Dating early english documents
Detail from Robert of Gretham, Mirur, in Anglo-Norman (WLC/LM/4, f.57v) The earliest literary document in English in the University of Nottingham’s collections is a fragment from the life of St Bridget, from the South English Legendary, composed in the late thirteenth century.
The scribe uses the Anglo-Saxon letters ‘yogh’ for ‘y’ or ‘g’ (ȝ) and thorn for ‘th’ (þ).
Detail from John Gower, Traitié ..., in French with Latin headings (WLC/LM/8, f.203v) Although French remained familiar to Gower’s contemporaries at court and in educated or wealthy circles, the great days of Anglo-Norman as a literary medium were over.
With its fixed grammar and spelling, it was easy to abbreviate without misunderstanding.It was still dominant in the mid-thirteenth century when Robert of Gretham wrote his advice on moral conduct, the Mirur.For Robert the appropriate language for lay education was French, but by the late fourteenth century his book had been translated into English.His explanation concludes that everybody, both the educated (‘lered’) and unschooled (‘lewed’), old and young, can understand the English tongue.
In contrast, Latin was only understood by those who learnt it at school, and French by those who attended court.Eventually English emerged as the standard literary medium, but it was not until the eighteenth century that Latin disappeared from legal documents.