Clerical Discourse and Lay Audience in Late Medieval England (1998).


Preface: On "Vernacular"


Introduction: King Solomon’s Tablets

Nicholas Watson

Part I: 1100–1300: The Evangelical Vernacular

1. Using the Ormulum to Redefine Vernacularity

Meg Worley

2. Talking the Talk: Access to the Vernacular in Medieval Preaching

Claire M. Waters

3. The Language of Conversion: Ramon Llull’s Art as a Vernacular

Harvey Hames

4. Mechthild von Magdeburg: Gender and the "Unlearned Tongue"

Sara S. Poor

Part II: 1300–1500: Vernacular Textualities

5. Creating a Masculine Vernacular: The Strategy of Misogyny in Late Medieval French Texts

Gretchen V. Angelo

6. Teaching Philosophy at School and Court: Vulgarization and Translation

Charles F. Briggs

7. Vernacular Textualities in Fourteenth-Century Florence

William Robins

8. "Moult Bien Parloit et Lisoit le Franchois," or Did Richard II Read with a Picard Accent?

Andrew Taylor

9. Professionalizing Translation at the Turn of the Fifteenth Century: Ullerston’s Determinacio, Arundel’s Constitutiones

Fiona Somerset

Part III: 1500–2000: Making the Mother Tongues

10. Purity and the Language of the Court in the Late-Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Netherlands

Jeroen Jansen

11. The Politics of ABCs: "Language Wars" and Literary Vernacularization Among the Serbs and Romanians of Austria-Hungary, 1780–1870

Jack Fairey

12. "Indian Shakespeare" and the Politics of Language in Colonial India

Nandi Bhatia

13. Poets Laureate and the Language of Slaves: Petrarch, Chaucer, and Langston Hughes

Larry Scanlon

Further Reading

About the Contributors


Introduction: King Solomon’s Tablets

Nicholas Watson

In modern usage, "vernacular" differs from many theoretical terms, partly for its flexibility in referring equally well to seemingly unrelated phenomena (languages, styles of architecture, music, cuisine), but even more because it always brings with it the weight of the history that made the mother tongue, building, song, or dish the nonclassical, nonstandard, or folk thing that it is. Rather than describe either a thing or even a relationship in an abstract sense, it does so through time, place, and culture. The word "vernacular" itself also, of course, contains a history, which can be traced back to Rome—the great slave state that haunts modern African-American uses of the word—but is perhaps richest for the Middle Ages, the period considered by most of the essays in this book. Yet the mythical structures that define and endlessly complicate the conceptual, and sometimes the actual, lives of European vernaculars (especially in their written forms) draw us back to still earlier times and, from the western European perspective, farther-away places: back before Rome or Greece, to the great early empires of the Babylonians and Egyptians, and beyond them to the imagined past of the Tower of Babel and the Garden of Eden themselves. From Augustine to the Enlightenment, these last two loci are the twin focuses of most linguistic theory: their implications pondered again and again, by Christian intellectuals and their rationalist successors, as well as by Jews and Muslims. Perhaps the vernacular is born at the moment Adam says his first word, his speech surely not the same (or was it?) as the speech (or was it speech?) God uses to say Lux fiat, "Let there be light." Perhaps the expulsion from the Garden was also an expulsion from the first language into that of the Fall? (Which of the two would we count vernacular?) Or did that happen only at Babel? And whenever it happened, what survived? All are theoretical as well as mythological questions, and their answers have had real consequences in the real world.

The history of premodern linguistic theory, and its fascination with linguistic origins, have been written about a good deal, recently and notably by Umberto Eco. This introduction takes as its starting point a more particular way into the myths that may still in some sense structure European-influenced attitudes toward language: a single text whose purpose is not theoretical but mainly practical. In addition to meditating on the lost words of Eden and their relationships to Edenic reality, this text strives to bring the power of those words back into the world and make it accessible to users. Hence its protagonist is not Adam, the unworldly first man whose power lay in his innocence and fell with him, but another hero: one whose reputation for wisdom was so powerful, even sinister, that Jewish and Christian theologians were sometimes unsure of his eternal destiny: King Solomon.

