In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, there were three languages in use in England. English was the most widely spoken, and as the fourteenth century progressed the tradition of writing in English began to flourish more than it had for centuries. Latin was the educated language of all Europe, used for almost all writing on learned subjects (such as law and theology, medicine and science), but it could also be used for literature, from the grandest epic to the bawdiest lyric. French had been introduced by the conquering Normans in the eleventh century, and in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it came to be the language of sophisticated literature in England. Even as this began to change in the 1300s, it was still unremarkable for texts in French to circulate and be enjoyed among the educated classes of England, especially at court.
Bodley 264 contains texts in two of these languages, French and English. This suggests that the owner of the book who had the English Alexander and Dindimus added to the French Roman d’Alexandre could understand both languages. Such multilingualism would have been a more common accomplishment amongst the wealthy nobility, who were also the people most likely to be able to afford such a fine book. However, the fact that both Alexander and Dindimus and the French Marco Polo text were both added after the book came to England suggests that book producers in London had stock in both languages at their disposal.
Alexander and Dindimus has sometimes been called a ‘romance’ by scholars of literature from England in this period, because it deals with Alexander the Great and with exotic far-off places (although some of the other features used to identify romance, such as a quest, are absent). It is very unusual to find English romances sharing the leaves of the same manuscript with a text written in French: our research has discovered that this only happens on a handful of occasions. Without other evidence, we might deduce that the unusual nature of Alexander and Dindimus was the reason why it has happened in Bodley 264. But amazingly (and very unusually) in this case the manuscript itself tells us why these texts were brought together.
Click here to discover the misunderstanding that brought these texts together.
(Images reproduced by kind permission of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford