Anglo-Norman Reading Group

Jane Bliss reports on the Oxford Anglo-Norman Reading Group.

The group is now nearly as old as the century! It was born of a chance conversation in the Taylorian Library, as we deplored an apparent lack of interest in Anglo-Norman. Having had a crash course with Tony Hunt during my MPhil studies, I was aware of the riches that are available but usually ignored by those who think the language is even more difficult than Old French.  From the outset we were keen to build an informal and collaborative forum for reading, discussing, and translating a wide variety of texts.  We welcome all comers, primarily graduate students but also numerous others, whatever their level of knowledge.

We study the literature of Anglo-Norman (the insular French of the Middle Ages), presenting and translating texts chosen according to members’ needs or suggestions. The range of material is inclusive: romance, chronicle, saints’ life, religious material, letters, legal texts, and much more. When possible, we invite a guest speaker, or (for example) the editor of a work in progress.  Recent texts have included the Anglo-Norman life of St Godric, presented by one of its recent editors Margaret Coombe, and an Apocalypse edited and translated (with our help) by Antje Carroll.  We even once presented extracts from one of our texts at the Medieval Road Show:  dramatic readings from the Maniere de Langage in which sample conversations, some highly comic, are offered to the language student.

We usually meet fortnightly, from 5.00-6.30pm, on a Friday. The group is currently supported by Helen Swift, who kindly arranges a room for us in St Hilda’s College, and a Convenor (Stephanie Hathaway) who looks after technical matters with splendid efficiency.  I lead the work on the texts:  I have done extensive research in Anglo-Norman literature (as an independent scholar); I studied with Tony Hunt and have many years teaching experience; I have published a number of books and articles in the field. 

The group varies from about 4 to 12 people, depending on their other commitments in a busy Oxford term; our hybrid sessions have attracted scholars from farther afield and may bring the number up to as many as 20. In fact, we have recently attracted a medievalist all the way from Bristol University, to take part in person whenever she can. We take it in turns to read the text aloud, never mind the pronunciation, and then help one another with translation and commentary.  Each text is presented at the beginning of term with an introduction, questions are explored, and discussion is encouraged.  A `padlet’ is provided for disseminating texts, sources, secondary materials, other interesting clips, and so on.

Thanks to our convenor and OMS, our studies are lubricated by a choice of wine or soft drinks. This encourages lateral thinking, and definitely aids relaxation at the end of a busy week. In addition, when we have a visiting speaker, we arrange to take them out to dinner. Failing that, we often meet for a drink together after the end of term.

Finally, I would like to pay tribute to the memory of Paul Hyams, who declared on joining us: `Historians don’t read enough romances, nor will they read anything in French.’  He was a faithful member of the group almost to his death last year, contributing to our understanding of the language used for day-to-day admin in medieval Britain. 

Jane Bliss (
Image thanks to St Brendan

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