All of the manuscripts featured on this site have been copied in a dialect of French known to modern scholars by various names, including Norman French, Anglo-French, Insular French, and, most commonly, Anglo-Norman. One of the best definitions of Anglo-Norman language is provided by Ian Short in his Manual of Anglo-Norman (p. 17):
[Anglo-Norman] is the name traditionally given to the particular variety of Medieval French used in Britain between the Norman Conquest and the end of the 15th century – and, in the case of Law French, well beyond. I use “used” advisedly since it conveniently embraces the two principal functions that the language of Norman colonialisation came to fulfil: that of a spoken vernacular, and that of a written language of literature, learning and record. As such, it was, and long remained, the idiolect of a dominant culture, conferring social status as well as political prestige and power on its users. It was a language of privilege and therefore of advancement in a complex trilingual society which, initially at least, was polarised between the French-speaking conquerors and the English-speaking conquered. Between the two stood Latin, which until the end of the Middle Ages was to be the over-arching lingua franca of the literate and the learned. English, of course, remained the majority mother tongue of the common people, but their limited access to literacy and a dearth of English-speaking literary patrons meant that, in terms of written survival, their language suffered a temporary eclipse. Though Middle English literature continued to flourish in the late 12th and 13th centuries, it was only with the arrival of Chaucer at the end of the 14th century that English can be said fully to have regained the status of an innovative literary medium with a national dimension that it had enjoyed before the Conquest.
One of the fascinating consequences of the status enjoyed by Anglo-Norman in Medieval Britain is the early point, relative to Continental French, that it rivalled Latin as a language deemed worthy of serious literature. A significant number of the earliest works of ‘French’ literature were, in fact, composed in Britain, including the Vie de seint Alexis, the Voyage de seint Brendan, and the Oxford Psalter. Moreover, a number of the earliest French literary texts composed on the Continent have survived only because they were copied in Britain, such as the Chanson de Roland and the Chanson de Guillaume. To those unfamiliar with the importance of Anglo-Norman, it may be especially surprising to learn that more than two-thirds of the extant 12th-century manuscripts of ‘French’ literature were actually produced in Britain.
Whether the French Prose Apocalypse was originally composed in Anglo-Norman or Continental French remains an unresolved question: it has generally been assumed that it originated on the Continent, but this has not been satisfactorily investigated or demonstrated. What is certain, by contrast, is that the earliest manuscripts of the text, starting with Paris, BnF 403 c. 1250, were made in Britain and copied in Anglo-Norman dialect, as were the majority of the extant copies produced over the next two centuries.
Our featured manuscripts therefore bear witness not only to the popularity of the French Prose Apocalypse in Britain, but also more generally to the flourishing of Anglo-Norman literature in the Middle Ages.