Norman French Literature

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Norman French Literature

Although Welsh and Flemish may have been used by the Anglo-Norman force that landed on the Wexford coast in 1169, its leaders probably spoke Norman-French: The few generations that their ancestors spent on English soil had not altered that. As the language of the ruling Norman elite, French was used in acts of Parliament and in early town statutes. It was favored by the upper echelons of the church, especially those with strong French connections. Private letters written in French by Irish-born Normans demonstrate their acquaintance with French. Criticism of French love lyrics by the fourteenth-century bishop of Ossory indicates some familiarity with French among the common people.

French titles included in inventories of possessions suggest that French literature was read in medieval Ireland. The country also produced some French literature, such as the Rithmus Facture Ville de Rosse, a 200-line lighthearted poem describing the 1265 entrenchment of the Norman town of New Ross in County Wexford. The most extensive Norman-French text surviving from medieval Ireland is the Song of Dermot and the Earl. Its 3,459 lines recount the 1169 invasion from a Norman perspective. Straddling the chanson de geste and the rhymed chronicle so favored by the Normans, it tells of invasions, battles, danger, shifting allegiances, sieges, and slaughter. It is significant not as an accurate historical account but for providing insight into the besieged mentality of the early Norman community, for whom it was probably written. Amour courtois (courtly love) inspiration may have reached Ireland later via English literature.

Exactly how long French featured in the linguistic landscape of medieval Ireland is debatable. As early as 1285, French-linked religious orders were abandoning French for Irish. The famous Statutes of Kilkenny (1366), which promoted the English language, are couched in legal French—an unconsciously ironic indication that French was becoming fossilized. Gearóid Iarla (1338–1398), lord chief justice of Ireland, wrote poetry in Irish, whereas his grandfather, the first earl of Desmond, wrote poetry in French. French may thus have yielded to Irish as speedily as the much later final shift from Irish to English in the nineteenth century. French still prospers in contemporary Ireland, from the renowned French writers who have made their homes there to the students who continue to study French in remarkably high numbers.

SEE ALSO Arts: Early and Medieval Arts and Architecture; Literature: Early and Medieval Literature; Middle English Literature


Cosgrove, Art, ed. A New History of Ireland. Vol. 2, Medieval Ireland, 1169–1534. Rev. edition, 1993.

Curtis, Edmund. "The Spoken Languages of Medieval Ireland." Studies 8 (1919): 234–254.

Orpen, Goddard Henry. The Song of Dermot and the Earl: An Old French Poem Edited by Goddard Henry Orpen. 1892.

Grace Neville