<1> The Names of Angels

"Theos Megale patyr ymas heth heldya hebeath heleotezygel Salatyel salus telh samel zadaziel zadan Sadiz leogio yemegas mengas omchon Myenoym Ezel Ezely yegrogamal Salmeldach Someltasanay Geltonama hanns Simon salte patyr osyon hate haylos, Amen." On golden tablets written in Greek, Chaldean, and Hebrew and placed on the altar of the temple by the angel Pamphilus in the secret night, the angelic names, prayers, and diagrams that in briefest time give wisdom to the one who uses them aright were sent from the most high Creator to King Solomon. Taught to utter the prayers and study the figures at the proper times, Solomon quickly understood all knowledge: not only the seven liberal arts, with philosophy and theology, but the seven mechanical and magical arts (artes exceptive) as well. Even so did he fulfill the dignity God intended for all humankind, becoming the most worthy of all sublunary creatures since the time of Adam, created in the divine image by the hand of the Summus Plasmator to be invested with virtue and instructed in wisdom and philosophy.

Yet the words on the tablets were incomprehensible to most; even Solomon, who knew their literal meanings, could not grasp how they contained such power. So it fell to a successor, Apollonius, to translate fragments of the prayers into Latin and (so the story goes) become part of the slow expansion of the prayers, instructions, and figures into the glossed treatise, called the Ars notoria, that tells this fabulous tale about its own origins. Fragments only: for to translate was, hopelessly, to dilate and dilute. If Daniel took twenty-three words to expound the writing on the wall (Mene, Tekel, Phares), then the Latin needed to render adequately the Greek, Chaldean, and Hebrew names of angels would be beyond human power either to grasp or to utter in the short periods in which they were efficacious. Apollonius offers minimal translations of single words of the invocation Theos, Megale, in a long prayer ("Lux mundi, Deus immense, pater aeternitatis, largitor sapientiae et scientiae"). But we have the authority of Solomon, Apollonius, and the angel for the certainty that, for all the wisdom the text unlocks, no human understanding can fully expound anything found here.

The Ars notoria, whose historical origins are still unknown, survives in a variety of forms and at least a hundred manuscripts, many of them (as the text demands) including careful, sometimes lavish, figures and diagrams. (Spain has been tentatively suggested as a place where Christian intellectuals might have been susceptible to the Jewish mystical influence some scholars find in the text.) It is potentially a rich mine, not only for the study of medieval mysticism and magic, but for students of the politics of language, full as it is of unfamiliar ideas, or familiar ones seen in unfamiliar ways (that Latin is this text’s nearest equivalent to a vernacular language is only the beginning). The fact that the Ars remains almost unanalyzed, despite the survival of lavish copies in famous libraries, may testify to the awkwardness of the fit between the text and the categories within which the Middle Ages have been studied. For despite its modern obscurity, and despite the ecclesiastical condemnations (from the thirteenth century on) that make this obscurity so peculiar, the text had multitudes of users, from the late twelfth century down at least to the seventeenth. These users had to contend with a heteroglossic, multimedia text that was at its most powerful when least comprehensible and that demonstrated in its words and diagrams the mysterious otherness of divine lucidity, at the same time as it offered those words and diagrams as keys to the unlocking of all knowledge.

In utilitarian terms, if the text worked, its incomprehensibility need not have mattered. Properly used by an angelically selected practitioner, the words and diagrams were meant to function like zipped computer files, infusing the complex structures of the arts and sciences into the mind in a series of instants: an act of multiple translation (God to angel, to angelic name, to human utterance, to human mind) that could bypass expensive years of study at the initial outlay of a few months of prayer, fasting, and purity. Yet for all the text’s insistence on utilitas, this spiritual technology was too hubristic to be used casually, or for merely practical reasons. There was the danger that the unknown names of angels included fallen angels, who, it might be, had successfully inserted themselves into the textual tradition of the Ars to seduce humanity. (This danger looms large in condemnations of the text by Aquinas and others, and proved frighteningly true for two fourteenth-century users, John of Morigny and his sister Gurgeta, before they set out to create their own, purified text with the aid of the Virgin Mary, queen of angels and empress of hell.) Besides this danger, the fact that the prayers and figures could be used to gain formal knowledge but could not be reduced to Latin was itself proof of how much more than knowledge inhered in them: at very least, the spiritual source of knowledge and the power that comes from knowledge. To learn with the Ars was to learn not only from Greek, Chaldean, and Hebrew antiquity but from the fecund mind of God.

