Monday 18 January 2010

The Worst of Neighbours

Contempt for the French is one of the great constants of English history dating back to the fourteenth century and the outbreak of the Hundred Years War. At least that’s what I though until I read a report recently on a new translation of a frog-bashing poem dating back even further, to the twelfth century. :-)

It was written sometime between 1180 and 1194 by one Andre de Coutances, a poet and Anglo-Norman cleric. When one considers that Andrew was French-speaking and, judging by his name, of French descent, it seems likely to me that his poem reflects older Norman contempt for the French, rather than something that is specifically English. After all at the time he was writing the kings of England effectively controlled more than have of France in the Angevin Empire. It was also a time when the French, in the person of Philip II, were nibbling away at the boundaries.

Anyway, Andrew kicks as well as punches. For him the French are godless, arrogant, lazy dogs. They are cowardly-now there is a recurrent theme!-as well as being heretics and rapists. And as for their eating habits, you can judge for yourself;

A man who dines with the French
Should grab whatever he may
As either he will end up with nuts
Or just carry off the shallots

Bad at home they get worse abroad;

That’s the way they are in their own land
But when they are abroad they are even more greedy
And shamefully gorge themselves at every table
Whenever they get near one.

But it’s when the poet discusses French martial abilities that he really lays in hard;

The English went on the attack
And the French defended like cowards
They gave up at the first onset and shameful ran away.

Here he is talking about an attack led by King Arthur indicating it seems that the Norman aristocracy were already grafting English, sorry, British national myths on to their own escutcheon.

De Coutances broadside was translated by David Crouch, professor of medieval history at Hull University, who says that intellectuals were deployed at the time to compose diatribes against the enemy. He also says that some of the insults are a bit like those hurled by the French knights against King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that the frogs “live more vilely than dogs”, and that they are “rascals” and “mockers”. All great fun!

Yes, it’s clearly and early form of disinformation and propaganda and I would just like to assure my French friends, particularly those in Paris, that it might be great fun but it’s bad history. :-)


  1. Lol as a historian you probably already know this, but Normandy was a Viking Kingdom, not a French one and so the contempt for the cowardly French was all part of the all conquering myth of the Norman (Viking) kingdoms.