At its closest, the north coast of France is just twenty-one miles from the south coast of England. A byproduct of that geographical proximity is that over the past ten centuries England and France have found it all but impossible to resist the urge to invade one another. And at least one upshot of the greatest of all these invasions – the Norman Conquest of 1066 – is that roughly a third of the entire English language has its etymological roots on the opposite side of the Channel.
Where is Vire France? – Vire France Map – Vire France Map Download Free Photo Gallery
After his victory at the Battle of Hastings, the newly crowned King William I of England found it necessary to enforce his authority on his brand-new kingdom. As a consequence his native Norman French grew to become the dominant language of England’s legal system, politics, finances and military. Latin remained the high-status language of the Church and education, but with French now installed as the language of the law and government in medieval England, the English language was relegated to bronze-medal position: it became little more than a day-to-day, low-status conversational language, used by an English-speaking population now translated into the unhappy subjects of a French-speaking king.
With so much business now being conducted in French, French-origin words naturally began to drift into the mainstream. Soon, English was awash with countless words and phrases imported by the victorious king and his attendant armies of ministers, bishops, knights, and – well, armies.
Words like royal, sovereign, crown, duke and baron began appearing in and around the king’s court. Judge, justice, jury, felony, verdict, bailiff and plaintiff drifted into the language of the law, while the military now spoke of armour, soldiers, archers, battles and guards. This linguistic Norman invasion continued apace over the decades that followed, leaving no corner of the language untouched, from the money we spend to the food we eat. So while the lowly Anglo-Saxons tended to their pigs, sheep, cows and calves, the ruling Normans enjoyed the fruits of their labour: the pork, the mutton, the beef and the veal.
That’s not to say that William the Conqueror is singlehandedly responsible for a third of your language being French, of course. It took several centuries for these and countless more words to become fully naturalised into our language. What’s more, English being the magpie language that it is, it has unapologetically continued to pilfer words from its neighbour across la Manche ever since, including several of those whose origins lie on the French map.
First on our itinerary is the picturesque town of Vire, roughly a hundred and fifty miles from Paris, in the rural west of Normandy. Vire has two somewhat infamous claims to fame. The first is that it ranks among the worst affected towns of the Second World War. On 6 June 1944, a relentless series of air raids unleashed a fire that raged so furiously the town’s church bells melted and 95 per cent of its buildings were burned to the ground. Happily, Vire was not obliterated entirely from the map, and after the war it rose from the ashes to re-establish itself. Which is lucky, should you ever want to pay your respects to the founder of vaudeville theatre.
Vire’s second claim to fame is that it was the birthplace of Olivier Basselin. Born around 1400, Basselin was a fuller by trade who operated a fabric mill alongside his wife on the outskirts of the town. But when he wasn’t busy fulling cloth, Basselin apparently liked nothing more than dabbling in his two great interests: writing crude poems and drinking songs, and consuming enormous amounts of good-quality wine, and even better cider.
Alas, we don’t know much more about Basselin and a great deal of what we do know has long since been shaped by centuries of lore and legend. But one thing we do know is that his crude songs and odes quickly proved popular, and before long much of sixteenth-century Normandy was singing along with what became known as his chansons de vau-de-Vire – his ‘songs of the Vire valley’.
As the popularity of his songs spread, Basselin’s bawdy style came to be imitated by other writers and performers, and this vau-de-Vire repertoire began to swell; by 1610, a local lawyer named Jean Le Houx had accumulated enough material to publish an anthology of Basselin’s and his contemporaries’ work. But just as the popularity of these songs reached its peak, their etymological connection with their home town began to fade.
By the time Le Houx’s anthology was published, Basselin’s vau-de-Vire had morphed into a single word, vaudevire. Confusion with ville, the French for ‘town’, soon ensued, and before long these entertainments had come to be known by an entirely new name: vaudeville.
That word finally made its debut in English in the mid seventeenth century, by which point its connection both to Vire and to Basselin had been relegated to the footnotes: Vaudeville: A country ballade, or song; a roundelay or virelay; so termed of Vaudevire, a Norman town, wherein Olivier Bassel [sic], the first inventor of them, lived.
Thomas Blount, Glossographia (1656)
The word had changed, but as time went by so too did the entertainment itself. By the eighteenth century, vaudeville songs were no longer bawdy accompaniments to drunken binges, but light popular ditties and music-hall numbers, often with comic or satirical edges. By the nineteenth century, they had found their way into English and American theatres and playhouses, where they were joined on stage by an assortment of magicians, tumblers, comedians, strongmen, actors and impersonators. Ultimately, by the turn of the century, vaudeville had become a catch-all term for any kind of variety performance.
As for Basselin, rumour has it that he died fighting the English in the Battle of Formigny in 1450, one of the final battles of the Hundred Years War.
Another skirmish between the English and the French, you say? Surely not
This Latin-French-English hierarchy still reverberates in our language today. Need a basic, straightforward word to get your message across? You’re better off with something from the Anglo-Saxon end of the scale. Want something a little more formal? Try its French-origin synonym. On the lookout for something with a little gravitas, useful only in the most specific of contexts? Then Latin is the way to go. That’s why you might casually ask (Anglo-Saxon) someone what they got up to on their holidays. But as soon as you start questioning (French) or interrogating them (Latin) on their holiday antics, the implications of your line of enquiry suddenly seem much more significant.
As a telling indictment of the precise content of these songs, on publication of his Le Livre des Chants nouveaux de Vaudevire, Le Houx reportedly travelled from Normandy to Rome to seek absolution merely for the sin of editing the my blog.