Animal Vocalization and Human Polyglossia in Walter of Bibbesworth’S Thirteenth-Century Domestic Treatise in Anglo-Norman French and Middle English

Sign Systems Studies 37(3/4), 2009

Animal vocalization and human polyglossia in Walter of Bibbesworth’s thirteenth-century domestic treatise in Anglo-Norman French and Middle English
William Sayers
Department of Comparative Literature, Cornell University Ithaca, NY 14853, USA e-mail:

Abstract: Walter of Bibbesworth’s late thirteenth-century versified treatise on French vocabulary relevant to the management of estates in Britain has the first extensive list of animal vocalizations in a European vernacular. Many of the Anglo-Norman French names for animals and their sounds are glossed in Middle English, inviting both diachronic and synchronic views of the capacity of these languages for onomatopoetic formation and reflection on the interest of these social and linguistic communities in zoosemiotics.

In the late thirteenth century, the Essex knight Walter of Bibbesworth composed a Tretiz or treatise that editor William Rothwell states “was written in order to provide anglophone landowners in late thirteenthcentury with French vocabulary appertaining to the management of their estates in a society where French and Latin, but not yet English, were the accepted languages of record”1. The addressee of the tract is,
Walter of Bibbesworth 1990, Introduction, 1. This edition of Le Tretiz, however welcome, is without lexical notes or glossary. In all, sixteen manuscripts of Walter’s work have been preserved. Earlier editions include those of Wright in


William Sayers

however, not the male landowner but rather the mistress of the house, mesuer in Anglo-Norman French, housewif in the Middle English of the tract. Walter passes in review such specialized vocabularies as the terminology for the human body, clothing, fields and their crops, and tasks associated with preparing a house for a feast. Of greater interest, especially for the history of technology, he addresses such important domestic undertakings as the dressing of flax and...