Medieval languages existed in a state of constant contact and interaction with other languages. In this project, I argue that thirteenth- and fourteenth- century English trilingual manuscripts show the coalescing of distinctive approaches to the literary and pragmatic possibilities of multilingual clusters of texts. In particular, the construction of parallel-text translations becomes a catalyst for the generation of Early Middle English poetry. Through examination of three manuscripts linked to the vibrant West Midlands literary ecosystem (Cambridge, Trinity College MS B.14.39; William Herebert’s preaching notebook, British Library MS Additional 46919; and British Library MS Harley 913, the “Kildare manuscript”), I demonstrate how the production of paired translations fueled the development of English religious verse.
Interpreting medieval texts’ manuscript contexts is essential to understanding their meaning. This is especially true of paired translations, where the capacity of each language to reflect and comment on the other(s) is embedded in their material form. Whether a translation is inserted between the lines of its source text, interwoven with it in alternating stanzas, or copied in an adjacent column, these visual frameworks place the parallel texts and the registers associated with each of the languages in conversation with themselves.
The majority of medieval English paired translations have religious topics and were likely used for public and private devotional practices, including religious instruction, preaching, sung performance, and meditation. Paired translations for instruction, preaching, and performance have listeners as the final intended audience and depend on intermediary readers to transmit the text. In contrast, translations for private meditation were primarily visual and non-performative. To a person meditating on these paired translations, juxtaposed or intertwined texts would promote nonlinear reading practices, drawing the reader to consider the different aspects of the subject matter revealed in each language. For readers directly engaged with the manuscripts (a group of readers that would include their scribes), however, translations for instruction, preaching, and performance could also become the objects of meditation and nonlinear reading. By constructing paired translations, medieval poets highlight the act of translation, underscoring how translation is simultaneously effective as a means for communication and as a tool for self-reflection.