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Discourse on “French of Outremer” Terminologies

An article recently published in The Medieval Globe (TMG) sparked a discussion between the author and editor that reflects the larger challenges of globalizing medieval studies. When describing the encounters between distinctive cultures and languages, how can we avoid anachronism and teleology without confusing or ignoring the categories of analysis accepted by scholars in various disciplines? How, in this case, should we characterize the vernacular(s) spoken by European crusaders in their interactions with peoples of the eastern Mediterranean, among others? In what follows, we document the exchange between the author, Bogdan Smarandache, and the editor, Carol Symes, as they work toward an appropriate and intelligible terminology. A podcast version of this conversation also resides on the Crusader States website, edited by Nicholas Paul.

Bogdan:I propose to use the terms “Old French” and “Outremer French” to label what Usāma ibn Munqidh (1095-1188 C.E.) describes as the language of the Franks (Ifranjī) in his autobiographical TheBook of Learning by Example. I am first of all basing my use of this term on a lecture presented by Laura Minervini in 2014, but I am applying it quite loosely with less attention to its development as a regional vernacular. The seven loanwords that appear in the text are indubitably Old French and the context is Outremer (“the Overseas”) from the perspective of the participants on crusade, their descendants who settled in the Near East, and subsequent migrants from Europe. I mostly use the term Old French with reference to the language in more general terms, beyond just Outremer/the Latin East.

Carol: “Old French” and “Outremer French” are modern constructs and are also very broad terms. It has been suggested that you could use romanor Romance, but these terms might also be anachronistic, since neither would be intelligible to Usāma ibn Munqidh’s contemporaries. Perhaps you can get even closer to the vocabulary they would have understood by reference to regional forms: Francien, Occitan, Picard, Anglo-Norman, et cetera. Did Usāma encounter Franks from Picardy and can we glean this information from the loanwords that he preserves? What if he met Celtic or Germanic speaking people—would he have understood their language as well? Would he have differentiated it from that of the Franks?

Bogdan: I see what you mean. You’re right to point out that the Franks did not agree on a label for their language, like “Outremer French” or “Old French,” at least not during the first few decades after their conquest of the Coastal Plain. And Usāma ibn Munqidh does not use such terms either. He calls their language literally “Frankish,” hinting at an ethnic understanding of language or perhaps adherence to a widely popular conceptualization of the language of Christians from overseas (min khalf al-baḥr) – in the same way that Usāma would recognize “Arabic” (ʿArabī) as the language of the Arabs or “Turkic” (Turkī) as the language of the Turcomans. And even if many of the participants on crusade or later European migrants came to understand themselves as Franks through a shared process of identity formation, as Robert Bartlett has argued, they were still speaking different vernaculars and dialects and sometimes only Latin was a common language among groups. And yes, there were also Celtic and Germanic-speaking peoples in the East whose languages were not differentiated by locals, as far as we can tell from the Arabic sources. This makes for a conundrum in defining an appropriate terminology.

Carol:  And nomenclature is no small matter! A close examination of our own terminology can help us better understand how the subjects of our research understood language and communication. TMGis trying to challenge modern conceptualizations that have created boundaries, often along modern nationalist lines, between different medieval peoples. A critique of the concept of Old French and an exploration of the language of the Franks as understood in historical context is highly pertinent to understanding the past in a more connected way. In this specific case, “Frankish” probably captures the nuances best, getting us closest to what both Usāma ibn Munqidh and his interlocutors would have understood.

Bogdan: Frankish would be the literal translation of Ifranjīand translates accurately what Usāma ibn Munqidh called the language of the Franks. However, modern scholars have created labels for languages in order to study them from the perspective of historical linguistics. For example, Cyril Aslanov is comfortable using Old French as an umbrella term, while also using more specific terms with reference to specific dialects. If I were to call the loanwords in The Book of Learning by Example “Frankish loanwords,” it might cause some confusion among linguistic specialists and would risk seeming not to engage with their important work. As a compromise, I will prioritize Usāma’s perspective when discussing his linguistic encounters with the Franks, using the Arabic transliterated term “Ifranjī,” but I will use “Old French” when stepping back from the medieval context to examine that language and its native speakers from the perspective of the historian. I am also comfortable privileging “Old French” as a modern analytical category in this case because the ruling elites of the Latin kingdoms encountered by Usāma mostly originated from regions where various dialects of what we call Old French were spoken. Your critique of my initial terminology has got me thinking that flexibility is called for here and that alternating between terms depending on the specific context can be a solution to the problem of anachronism.

Carol:  I accept this compromise! Perhaps this discussion may apply to other contexts in which modern and fixed notions of language have been superimposed on regions and societies in which conceptualizations of language were more fluid and difficult to define, or that perhaps remained undefined. It could also help us to rethink other modern categories and typologies that have been used to define premodern religious and ethnic identities, too.