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How to build a house (and learn French) the medieval way

Perhaps one of the most delightful works from the Middle Ages is The Treatise of Walter of Bibbesworth. From it you can learn much about medieval daily life and be taught French at the same time.

The Treatise of Walter of Bibbesworth was written in the 1230s in England, and was originally a gift between two friends. Dionise de Anesty was a minor noblewoman in Hertfordshire, who had married a Warin de Muchensi. He had two children from a previous marriage, and they soon had a son of their own. Dionise was responsible for teaching these children, and apparently she turned to Walter, a friend and neighbour, to write a short book about learning the French language, something that would be very important among England’s nobility in the thirteenth century.

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Here is how Walter explains his work:

Since you have asked me to put into writing for your children a phrase book to teach them French, I have done this as I learned the language myself and as the expressions came back to my mind, so that the children will know the correct names of the things they see, and will know when to say mon and ma, son and sa, la and le, moi and je.

What follows is a wonderful poem meant to teach various French words and phrases, by focusing on aspects of daily life – baking bread, fishing in a pond, the names of animals and birds, tidying up a house – things that you might expect to see and do in the medieval English countryside. One of the examples is building a house. Here are the first few lines in French:

Si vous avez en penser
Mesoun ou chaumbre edefier,
Il covient au comencement
K’il eit bone fundament.
E puis leverez vous la mesere
Dunt femme est dit mesnere.

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And here is the English translation of the entire section:

Now for building a house:

If you have in mind to build a house or room
You must start by laying a foundation,
And then you raise the house-wall (whence a woman is called a housewife)
A yard-wall encloses a courtyard but it’s a house-wall on which the roof rests.
But there’s hayward and wall: listen to the differences!
The hayward looks after fields but a wall keeps the house safe.
In the wall, crosswise, above the cellar fix the beam;
(To a pillar under the beam tie the filly by its haltar);
For your flooring above the beam lay all the joists,
And on the joists the floor, paved with boards, or plaster.
On the wall put the rafter: two rafters make a couple.
And are fixed firm on the wall by nail and auger.
All that’s needed is a roof. But on the very top of the house
There must be roof-beam, lengthwise, and thus the roof will be much more secure:
So open up the roof to close it down better!
To continue, you mustn’t forget
That your house must have laths and fixed nails;
There must be splints in the house too. I mention this for information
Because not everyone knows the difference between these two:
Splints ease the house, but gripes give trouble to many,
And the term is properly used of horses in particular.
There’s still more to know about building a house:
There properly needs to be a louver and a window.
There’s louver and cupboard: smoke comes out of the louver.
Because the French aumeire is what is called ‘louver’ over here,
While an aumaire is properly where you put meat and provisions.
At the doorway is threshold  and overhead is the lintel;
At the sides are two doorstops to which rings are fixed.
In one doorpost are the hinge-hooks, and two hingles in them.
So drop the latch into the staple, and the house will be safe.

While the text doesn’t offer great details on the building of a house, it would allow the reader to better understand the terms, and avoid mixing up similar-sounding French words.

The Treatise of Walter of Bibbesworth is edited and translated by Andrew Dalby and published in 2012 by Prospect Books.

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Top Image: 14th century image of a house. BNF Français 343  fol. 21v

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