Dudo of Saint-Quentin has an interesting story in Book III of his Historia Normannorum. William Longsword is at an (entirely fictional) peace conference with the East Frankish king Henry the Fowler, alongside one Duke Cono (supposed to be Conrad the Red?). During the course of the conference, William is mocked by the East Frankish nobles. William’s command of Old Norse allows him to understand the gist of what they’re saying – he gets angry. Later in the conference, Hermann Billung of Saxony starts talking to William in Old Norse, claiming to have learned it whilst a captive of the Vikings. These stories have always struck me as odd. Dudo is particularly concerned with who can and cannot speak Old Norse, and is especially keen that all of his dukes can, as a marker of their Norman (and not Frankish) identity. He is an anomaly, though, because other tenth-century historians are basically uninterested in the question of comprehension between vernacular languages. This slightly surprises me, because there are at over half-a-dozen vernaculars in the tenth-century West Frankish kingdom (Breton, northern and southern varieties of Romance, Old Norse, Old English, probably at least three flavours of old German dialects; also Arabic, although I doubt that one matters so much to most of the people I write about) but no-one amongst the lay or clerical elites ever seems to have trouble talking to one another. Now, perhaps I’m unusually sensitive to this, having spent several years abroad in countries where my grasp of the language wasn’t fantastic; but it is interesting that, say, Louis IV (whose first language was probably Old English) and Raymond Pons of Toulouse (Old Occitan?) don’t have to deal with any language barriers.
The obvious inference one can draw is that, at the elite level, multilingualism was so widespread as to be ubiquitous. This raises the question, how did it get that way? From the sources I know – and this is largely something I’ve picked up in passing rather than something I’ve actively researched – I can see three answers.
First, mutual comprehension. Speakers of some dialects seem simply to have been able to automatically comprehend others without having to actively learn another language. Lots of work has been done on this in the context of Old Norse and Old English, but the upshot is that the two languages would have been mutually comprehensible – a speaker of one would have been able to get by with someone speaking the other, like the Scandinavian languages today. Such mutual comprehension would expand outwards: Old English and Old Saxon are basically the same language (Flodoard, in describing the 948 Council of Ingelheim, says that the Latin was translated into ‘the Teutonic tongue’ for the convenience of Louis IV and Otto the Great – he clearly saw no difference between Louis’ English and Otto’s Saxon). This is shown neatly in Dudo’s example, where William’s Old Norse lets him understand Saxon nobles, at least to an extent. We can imagine further overlaps with version of Old Dutch and Old Frisian, if these were spoken by the counts of Flanders and/or Holland.
Less work that I know of has been done on the mutual comprehensibility of Romance dialects. There’s been quite a lot on whether Carolingian-era Romance speakers could have understood oral Latin on that basis (answer: maybe? Widukind’s description of the languages spoken by Otto the Great seems to imply that this was not true at least of people who knew Romance as a second language…). To an extent, evidence from silence implies that different Romance dialects were mutually comprehensible – someone like Bernard of Angers, author of the Book of St Foy, doesn’t complain about any language troubles between Anjou and the Rouergue, although he might well have had Latin to fall back on. Nonetheless, it seems likely that speakers of different Germanic dialects on one hand and Romance dialects on the other could understand each other within their own language groups. But what about between Romance and Germanic speakers?
This brings us to the question of language learning. There is surprisingly little evidence for this, although we know it was done. Some of the evidence comes from manuscripts. Two in particular, the ‘Kassel Glosses’ and the ‘Pariser Gespräche’, are phrasebooks from our period, the latter apparently aimed at lay aristocrats and giving translations of Latin phrases into German. These include such useful phrases as the words for ‘give me my spear’, ‘brave vassal’, and ‘a dog’s arse in your nose’.
