MYTHS IN THE POLYCHRONICON

The Polychronicon is a central text in locating the myths concerning English that go to make up the linguistic homogeneity myth. In following chapters we shall see how these myths have lasted right down to the present, have been added to by metaphorically based myths and have been transformed in the process. In this chapter, most of the myths we can identify in Higden’s text were actually taken from earlier texts, pushing the history of the myths even further back in time. In the fourteenth century, the Polychronicon was the most popular and most frequently copied Brut chronicle in a long line of chronicles stretching well into the fifteenth century. It was compiled by Ranulph Hidgen, a Benedictine monk at the monastery of St. Werburg in Chester, and its full title is Ranulphi Castrensis, cognomine Higdon, Polychronicon (sive Historia Polycratica) ab initio mundi usque ad mortem Edwardi III. in septem libros dispositum (The Polychronicon of Ranulph of Chester, named Higden, [or the Polychratic History] from the beginning of the world to the death of Edward III, put into seven Books).

The first of Polychronicon s seven books presents a geography of the known world; books 2 to 4, a history of the world from the Creation to the time of the arrival of the Saxons in England; the fifth, the invasion of the Danes; the sixth, the history of England up to the Norman Conquest; and the final book, the history as far as the time of Edward III, Higden’s own time.[1]

In all, there were three translations of the work from Latin into English. The first and most famous of these was completed by John de Trevisa in 1387. The second was an anonymous translation written before 1432, possibly by Osbern Bokenham, since it is known that he translated certain sections of the Polychronicon. The third was Caxton’s reworking and printing of Trevisa’s translation in 1482. The number of translations and the fact that more than 100 copies of the manuscript were made from the original in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, prior to the advent of printing, attest to the popularity of this work.

In 1865 Churchill Babington published the Latin text together with Trevisa’s translation and the anonymous translation mentioned above. In chapter 59 of book 2, titled “De incolarum linguis” (Of the languages of the inhabitants), Higden deals with the languages of Britain, and it is here that we find evidence of a complex of myths. I shall quote the passage in Latin with my own (somewhat free) translation into English:

Ranulphus. Ut patet ad sensum, quot in hac insula sunt gentes, tot gentium sunt lingus; Scoti tamen et Wallani, uptote cum aliis nationibus impermixti, ad purum psne pritinum retinent idioma: nisi forsan Scoti ex convictu Pictorum, cum quibus olim confederati cohabitant, quippiam contraxerint in sermone.

Ranulphus. As is obvious to the understanding, there are as many races in this island as there are languages of the races. The Scots as well as the Welsh, even though they are intermixed with other nations, retain their languages almost in their former purity. It might be the case that the Scots have taken on something in conversation from their intercourse with the Picts, with whom they lived together for some time.

Flandrenses vero, qui occidua Wallis incolunt, dimissa jam barbaris, Saxonice satis proloquuntur. Angli quoque, quamquam ab initio tripartitam sortirentur linguam, austrinam scilicet, mediterraneam, et borealam, veluti ex tribus Germanis populis procedentes, ex commixtione

tamen primo cum Danis, deinde Normannis, corrupta in multis patria lingua peregrinos jam captant boatus et garritus.

Hsc quidem nativs lingus corruptio provenit hodie multum ex duobus; quod videlicet pueri in scholis contra morem csterum nationum a primo Normannorum adventu, derelicto proprio vulgari, cosntruere Gallice compelluntur; item quod filii nobilium ab ipsis cunabulorum crepundiis ad Gallicum idioma informantur.

Quibus profecto rurales homines assimilari volentes, ut per hoc spectabiliores videantur, francigenare satagunt omni nisu.

Ubi nempe mirandum videtur, quomodo nativa et propria Anglorum lingua, in unica insula coartata, pronunicaitione ipsa sit tam diversa; cum tamen Normannica lingua, qus adventitia est, univocal maneat penes cunctos.

De prsdicta quoque lingua Saxonica tripartita, qus in paucis adhuc agrestibus vix remansit, orientales cum occiduis tanquam sub eodem creli climate lineati plus consonant in sermone quam boreales cum austrinis.

Indeed the Flemings who live in the west of Wales, who set aside barbarism long ago, speak Saxon well enough. The English, too, were given three types of speech from the beginning, i.e., southern, midland, and northern, as proceeding from three peoples of Germany, but mainly from a mixture with the Danes, and then with the Normans, but their native language has been corrupted in so many ways that they now produce foreign-sounding chattering and bellowing.

Indeed this corruption of the native tongue today is largely the result of two factors. Contrary to the custom of other nations, boys in schools, from the first arrival of the Normans, leave their own common tongue to one side and are compelled to construe their lessons in French. On the other hand, the sons of the nobles are taught the language of the French from the very rocking of their cradles.

Certainly, rural men who desire to assimilate with these nobles and to be seen as remarkable, labour with every effort to speak French.