Language, in the Ars notoria, is thus a multifaceted and ambiguous entity, compact of power and meaning: carrying the burden of the divine, yet lowering itself to the demands of the human; in some senses devolving and evolving through time, yet also preserving the fullness of an authoritative, unchanging body of knowledge. Consistently or not, the language politics of the Ars understands human languages hierarchically, while also acknowledging an underlying similarity in their ultimate capacity to apprehend wisdom. God’s revelation of all knowledge to Solomon takes place in three languages incomprehensible to readers of the Ars, who have to rely on Apollonius’s Latin, and the Latin of the gloss, to reach a prolix understanding of what the text offers: an understanding in which meaning is gained at the direct expense of power. Latin, then, is a weakened tongue, fallen from the divine triunity of the languages in which God writes the invocations to the powers that govern or correspond to all learning. Greek, Chaldean, and Hebrew, on the other hand, are worthy to be used in communication between the creator and his wisest creature, Solomon: the man who fulfills the project of creation initiated by Adam.

This dichotomizing of languages is a variant on the medieval theory that holds ancient Hebrew to be Adamic language (invented before the Fall and in which, according to Dante in the De vulgari eloquentia, sign and signified are in a natural, not arbitrary, relation), while Latin and the European vernaculars are products of the confusion following the destruction of Babel. The Ars avoids mention of Babel and Fall and insists on three (occasionally four) divine languages, not one: perhaps an act of self-distancing from Judaism. But although Latin is never explicitly described in such terms, it is still evident through much of the text that, instead of being the language of learning and spiritual authority, it is here no more than another post-Babelian vernacular. Indeed, since the knowledge infused in users of the Ars by angelic means is nonetheless apprehended in Latin, we could read the text as articulating a frustration with the diminished state of formally acquired Latin knowledge. Rather than simply offer a back door into Latinity, the Ars, in other words, implies that Latin learning is so fallen from its angelic source into multiplicity that it is only efficacious if gained directly from the spiritual entities who govern it. Otherwise, it may lack the power that makes wisdom worth having and that God’s worthiest sublunary creatures need to fulfill their natures.

Yet, as this formulation suggests, the Ars notoria remains deeply invested in Latinity and in the potentiality of the present moment in which its users live and learn. In its long form, the multilingual prayers are surrounded by Latin instructions ostensibly derived from Solomon or Apollonius, which are in turn surrounded by a gloss. This gloss did not always circulate with the text, initially, but seems integral to it, offering information about Solomon’s relationship with his angelic visitor that is not found in the text, and unceasingly commenting on matters of language and translation. In a fascinatingly literal exemplification of the text’s implied notion of Latin as a vernacular, nine of the Latin prayers are said to have been translated by Solomon himself from Greek, Chaldean, and Hebrew originals. Defying medieval historical linguistics as well as modern, the Ars "de-Judaizes" Solomon, making Latin the language in which he thought, wrote his own contributions to the text, and communicated with the angel. The attribution of the text to Virgil by the earliest witness to its existence, Gervase of Tilbury, is perhaps not so strange after all.

Admittedly, much of the post-Solomonic Latin in the Ars acts to compensate for the later reader’s failure to understand Greek, Chaldean, and Hebrew: a function that is given narrative expression in the text’s account of Apollonius’s delicately partial mediations of meaning. But in general terms, Latin here performs the role fulfilled by the angel’s oral instructions to Solomon, who begins his acquaintance with the Ars as the angel’s pupil and whose contributions to the Ars consist of his articulation and elaboration of what he has learned. These instructions, which are given extended coverage in the gloss, not only make the prayers and diagrams usable but serve to advertise the work and explain its strategies, especially its reliance on powerful unknown words and names. (Defenses of the text’s resistance to the lucidity of Latinity are crucial, not only because the unknown words were the main cause of the text’s condemnations, but because it is vital to the text’s efficacy that these words be taken seriously enough to be accurately copied.) The gloss sticks to its claim that loss of lucidity is more than compensated by gain in power, repeating this claim in a variety of forms and going so far as to forbid attempts to work out, for example, which words of the Theos, Megale prayer Apollonius’s partial Latin paraphrase renders. But by the very act of explanation, it also goes a good way toward subordinating power to meaning, angelic mystery to modern need, divine Chaldean to vernacular Latin. In the end, Solomon’s incomprehensible tablets are less the authoritative source of a text than a conduit by which a practice whose proof lies in its performance is brought into the world.

