A free exhibition, The Moving Word: French Medieval Manuscripts in Cambridge,  at Cambridge University Library.


Image inherited from collection

The moving word

‘The moving word: French medieval manuscripts in Cambridge’ is a celebration of manuscripts held by the University Library and Cambridge colleges, and a survey of how knowledge travelled in manuscript form around Europe and the Mediterranean between 1150 and 1530. ‘French’ at this time was not just a language associated with what we now call France. It was an international language of scholarship and trade, independent of political boundaries and cultural identities. Nor was Paris the centre of manuscript production and transmission before the end of the reign of Philippe Auguste (Gonesse, 1165–Mantes-la-Jolie, 1223). Many French manuscripts were produced in England, the Low Countries, Italy, Cyprus, the Peloponnese, and the Middle East, and they travelled widely across linguistic and cultural spheres. England, in particular, played a major role in the dissemination of medieval French materials and many of the major traditions, including Tristan, the Lais of Marie de France, and the Song of Roland have their earliest roots in England before moving, via English manuscript production, to the continent. French continued to be used in commerce, law, and literature in medieval England; and Anglo-Norman, or Insular French, developed its own characteristics and lexicon. This exhibition highlights this cross-fertilisation and celebrates the richly multilingual and itinerant nature of medieval French literary traditions.


Using works such as a 13th century Arthurian manuscript once owned by the Templars, the earliest-known version of the Tristan and Isolde, and a French phrasebook from the Middle Ages, this exhibition will look at the enormous cultural and historic impact of the French language upon life in England, Europe, the Middle East and beyond at a time when French – like Latin before it and English today – was the global language of culture, commerce and politics.

The Moving Word, curated by Bill Burgwinkle and Nicola Morato, is part of a wider AHRC-funded research project looking at the question of how knowledge travelled in manuscript form through the continent and into the Eastern Mediterranean world, freely crossing linguistic and cultural boundaries at a time when France was a much smaller political entity than it is today.

Burgwinkle, Professor of Medieval French and Occitan Literature at Cambridge, said, “French may have been brought to England by the Normans in 1066 but it was already here well before then as a language of knowledge and commerce. It served as the mother tongue of every English king for almost 400 years, from William the Conqueror to Richard II, and it was still in use as a language of royalty, politics and literature until the Tudor period, when we see Henry VIII writing love letters in French to Anne Boleyn.

“Cambridge University is home to one of the world’s finest collections of medieval manuscripts of this kind. This exhibition not only gives us a chance to display the Library’s treasures, but also reminds us how the French language has enriched our cultural past and left us with a legacy that continues to be felt in 21st century Britain.

“Medieval texts like the ones we have on display became the basis of European literature. The idea that post-classical Western literature really begins with the Renaissance is completely false. It begins right here, among the very manuscripts and fragments in this exhibition. People may not realise it, but many of the earliest and most beautiful versions of the legends of Arthur, Lancelot and the Round Table were written in French; The Moving Word is a celebration of a period sometimes unfairly written out of literary history.”