A Different Picture of the Middle Ages

A rich mixture of language and culture thrived in what is now modern Belgium, challenging our perception of the medieval world.

Adrian Armstrong | Published in 08 Jul 2015

Social equals: the Dukes of Burgundy and their ladies, French, 15th century.When journalists or politicians describe a modern phenomenon as 'medieval', we can confidently expect the word to be freighted with negative connotations. To be medieval is to be behind the times, but not in a comforting retro or vintage sense. Medieval means ignorant and everything that stems from it: intolerant, unhygienic, superstitious. A concept such as medieval multiculturalism, then, seems self-contradictory. Yet western Europe in the Middle Ages offers some intriguing examples of respect for other ways of living, thinking and speaking. The late medieval Low Countries are a case in point.

In the 15th and early 16th centuries this region was ruled by the Dukes of Burgundy, a Valois house that was absorbed through marriage into the Habsburg dynasty, and so is often termed 'the Burgundian Low Countries'. It was home to speakers of both French and Dutch, among other languages, with French spoken primarily in the south and in aristocratic circles. The distribution of languages in modern Belgium broadly reflects the situation in the equivalent areas 500 years ago, though the French-Dutch language boundary has drifted northwards in the interim and Brussels was a predominantly Dutch-speaking city. (Incidentally, 'Dutch' is a more appropriate linguistic term than 'Flemish', which is just one variety of the language – speakers within Belgium refer to the language as Nederlands rather than Vlaams.)

Over recent decades, French- and Dutch-speakers in modern Belgium have tended to interact less with one another as a side-effect of successive waves of devolutionary legislation. So much so, indeed, that employees in many Brussels businesses, at least those with an international clientele, now speak English during their first contact with customers in preference to initiating conversation in what may turn out to be the 'wrong' regional language. Rewind five centuries and the picture looks quite different.

Trading and commerce, always important in the region, inevitably encouraged communication between speakers of the two languages. So did the practical workings of political administration: for a civil servant working for the Dukes of Burgundy, it was a distinct advantage to speak both French and Dutch. The demand for multilingual competence sustained a minor local industry in the product- ion of phrase books and vocabularies. Probably aimed mainly at merchants, these were originally compiled in manuscript form, but flourished after the introduction of printing. For households with a long-term commitment and money to spare, there was a more radical option: sending children to live temporarily with a family who spoke the other language. The chronicler George Chastelain (d. 1475) may have benefited from this practice. Born into a Dutch-speaking family of shippers based in Ghent, he was to become the first official historian of the dukes, for whom he wrote in an eloquent French that betrays almost nothing of his ancestry.

Chastelain's career is a reminder that traffic in the Low Countries was not only a commercial matter; it was deeply bound up with culture. Writers were not isolated from their society, but, as shown by Chastelain's official appointment, shaped opinion, expression and imagination. In doing so, they drew not only on their own language and its cultural tradition, but also on the region's other main language and culture. The French-speaking poet and chronicler Jean Molinet (d. 1507), Chastelain's successor as the official historian of the Dukes of Burgundy, liberally sprinkled his work with words borrowed from Dutch. Anthonis de Roovere (d. 1482), a Dutch-speaking poet based in Bruges, adopted techniques from francophone authors and introduced them into the Dutch literary tradition.

The interplay between languages and cultures was not limited to authors; it also involved other participants in what we might today call the institutions of literature. Translators, for instance, made works available to new audiences in the region. The traffic in translation was overwhelmingly from French to Dutch, but this does not mean that Dutch literary culture was subservient to French. On the contrary, when poetry was translated, the Dutch versions often adopted more complex and challenging verse forms than the French originals, as if the translators were actively seeking to improve on their sources. Publishing was also a cross-cultural affair: manuscript workshops and printers often catered for readers of both languages and some topical works were even printed simultaneously in French- and Dutch-language versions. Perhaps most strikingly, municipal theatre competitions – analogous to the modern circuit of cinema festivals – sometimes awarded prizes for the best foreign-language entry. In other words, French-speaking hosts enabled Dutch-language plays (and vice versa) to be publicly performed, evaluated and recognised.

Interactions of this kind were not limited to French- and Dutch-speakers. William Caxton published the first printed books in English – themselves translated from French sources – in the Low Countries. He may have produced them in Ghent, which at that time was effectively a bilingual city, in association with the French-speaking professional scribe David Aubert. Some 50 years later, in 1525, the victory of Habsburg over French forces at the battle of Pavia was celebrated in a play by the Dutch-speaking Cornelis Everaert, which was performed for the community of Aragonese and Catalan merchants in Bruges.

In a variety of ways, then, speakers of different languages both drew on and appealed to each other's cultures. In doing so they contributed to the richness of their own language and culture, while at the same time demonstrating and encouraging respect for the other. Linguistic diversity in the Low Countries may have caused division and misunderstanding at times; but these were challenges to be overcome, not barriers to be resented. So much for medieval intolerance.

Adrian Armstrong is Centenary Professor of French at Queen Mary University of London. The project was funded by the AHRC.