If the dispersal and dissipation of meaning symbolized by Babel plays a role in the language theory of the Ars notoria, then, the text is as significantly an expression of another narrative about the origins of Christian western Europe ("Christendom"), that of translatio studii et imperii. This narrative tells the story of the passage, not of Babel’s confusion and linguistic multiplicity, but of culture and empire, from East to West, Jew to Christian, past to present. Behind the story the Ars tells of its own production there indeed lies a specific translatio topos, one succinctly outlined in, to take one example from a multitude, the prologue to a fifteenth-century treatise on palmistry by the East Anglian writer John Metham:


Tales Milesias, the wiche was the first philosophere in the citee of Atene [Athens], by the answere of God Appollo first dede write the Syence of Cyromancye in the longgage of Parce [in the Persian language]. And maister Aristotell translated it out of Parce into Grue [Greek]. And out of Grue doctor Aurelian, the wiche was born in Italy, translated this science into Latin. And out of Latyn, John Metham, scimple scoler in philosophy, translated it into Englissh, the twenty-fifth winter of his age, praying all the reders of pacience for the rude enditing [composition]. For as min auctor enditeth plainly in Latin, so is my purpose pleinly to endite in Englisshe.

<end ext>

Here is the same combination of prestigious heavenly and ancient origins, and the same process of transmission, as the text moves westward and forward in time, suffering stylistic loss and a gradual decrease in the prestige of those translating it, but retaining the heart of its meaning.

The Ars complicates the narrative of translatio studii in the same way it does the Babel story, especially in its antihistorical colonization of the ancient East with Latin—presumably in order to preserve the mystical complexity it ascribes to Greek, Chaldean, and Hebrew. Where Metham associates each new interpreter of his text with a separate language, the Ars claims that all of the languages it contains were present at the moment of its initial reception. Despite the text’s elaborate account of its composition, there is a kind of denial of history and of geography here: in this text any qualified user has, after all, the opportunity to become Solomon, and the auctoritas ascribed to the past is in service to experimenta that can only be performed in the present.

Yet, again as with its use of the Babel story, the idiosyncrasies here should not be overstressed. As a discourse, translatio imperii itself contains just this same mix of reverence and displacement, anxiety about decline and cultural triumphalism; it is never quite forgotten that Nimrod, the perpetrator of Babel, was also the world’s first emperor. For all the text’s surpassing oddness from a modern point of view, the conceptual space compounded of East and West, Jew and Christian, past and present, divine and earthly, loss through time and realization in time, in which the Ars notoria moves is a space traversed by much medieval and postmedieval European writing. It would not be completely untrue, indeed, to suggest that this is the space that defines much Christian European writing as European. And as the eager appropriations of the topos of translatio studii and the Babel myth by writers in many late medieval mother tongues suggest, this space is also one of those in which the idea of the vernacular comes into being.

<1> Translations Through Time

Though largely a Latin text, the Ars notoria makes a good point of entry into the issues considered in this book, because it at once suggests the deeply rooted cultural particularity of European language politics and the variety of assumptions, conceptual structures, and affects for which the term "vernacular" can still, within this European context, be a bearer. The Ars is, of course, and in many different ways, hardly a "typical" production. But partly for that very reason it can still furnish an exemplary introduction to a book that, above all, aims to further recognition of the heterogeneity, yet also the integration, of European and European-influenced linguistic politics from the Middle Ages on. (In analogous circumstances, medieval sermon exempla likewise tend to invoke the extreme case, rather than the common one.) In the Preface, Fiona Somerset and I in effect suggest that "vernacular" (or a medieval equivalent, like Middle English "mother," "vulgar," "common," or "kynde" tongue) can be thought of as a collection point for a diversity of sociolinguistic issues, one whose usefulness for scholars lies in its multiform ability to bridge time and distance, discovering intellectual relationships between widely separated cultural situations in the process. This view of the term is what makes this book’s range so blatantly extensive, rather than intensive, spanning eight centuries and a dozen languages and looking skeptically as it goes at some of the narrower assumptions that have nurtured the recent flowering of vernacular studies: that language politics can be analyzed satisfactorily within a system of binaries (in medieval studies, usually the binary Latin/vernacular); that Latin is inherently the language of cultural authority; that vernacularization is inherently progressive; and so on.

The Ars notoria’s mythical history likewise spans East and West, ancient and modern, heaven and earth, old and new covenants, while its actual reception history is five centuries long and a continent wide. The presence of one or both of the founding European cultural narratives in which the Ars’s language politics are intertwined (i.e., Babel and translatio studii et imperii) is felt behind many of the texts discussed in this book. They hover in the background of the handbooks of essential information compiled in Latin and vernacular languages by the fourteenth-century scholars discussed by Charles Briggs, where lucid pedagogy seems almost an end in itself. They urge the process in which clerics began to write Old and Middle French texts for their own consumption: those texts that Gretchen Angelo argues protect their cultural capital from lay, especially women readers by the deployment of tropes of misogyny. Figuratively recolonizing or colonized by part of the "East," they even lie behind the bitter debates between speech communities in "British India" over "Indian Shakespeare," explored by Nandi Bhatia.

