Research in Focus: Ad Putter

Over a series of blogs we’ve been learning about the research of our members and others whose research is pertinent to the networks ambitions. This month we hear from Professor Ad Putter of the University of Bristol.

Putting the ‘multi’ back in multilingualism: Anglo-Dutch

Research on Middle English has become much more conscious of the presence of other languages, but the Big Three (Latin, French and English) have dominated scholarship to such an extent that ‘multilingualism’ in the context of medieval England has become almost coterminous with ‘trilingualism’. We must do more to acknowledge the multiplicity of languages that were current. My first stab at doing so was a volume I co-edited, Multilingualism in Medieval Britain (2013). This puts English in the context of French, Latin, Old Norse, Dutch, Hebrew, Welsh, Cornish and Gaelic. For the front cover we picked a page from a manuscript (a Psalter, c. 1220, now Oxford, Bodl. MS Or. 621, fol. 2r), written in England in Hebrew and Latin.

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My current research is on Anglo-Dutch relations in the medieval and early modern period. Since the Low Countries were a crucial trading partner, Dutch was important, and various writers came into contact with Dutch. A fascinating example is William Caxton. Caxton’s bestseller, Reynard the Fox, was a translation from Dutch. Caxton’s fluency in Dutch seems remarkable today, but was not uncommon for someone in his situation. Caxton was a cloth-trader and had spent decades working in the Low Countries.

Literary critics have not been complimentary about the quality of his translation. If we examine a sentence from Reynard, we can understand this point of view:

Yf the fox will telle how it byfel, I wyl gyve hym the fordele thereof, for I can not telle it so wel but he shal beryspe me.

(If the fox will tell me what happened, I will give him the privilege of doing so, for I cannot tell it so well that he would not reproach me.)

The italicized words are Dutch borrowings, like many others in Caxton’s Reynard. Editions from the nineteenth century onwards, including the fine Kelmscott edition by William Morris (1892), carry glossaries listing them.

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Caxton’s ‘double Dutch’ has encouraged the view that he was translating slavishly from Dutch, but on closer inspection the situation is more complicated. For example, while ‘beryspe’ was taken over verbatim by Caxton from his Dutch source, ‘fordele’ does not occur in the corresponding Dutch, which instead reads ‘vorwaerde’. Where ‘vordele’ does occur in the source, it only ever has the usual sense of the word, ‘advantage’, in which sense the word was borrowed into English in the fifteenth century. The context in which Caxton here uses ‘fordele’ shows, however, that he was sufficiently fluent in Dutch to know that the word had another sense in Middle Dutch, namely ‘privilege, precedence’.

Instead of thinking of Caxton as a slavish translator, I see him as a bilingual speaker, whose English shows influence from the language he spoke and wrote during his years in the Low Countries. In linguistics, such influence is known as interference, and this linguistic perspective provides a more sympathetic way of approaching Caxton’s English. It explains why he was also influenced by Dutch when he was translating from French. Examples of Dutch words that infiltrated his French-based books are ‘butter’ (‘cheat’, from Middle Dutch ‘botter’) in Game and Play of The Chesse (1474) and ‘spynroke’ (‘distaff’) in Book of the Knight of the Tower (1484). It also explains why Dutch not only shaped Caxton’s vocabulary but also other aspects of his language. For instance, in History of Jason (1477), Caxton on a few occasions spells ‘fleece’ in Dutch fashion as ‘vliese’. In Receuyell of the Historyes of Troye, he writes ‘styfemoder’ (Dutch ‘stiefmoeder’) instead of his normal ‘stepmoder’. In short, the real issue with Caxton’s style is not that he translated Dutch literally, but that he could not help himself thinking in Dutch, even when he was translating texts from French into English.

A wide-ranging research project on Anglo-Dutch relations, funded by Leverhulme,, is ongoing, and what I offer here is only a taster of a substantial book, North Sea Crossings: The Literary Heritage of Anglo-Dutch Relations, 1066-1688, co-authored with Sjoerd Levelt. The book will be published by the Bodleian Library to accompany an exhibition in the Weston Library in Oxford, opening in December 2020.


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