The evidence from narrative and epistolary sources, though – which is again pretty limited – suggests that learning from instructors was skewed in a particular direction. In Dudo’s work, Richard the Fearless was sent to Bayeux to learn Old Norse from Botho (which may or may not actually be true), and Hermann Billung learned it in captivity. In the mid-ninth century, Abbot Lupus of Ferrières addressed a couple of letters to the abbot of Prüm dealing with a few of his (Lupus’) monks who he sent there to learn German (which he was very clear on the importance of learning). Lupus’ letters may well be the tip of an iceberg; but either way, what this suggests is that language learning more often happened as the outgrowth of movement of people, whether as guests, foster-children, hostages or captives, rather than at home from tutors. The main exception I can think of for this is Empress Theophanu, who seems to have been taught Latin (but not German?) before she arrived in the West.
The other option would be translation. As we saw with Flodoard, there is some evidence for this, but virtually all of it is into or out of Latin. The most prominent example I know of is found in the Historiae of Richer of Rheims, who describes an audience between Otto II, Hugh Capet, and Bishop Arnulf of Orléans at Rome in 981. Arnulf entered with Hugh ‘in order that, since the king was speaking Latiariter, the bishop, interpreting the Latinitas, could indicate to the duke whatever was said’. (This is usually interpreted to mean that Hugh couldn’t speak Latin at all; personally, I think it means that Otto was speaking in really high-flying purple language – according to Ekkehard of St Gallen, Otto was apparently fluent enough to act as a translator himself on occasion.) It is interesting that they are speaking Latin rather than either Old Saxon or Romance here. This passage has in fact been used to argue that Hugh Capet didn’t know any Germanic dialects and that Otto didn’t speak Romance, neither of which seems terribly plausible to me: what, all the times Hugh Capet met his uncle Bruno of Cologne alongside his mother Hedwig he couldn’t speak to either of them in their native tongue? Otto II just stood by grinning vacantly (despite knowing Latin) whilst Otto the Great was talking to people in Romance next to him, as he does in Ekkehard’s Casus Sancti Galli? We’ll revisit this episode in a few weeks for an entirely different reason; for now, let’s just say that whilst in terms of its historical accuracy this is another case of Richer not letting his complete lack of knowledge of events getting in the way of a good story what it indicates for our purposes is that real-time translation was an option for tenth-century people, even if evidence for translation between different vernaculars is limited.
There is one final option: counts, dukes, margraves, bishops and the like did have serious language difficulties. Let’s take another episode in Richer, his account of the Synod of Mouzon. Richer says that at this synod, Bishop Haimo of Verdun did the talking because (unlike the other East Frankish attendees) he could speak Romance. As it happens, Richer is wrong again and this time we can get a decent idea of why, because the synodal acts survive: these say simply that Haimo did speak in Romance, not that he was the only one who could. Given the high-level participation of laymen, notably Count Godfrey the Prisoner of Verdun, in the synod, the distinction being drawn by the acts is probably not between different vernaculars spoken by the different bishops, but between the Romance spoken by the laymen and the high-flying Latin that the bishops would have used between themselves on their own. Nonetheless, even though Richer is wrong his account gives an important insight into the mentalities surrounding tenth-century language use: where difficulties might arise, at elite level they could be planned for in advance.
This, then, is the inversion of the positive side of language learning. Tenth-century people could take advantage of continuums between Romance and Germanic vernaculars, they could seize opportunities (whether desirable or not) to learn languages, they could get hold of phrasebooks, or they could just get a translator. However, they could also just send in the guy who spoke Romance into the right situation. These factors together probably explain why there are no examples of vernacular misunderstanding at elite level to compare with the most famous example further down the scale, upon which I will leave you. Ekkehard of St Gallen describes how, one day, a Romance-speaker who was fraudulently pretending to be lame to get alms showed up at the monastery. He was assigned a Germanic-speaking servant to bathe him. The Romance-speaker complained that the water was too hot: cald, cald est (modern French: c’est chaud, c’est chaud)! The German-speaker thought (to give the modern German form): “es ist kalt? (It’s cold?)” OK, sure: he poured in a kettle of boiling water, causing the Romance-speaker to bound shrieking out of the bath and expose him as a fraud.