Indeed, the Ars’s Janus-like attitude toward its common tongue, Latin, and toward the activity of translation into that language evokes the same binary division over the meaning of translatio that is a presence in E. R. Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages and is analyzed, from its classical roots up to the fourteenth century, in Rita Copeland’s Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and Translation in the Middle Ages. Copeland distinguishes between a translation theory indebted to the discipline of grammar, that sees translation as an activity inevitably involving loss, in which the translated text remains subordinate to the original, and a theory indebted to rhetoric, where emphasis falls on the displacement of a source language by a target language. Vernacular texts, in this model, introduce themselves either as imitations or as inventions, as old or as new. As Jeroen Jansen’s essay on early modern Dutch helps us see, vernacular language reformers also construct literary languages around either term of this dichotomy, either seeking to "enrich" a language (a practice derived from rhetorical theory) or to "purify" it (a practice derived from the discipline of grammar) (see the introduction to Part III). Larry Scanlon’s analysis of the phrase "laureate of the Negro race" (applied to Langston Hughes), the oxymoronic power of which lies in the historical tug-of-war the phrase precipitates—between twentieth-century African-American New York and the Petrarchan laurel wreath—offers testimony to the reach of Copeland’s model. Even in our own times, translation and cultural authority continue to be intimately linked concerns.

The Ars notoria occupies just this double ground and, like Copeland, explains itself by appealing to history. Solomon, embodiment of wisdom and interpreter of texts in Adamic languages, is a figure from the mythical past, an auctor whose inspired text has suffered loss from its reception on. Yet Solomon, embodiment of error and speaker of the Latin vernacular, is also a figure for the contemporary reader, whose negotiations with angels and laborious studies make him exemplary, not authoritative: a role to be played, not a power to be feared. The Ars bends to the strong pressure toward meaning common to both traditions of translatio studii, not only in its narrative framework, but in its gloss-heavy academic structure and the goal of the exercises it describes. Thus Solomon must be translated from the highly colored past into the light of modern-day utility, bearing that past’s meaning while also violently displacing it. To this extent, the text’s language politics can, indeed, be considered "typical" of the long European traditions of theorizing about translation described by Curtius and Copeland.

<1> The Adamic Vernacular

Yet in its careful custodianship of the Adamic words inscribed on their golden tablets, the Ars notoria ultimately stakes everything on a quite different view of the relations between language, history, power, and meaning. For the Ars also argues not only that translation of certain words is neither possible nor desirable, but also that there is a more potent route between authoritative truth and vernacular language: revelation. Revelation neither displaces the archaic texts whose preservation allows each prepared user to experience it, nor submits to the loss of meaning that results every time these texts are translated. For although the results of revelation include access to the same meaning available to those who learned the arts and sciences by conventional methods and in Latin, in this text revelation actually inheres in the Adamic words and angelic diagrams themselves. Because these words in some sense evidently coinhere with (are in Adamically "natural" relation with) the angels they name and the power/meaning to which these angels in their turn correspond, it is these words and diagrams, not translation or formal study, that best unlock the power of meaning. Time, cultural and linguistic difference, and the gulf that separates the earthly and the heavenly orders are suspended in the process. The angelic powers, here, in the form of words and images, are almost literally on the page.

The linguistic models that work outward from the Babel narrative tend to function differently from those organized around the less theologically intricate narrative of translatio studii; Babel levels vernacular languages and can reduce Latin to the status of a vernacular (as in the Ars notoria) unless provision is made for its "constructed" grammatical nature—as was done not only by Dante in the De vulgari eloquentia but by the fifteenth-century Oxford theologians discussed here by Somerset. Adamic language was not always a factor, since Christian theorists (even those who identified it with Hebrew) often assumed it to have disappeared, perhaps as a result of the Jewish diaspora of 69 C.E. (Jewish views of this matter were interestingly mixed.) What makes the Ars radical in its linguistic theory is that, here, in a Christian text, Adamic language not only still exists but is loose in the world in such a fashion that, for those who have access to it, Babel itself becomes incidental. The idea of an unfallen primal language always has some of the same imaginative aura as the Earthly Paradise, lost to humanity but still existing in some place far to the east, haunting the earth like an ineffective ghost. Yet for the Ars, this primal language is not lost, and though incomprehensible it is not ineffective. Rather, all knowledge, in whatever language it takes verbal form, may depend for its potency on the Adamic.

