Medieval Flanders was a cultural crossroads full of multilingualism

Het prachtig versierde openingsblad van de Livre des mestiers, een populair Frans-Nederlands conversatieboekje (Parijs, BnF, Néerl. 16, fol. 1r)
Het prachtig versierde openingsblad van de Livre des mestiers, een populair Frans-Nederlands conversatieboekje (Parijs, BnF, Néerl. 16, fol. 1r)

During the late Middle Ages, the county of Flanders was an international, multicultural and multilingual crossroads. Dutch, French and Latin were all heard in everyday communication, trade and official contact within town, church and court. Medieval Dutch scholar Jelmar Hugen found that people actually used these languages interchangeably and wondered: why did some poets pepper their Dutch text with Latin quotations? And why did some of them choose a French refrain in a Dutch song?

From fox stories to medical manuals and language guides

Hugen analysed how Dutch, French and Latin interacted within literary Flemish texts and manuscripts. To do so, he delved into a wide range of sources.

Jelmar Hugen. Foto: Jos Kuklewski
Jelmar Hugen. © Jos Kuklewski

“I used not only narrative genres, such as medieval song, think of the famous Gruuthuse manuscript from Bruges, and animal epics, including the albeit well-known Van den vos Reynaerde (Of Reynaert the Fox) and its lesser-known Latin translation and continuation. Medical manuals, French-Dutch language guides and a complex moral-theological allegory dialogue also passed the review.”

The multiple faces of multilingualism

One thing all these literary works had in common: they were multilingual. But why? And in what form? By conducting six case studies, Hugen examined the literary works from three perspectives: the social dimension, considering language use; the material dimension, considering manuscript context; and the translation-technical, considering editing techniques. 

Hugen discovered that writers sometimes intermingled Dutch, French and Latin purely for aesthetics. “They saw multilingualism as enriching their texts”, he explains. “Authors also used the different languages as a means of acquiring knowledge, to add structure and nuance within a manuscript, and even to express social criticism and so reflect on the hierarchical relations between certain languages in society.”

Medieval authors saw multilingualism as enriching their texts.

Plural multilingualism

In his research, Hugen focused on one form of multilingualism, namely the interaction between languages within a literary medium. “Many of the uses of literary multilingualism, however, can also be related to other forms of expression, such as translation, intertextual connections between texts and the mobility of medieval books across linguistic boundaries.”

Hugen concludes that the use of French and Latin was seen by some Dutch poets, copyists and booksellers as an accepted part of Middle Dutch literature and bookmaking in Flanders. “Even in the Middle Ages, multilingualism was already a literary, social and cultural asset,” he concludes.

PhD defence

On 7 December 2023, Jelmar Hugen will defend his PhD on the topic of multilingualism in late medieval Flemish literature on 7 December 2023.