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Lazy, arrogant cowards: how English saw French in 12th century

A twelfth-century poem newly translated into English casts fresh light on the origin of today’s Francophobic stereotypes. Although it is meant to be an ‘entente cordiale’, the relationship between the English and the French has been anything but neighbourly.

When the two nations have not been clashing on the battlefield or the sporting pitch they have been trading insults from ‘frogs’ to ‘rosbifs’.Now the translation of the poem has shown just how deep-rooted in history the rivalry and name-calling really is.

Written between 1180 and 1194, a century after the Norman Conquest united England and Normandy against a common enemy in France, the 396-line poem was part of a propaganda war between London and Paris.Poet Andrew de Coutances, an Anglo-Norman cleric, describes the French as godless, arrogant and lazy dogs. Even more stingingly, he accuses French people of being cowardly, and calls them heretics and rapists.

It has taken David Crouch, a professor of medieval history at Hull University, months to complete the translation of what is one of the earliest examples of anti-French diatribe. The poem was written at a time when Philip II of France was launching repeated attacks on Normandy, taking advantage of in-fighting within the English royal family. Prof Crouch says that the poem is of great interest to historians because of its “racial rhetoric”, which was deployed by Anglo-Norman intellectuals in support of their kings’ bitter political and military struggle.

While rivalry between the English and their Gallic neighbours now only tends to surface at sporting occasions and European summits, the poem recalls battles between the two countries and describes the vices of the French in detail.

In one passage, it claims that “eating is their religion” and warns that dining with them is not a pleasant experience.

“A man who dines with the French/ should grab whatever he may/ as either he will end up with the nuts/ or will just carry off the shallots,” the poet writes.

“When they’re abroad they’re even more greedy/And shamefully gorge themselves at every table/Whenever they get near one.

“And whenever hosts have them in their homes/they realise the French are such men/So greedy and so avaricious/That he ought to drive them off with kicks.”

“Intellectuals were deployed to compose diatribes against the enemy,” said Prof Crouch.

“This poem was poisonously undermining the French and their national legend while promoting the legend of King Arthur.”

The poet refutes criticisms of King Arthur and celebrates a legendary victory over Frollo, the French ruler who is portrayed as lazy and incompetent.

“Lying flat out without stirring himself/Frollo got the French to equip him/For that is the way of the French/ Getting their shoes on while lying down,” he writes.

Having described at length the cowardly nature of the French, he even claims, wrongly, that Paris derived its name from the word ‘partir’, which means to flee.

He calls the French “serfs” and “peasants” in an attempt to suggest that they are a race without nobility, adding: “People remind them often enough about this source of shame, but they may as well have not bothered; for they take neither offence or account, as they know no shame.”

Using phrases reminiscent of the insults used by the French knights in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, de Coutances says the French “live more vilely than a dog” and calls them “rascals” and “mockers”.

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