In its presentation of a holy language in which the relationship between power and meaning (or, at least, power and lucidity) is the reverse of that it attributes to Latin, the Ars notoria is far from any model of translatio envisaged by Curtius or Copeland and might seem as idiosyncratic as the Adamic words it preserves are weird. Yet while few medieval Christian texts are as literal in their presentation of Adamic language as the Ars, the presence of that language is felt in many contexts. Latin can pose as a reconstituted version of Adamic language because of its lucidity, its distance from ordinary speakers, and the way it had to be acquired through formal study aided by grace. (A standard first text for schoolchildren learning their letters was "O Lord, open thou my lips, that my mouth may show forth thy praise.") Thus opponents of Bible translation argue that the minds of Latinate clerics remain unclouded by the eruption of irrationality into the world at the Fall, making Latin learning a precious reserve of wisdom not lightly to be shared with the laity. In the same vein, liturgy and prayer in Latin are said to be powerful whether or not they are understood by the participant: both because power inheres in the words themselves and because the Latin language is closer to heaven than the vernacular. The final refusal of Bible translation by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent (1545–63) sealed Latin’s reputation as the language of authority and revelation, as carefully separated (in theory) from the flux of the local, the temporary, and the vulgar as Eden.

To imply that Latin is Adamic is to reaffirm its absolute difference from and superiority to any common tongue. For lay intellectuals, however, it is the vernacular, not Latin, that has the better claim to represent or substitute for Adamic language. In the De vulgari eloquentia, Dante proclaims an "illustrious vernacular" (the language of the Comedy) as the only language worthy of comparison with the Adamic, insisting that any vernacular is superior to Latin because of its intimate relation to land, people, and history. For Dante, what links Adamic and vernacular languages is the concept of the "natural," which he holds up against the artificiality he ascribes to Latin. Dante may not be as unusual here as he is often assumed to be. According to Sara Poor, Mechthild of Magdeburg likewise holds that, as a vehicle of revelation, her vernacular, Low German, is superior to Latin. Mechthild’s linguistic theory is incarnational but also rests on the assumption that a language of revelation has a natural relationship between words, their speakers, and what they name. Taking a different tack, Ramon Llull argues (as Harvey Hames shows) that language has a natural relationship not so much to the world as to the triune God, whose immanence in language he deduces by way of the deep grammatical structures of Arabic, Hebrew, and Catalan, as well as Latin: as though vestiges of the Adamic lay behind all languages. In all these cases, the vernacular’s status as what Middle English calls a "kynde" or "mother" tongue (the language, Dante says, that you drink with your nurse’s milk) makes it possible to claim for it an originary status, thus potentially a power, that otherwise inheres only in the Adamic. If such associations seem tied to medieval religious contexts, at least one of the ideas carried by the Adamic myth—an idea immediately derived from Romanticism that many believe even today, that a vernacular has deep geographical, psychic, and spiritual affinity with the "genius" of a people—has translated itself into a nationalist form with a long postmedieval history. Mutatis mutandis, attempts to create a "pure" early modern Dutch (as described by Jeroen Jansen) or to construct Serbian and Romanian as national vernaculars (as described by Jack Fairey) subscribe to a clearly related belief in the primal power of a mother tongue.

The strange case of the Ars notoria suggests some of the possibilities latent in the idea of holy or powerful or natural language when it is made the subject of a really determined myth. It urges us to look again at the power that inheres within holy or binding words in other contexts (where, for example, this power meets with the power inhering in word as bond). Its careful separation of power and meaning also offers us another way of thinking about revelatory texts in the broadest sense: texts whose power (whether or not a visionary or mystical experience lies behind them) resides less in what is narrated than in the words through which it is expressed. Middle English scholars, for example, might use the notion of Adamic/natural language to reflect on how, for vernacular theologians like William Langland or Julian of Norwich, theology inheres in, rather than is expressed through, language. For both these writers, it is less that "poetry does theology" than that poetic or meditative vernacular language is theology.