Of course, where something is seen as being admirable, like the real native language of the English enclosed within one island, it is as diverse in pronunciation as the Norman language, a language that is foreign, remains “univocal” in the possession of everyone. In addition, with respect to the aforesaid tripartite Saxon language, which lingers on with difficulty in a few wild rustics, the speech of those in the East sounds more like that of the men of the West who live under the same climate of the heavens as that of the men of the North compared with the speech of those in the South.

Inde est quod Mercii sive Mediterranei Angli, tanquam participantes naturam extremorum, collaterales linguas arcticam melius intelligant quam adinvicem se intelligunt jam extremi.

Willelmus de Pontificibus, libro tertio.

Tota lingua Northimbrorum, maxime inEboraco, ita stridet incondite, quod nos australes eam vix intelligere possumus; quod puto propter viciniam barbarorum contigisse, et etiam proper jugem remotionem regum Anglorum ab illis partibus, qui magis ad austrum diversati, si quando boreales partes adeunt, non nisi magno auxiliatorum manu pergunt.

The reason for this is that the Mercians or the Southern English, although they share nature at the extremities, understand languages close to them, northern and southern, better than those at the extremities understand one another.

Willelmus de Pontificibus, libro tertio. The whole language of the Northumbrians, especially in York, hisses so confusedly that we of the south can scarcely understand it, so that I suppose it to have bordered on the vicinity of the barbarians, and even the perpetual removal of the kings of England from those parts, who have turned to the south, whenever they return to the northern parts they do not go there without a large group of auxiliary troops.

This short passage on the languages of the British Isles from the Polychronicon is frequently quoted in the literature, perhaps because it displays traces of several interconnected and overlapping linguistic myths, many of which, in one form or another, are still with us today. Higden also makes explicit reference to the third book of William of Malmesbury’s chronicle Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (Deeds of the English bishops, 1125), which he simply calls De Pontificibus. This allows us to surmise that some, if not all, of the myths go back at least to the twelfth century if not even further. In addition, many of these myths can also be found in reference to other languages and other cultures than English; the myth of the barbarians having no language, for example, can be traced back at least to Greek antiquity.

A closer look at the text reveals the following points. Although Higden does not say explicitly what languages the Welsh and the Scots speak, we must assume that he is referring, in the case of the Welsh, to the Welsh language itself. But it is unclear whether, in referring to the Scots, he means earlier forms of Gaelic or Lowland Scots dialects of English. Both the Scots and the Welsh are said to have “intermixed with other nations”—that is, language contact situations led the languages away from a state of “purity” (they are “almost in their former purity”). In the case of Scots this is modified in the statement that “Scots” has “taken on something” as a consequence of conversational “intercourse with the Picts”. We can infer that Scots is further away from a state of “purity” than Welsh. The state of purity is equivalent to the state of homogeneity, from which we can infer that speakers have a duty to retain the supposed “purity” of their languages. In situations of language contact, however, this becomes impossible.

When Higden turns to English, he first takes Bede’s split into three types of English brought to England by three “peoples of Germany”: the Angles, the Jutes and the Saxons.[2] English, however, has moved further from a state of purity than either Welsh or Scots because of “a mixture with the Danes, afterwards with the Normans”. Higden uses a new epithet to refer to the state of English in his day: “corrupt”. Those who do not speak a pure language speak a “corrupted” language, which turns out to be no better than “foreign sounding chattering and bellowing”. “Chattering” and “bellowing” are hardly features of human language at all but are reminiscent of animal sounds.

Higden suggests two reasons for the corruption of English:

  • 1. English children can only receive their schooling in French and do not have the benefit of having French as their mother tongue, and
  • 2. English has too much variation.

The “pure” Saxon language is said to be spoken only by a “few wild rustics”. Other than these rustics, speakers of English no longer speak a “pure” homogeneous language. If any “rural men” wish to assimilate, says Higden, they make “every effort to speak French”, the implication being that they should not bother.

Higden then compares English with Norman French, stating that there is no variation in the latter (it is “univocal”), but there is a variation of pronunciation in English, which of course implies that Norman French is homogeneous whereas English is variable and heterogeneous. He then makes the statement that the “men of the East” and those of the West sound relatively similar, whereas those of the North and the South sound radically different, suggesting that the difference in climate between the South and the North must be responsible for these differences since those from the East and the West, who do not differ much at all, have the same climate. At the end of the extract he uses William of Malmesbury’s statement that the language of Northumbria, particularly in York, “hisses so confusedly” that those from the South can scarcely understand it. William is also quoted as assuming that northern English is tainted by “the vicinity of the barbarians”. The “we southerners” in Higden’s text refers to William as a southerner, not to Higden himself, but what Higden gives vent to here is the long-standing prejudice against the north of England held by those living in the South.