Finally, as a portal to this book in particular, the Ars serves as an exemplum of the length, fluidity, and capaciousness of the intellectual traditions with which medieval and postmedieval vernacular theorists, writers, and readers thought. Its surprising obscurity invites us to broaden our analysis of these traditions—as do many of the essays in this book—to include other equally neglected texts and ideas. In Paradiso, Adam tells Dante that, because it is a work of nature that people speak ("Opera naturale è ch’uom favella"), all languages are tied to nature and eventually die. Contrary to what Dante had thought when he wrote De vulgari eloquentia, even the language Adam spoke with Eve in Eden was so vernacular that it was gone before Babel ("l’ovra inconsummabile . . . di Nemrot")—the city whose sin lay in its very attempt at fixity—was built. "Ché l’uso d’i mortali è come fronda / in ramo, che sen va e altra vene" (For the usage of mortals is as a leaf on a branch, which goes away and another comes). Whatever Adam is saying about the power of words and texts here, their final death is, of course, assured. Yet the traditions within which we think about words, holy or otherwise, remain.

<N> Notes

<PN> Part I: <PT> 1100–1300

<PST> The Evangelical Vernacular

The first four essays in this book involve religious texts that take an evangelical attitude toward the vernacular. Written during a period when the power of words to persuade and enlighten was felt with a confidence unequaled before the Victorian era, these texts can be seen as parts of a concerted program of universal outreach, which demanded reflection on language as a means of access to knowledge and on the nature of useful (salvific) knowledge itself. Whether the targets of conversion are Lincolnshire peasants, South German townsfolk, or the Jews and Muslims of Spain and northern Africa, utility and persuasiveness are a concern to all five writers discussed here: Orm, Thomas of Chobham, Humbert of Romans, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Ramon Llull. However different their approaches—a gulf yawns not only between the three Latin prose writers and the vernacular poets but also between Orm’s practical metrics and Mechthild’s poetic pyrotechnics—such a concern also demands careful attention to register and audience.

There resemblances end: these writers come from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds and pursue their agendas in different ways. If Humbert and Thomas, one the director of the Dominican friars, the other a noted pastoral theologian, wrote Latin analyses of preachers and preaching that influenced the church as a whole, the beguine Mechthild and the layman Llull had more difficulty gaining institutional acceptance, while Orm was a local figure. Some of Llull’s works were widely read, but the heyday of his long campaign to further the conversion of Jews and Muslims was his appearance at the Council of Vienne in 1311, as an old man. In some ways, as Harvey Hames argues, Llull thought more clearly than anyone about the barriers to communication between Christians and their neighbors, and the need for a common tongue (the set of rational principles, based on grammar and pointing to the inevitable truth of Christianity, that Llull called his Ars) to bridge those barriers. The distance from Christian intellectual traditions given him by his status as autodidact and visionary must, indeed, have helped him arrive at this clarity: where the thirteenth-century clerics who engaged in what passed for interfaith dialogue relied partly on proof texts, partly on force, Llull’s faith was explicitly a matter of personal (visionary) experience, while much of his life was lived in the multicultural, multilingual milieu of the Mediterranean. Yet in a more poignant sense, his place on the edge of clerical culture was a disadvantage for anyone who wanted to affect what happened at the center. As he struggled to convert not only Jews and Muslims but Christian theologians to his ideas, Llull wrote and rewrote his system all through his long life. Calling for a change in the church’s praxis, Llull found himself tinkering, more than he can have wanted, with theory. The influence of this deeply individualistic thinker was real (not just among Christians) but scattered.

The same can be said of Mechthild, who shared Llull’s desire to effect real change to the ways in which the church acted. Mechthild’s call was for a collective return to a state of purity, a call she issued in what Sara Poor argues is a carefully chosen Low German but that for the most part found its readers in Latin and High German translation, often in excerpt. Her book, Das fließende Licht der Gottheit, was intended to be (as its title implies) a vehicle for the flowing out of the divine light over all. If its choice of Low German represents its aspiration to universality, then its poetic form represents the claim to inspiration that justifies that aspiration. Yet in the centuries after its composition, this spiritual effluence was almost blocked up by translation, anthologization, or anxious editing: all activities we must attribute, not to critics, but admirers. These transformations of Mechthild’s text suggest disagreement between her and her editors and translators regarding the best medium for her message. Her struggle to reach the broad readership she aspired to, in either the language or the form she had chosen, speaks to a gulf of comprehension, as well as power, between a woman whose inner sense of possibility remained unconstrained and the masculine intellectual world of her editors.

Llull and Mechthild worked for transformations of the world whose ambition was in proportion to their distance from the institution responsible for making change happen. Their attitude toward language suggests that they thought of their respective vernaculars in "Adamic" terms: as instruments of revelation powerful enough to overcome any institutional disadvantage from which they suffered (see the Introduction). Visionary or prophetic thought like theirs is perennially associated with such distance (even the names are evocative: Julian of Norwich, William Blake, Simone Weil), and the intimate association between the vernacular, the cultural margin, and the prophetic is easily romanticized.

Claire Waters’s account of how preaching manuals theorize the relationship between language and Christian community offers an antidote to this danger by focusing on how two thirteenth-century churchmen, both in some sense mouthpieces for the ecclesiastical institution, conceptualized these issues. Recent work by literary historians on the medieval clerisy’s attitude toward community focuses on the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, sometimes taking Lollard critiques of the clergy, which emphasize the latter’s elitism and lack of concern for the laity, at face value. Waters shows how, for the thirteenth century, the actual situation was not only different from the picture drawn by later polemic but did not even work within the same categories. Distance between clergy and laity might be promoted (as by Thomas of Chobham), but only because ordinary parish priests had their work cut out to establish that distance. Language politics revolve not around abstract linguistic hierarchies but around the practical matter of register. How to popularize in the proper way—how to conform, not just to the needs of an audience, but to the cultural idioms of a region—is what matters here. Further, as Waters argues, popularization itself (or at least its most important manifestation, the exemplum) need not drive a wedge between clergy and laity; rather, it can act to reinforce a common sense of community. Here, Latin, the language of authority, and the vernacular, the language of communication, were not in opposition for the preachers who deployed them, but in a mutually supportive relation.

The gap is real, then, between the prophetic proposals of a Llull or a Mechthild and the detailed pastoral programs of a Thomas or a Humbert (Waters’s other case study), but it is not the gap our attraction to the voice of prophecy makes it. Thomas and Humbert are in their way as ambitious as visionaries in their desire for transformation, and as aware that transformation begins at home, in the center of the ecclesiastical institution; it is opportunity that makes them pragmatists. The twelfth-century Lincolnshire poet Orm emerges from Meg Worley’s essay as part pragmatist, part (in a figurative sense) visionary. On the one hand, Orm exemplifies the same concern with the comprehensibility of Christian teaching expressed by Humbert three generations later, writing his long homiletic poem in a standardized version of his local dialect, going so far as to invent new spelling rules, even letter forms, to establish pronunciation. Patriotic British philologists have often seen his efforts (with mingled respect and condescension) as a desperate response to the fluidity of Early Middle English. Dismissing this explanation (which makes Orm a philologist avant la lettre), Worley proposes that Orm’s official motives were practical and pastoral: as one of the few native speakers in the canonry at Bourne, his text was written to help Francophone colleagues as they preached and taught in the parishes around. On the other hand, this project may have been grounded in a sense of the local (growing out of Orm’s concern for his land and its traditions) that ran deeper than pragmatism. Not only does the Ormulum show a marked preference for English, not continental, source material. The self-regarding title of the book casts Orm as a native informant—a cleric posing as a member of the local congregation—who treats his vernacular as a mother tongue, not a utilitarian common language. If Orm shares a homiletic ecclesiastical agenda with his colleagues, on a political level he constructs the Ormulum as a subaltern text.

Collectively, then, these four essays explore the reach of the idea of the vernacular as a common tongue, and suggest the heterogeneity of that idea. If Llull’s proposal of a universal common tongue, a religious Esperanto, represents one extreme, Orm’s creation of a late-twelfth-century Lincolnshire Standard (whose obsolescence within a generation is built into this written dialect=s precision) represents the other. Mechthild, reaching out to a general audience through the local medium of Low German, is caught in the middle, using a vernacular that is symbolically appropriate as a means of universal access but that in practical terms puts her at the mercy of translators. (Not that symbolic appropriateness is nothing: from the perspective either of the nineteenth-century German scholars who saw Mechthild’s writing as an early monument to their "mother tongue" or of modern feminist scholars of spirituality, the poetic and theological gains for Mechthild are as significant as all her losses.) It is the pastoral theologians, Thomas and Humbert, who have the opportunity to think flexibly about two kinds of common tongue and the different possibilities offered by each for acting as instruments of divine revelation: the common tongue of the vernacular, which the friars for whom Humbert writes must adapt as they move from region to region; and the common tongue of Latin, in which the educated can theorize and draw conclusions about the local. For those in possession of both, the divide between educated and vernacular common tongues has nothing but advantages.

Also of Interest

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.