In this short passage from Higden’s Polychronicon we can tease out a nexus of myths that ultimately go back to the archetypal myth that homogeneity is superior to heterogeneity:

  • 1. the myth of thepure language
  • - “The Scots as well as the Welsh . . . retain their languages almost in their former purity
  • 2. the myth of contamination through contact
  • - “Even though they are intermixed with other nations...”
  • - “The English, too, were given three types of speech from the beginning . . . but mainly from a mixture with the Danes, and then with the Normans, but their native language has been corrupted in so many ways that they now produce foreign-sounding chattering and bellowing.”
  • - From William of Malmesbury: “The whole language of the Northumbrians, especially in York, hisses so confusedly that we of the south can scarcely understand it”
  • 3. the myth of barbarians not having a (proper) language
  • - “The Flemings who live in the west of Wales, who set aside barbarism long ago, speak Saxon well enough.”
  • - “The aforesaid tripartite Saxon language, which lingers on with difficulty in a few wild rustics . . . ”
  • - From William of Malmesbury: “So that I suppose it to have bordered on the vicinity of the barbarians . . . ”
  • 4. the myth of a good climateprovidingfertile groundfor a “pure” language
  • - “The speech of those in the East sounds more like that of the men of the West who live under the same climate of the heavens as that of the men of the North compared with the speech of those in the South.
  • 5. the myth of thepure language of the South and the corrupted language of the

North

- From William of Malmesbury: “The whole language of the Northumbrians, especially in York, hisses so confusedly that we of the

south can scarcely understand it.”

The first three of these myths are derived directly from the archetypal linguistic homogeneity myth, and myths 4 and 5 are indirectly connected to it.

The text extract shows that the pure language myth transforms seamlessly into the contamination through contact myth. Higden is referring specifically to the English language at this point, but throughout the passage, speakers of English shift into the language “English” and back again, creating the strong impression that the qualities of the language are attributed to its speakers and vice versa. Hence, any corruption of the language through language contact situations also entails that the speakers have been corrupted. There are strong similarities here between Higden’s assessment of language contact situations and those of the contributors to the Internet discussion thread on Middle- English-as-a-creole in chapter 4. Given the negative evaluations of creoles frequently met with in nonlinguistic quarters, the Middle-English-as-a-creole hypothesis not only leads to the pure language myth but also feeds the contamination through contact myth. In fact, the nexus of myths and metaphors associated with the pure language myth is surprisingly complex, as we shall see in the next section.

The second nexus of myths focuses on the barbarians myth. The myth is used as a means of identifying the Other as being inferior to people in one’s own culture, and its roots go back at least as far as classical Greece. The Other (the “foreigner”, the “enemy”, the “stranger”) was referred to as варваров (barbaros) which derives from the Proto-Indo-European base *barbar- referring to the unintelligible speech of foreigners (cf. Sanskrit barbara, meaning “stammering”). A barbarian was thus someone who did not speak the “legitimate” language, someone who did not conform to the speaker’s conceptualisation of what was cultivated, but was, on the contrary, ignorant or rude. The step from this assessment of the Other to one in which the Other does not use language at all is small. Higden’s text does not explicitly make this connection, but it certainly strongly implies it, particularly when Higden quotes William of Malmesbury as suggesting that the unintelligible language produced in York has something to do with the fact that it borders “on the vicinity of the barbarians”. The fifth myth—the pure language of the South and the corrupted language of the North myth—is also taken from William of Malmesbury’s text and is intimately tied up with the barbarians myth. I shall deal with this nexus of myths in the following section.

The final myth contained within this short passage is the good climate/soil myth, and, once again, it is linked in interesting ways to the myths associated with both the pure language myth and the barbarians myth. The assumption here is that there is some connection between language and the climate, and language and the soil. The “best” (“purest”, most “perfect”) languages are assumed to be spoken by those who live in a climate that favours the growth of those plants from which we derive our staple nutrition—varieties of cereal, vines, and fruits of various kinds. The favourable climate, however, has to be combined with favourable soils, so land that provides good grazing is still inferior to land that can be used for crop production.

Higden’s text provides an excellent example of this connection, when he refers to Saxon as lingering on in paucis... agrestibus. I have translated the Latin agrestis as “a (or the) rustic” for the sake of convenience, but the term has a number of negative connotations in Latin, such as “wild”, “unmannered”, “boorish”, “untamed”, “pertaining to the fields”, indicating that Higden may have been referring not to someone who cultivated the fields but to someone who drove sheep or cattle out into the fields. Confirmation of this interpretation is given by Trevisa, who translates in paucis... agrestibus as wip fewe vplondisshe men, that is, men who live in the hills. We thus have an interesting contrast between pastoralists, who can then be associated with barbarians who do not speak the legitimate language, and agriculturalists who till the land and do speak the legitimate language.

  • [1] There is some controversy as to whether Higden completed the history from 1342 to 1357 or whetherit was continued by others from 1327 on, but this does not concern us here.
  • [2] There is a slight difference from Bede, however, as we now have a tripartite layering of English between southern, midland and northern forms, whereas Bede’s account of where the three tribes settled inEngland does not correspond to this simple division.
 
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