Conquest and colonization created on the frontiers of Latin Christendom societies in which different ethnic groups live side by side, and everywhere in the frontier zone of Latin Europe race relations were thus a central issue. It is worth stressing at the outset that, while the language of race—gens, natio, “blood,” “stock,” and so on—is biological, its medieval reality was almost entirely cultural. […] In contrast to descent, [custom, language and law] are malleable. They can, indeed, with varying degrees of effect, be transformed not only from one generation to the next, but even within an individual lifetime. New languages can be mastered, new legal regimes adopted, new customs learned. […] If we define, say, ‘German’ and ‘Slav’ by customs, language and law rather than by descent, the grandchildren of Slavs could be Germans, the grandchildren of Germans Slavs. When we study race relations in medieval Europe we are analysing the contact between various linguistic and cultural groups, not between breeding stocks.
The section on language contrasts the regions with “a relatively high degree of linguistic and cultural homogeneity and dominated by more or less standard languages” (English in England, Languedoil north of the Loire, Languedoc south of it, Low German in north Germany, etc.) with “the conquered and colonized peripheries, which were characterized by a ubiquitous mixture and intermingling of language and culture”:
As one travelled from Trier to Vienna or from Béarn to Provence, one would notice the shift from one local variant to another. In complete contrast, the conquered and colonized peripheries of Europe were familiar with languages of completely different language families being spoken in the same settlement or street. […] The streams, hills and settlements of the frontier zones began to show signs of a double identity: ‘the place is called woyces in Slavic and enge water in German’, explains one east Pomeranian document. […]
Bilingualism was not unusual at many social levels. Even in the tenth century Otto I of Germany had command of both German and Slav. In the Frankish Morea successful leaders would know French, Greek and perhaps even Turkish […]. In the fourteenth century the descendants of the Anglo-Norman invaders of Ireland were composing poetry in Irish. […]
The variegated linguistic patterns of the frontier regions were reflected in their naming practices. A process of mutual influence meant that by the fourteenth century Slav farmers might be called Bernard and Richard, English settlers in Ireland might have Irish names, and a descendant of Welsh upland princes might be quite unrecognizable as Sir Thomas de Avene. Simultaneous binomialism is an even sharper symptom of the linguistic and cultural pluralism of the frontier zones. In the tenth century Otto II was accompanied after the rout of Cap Colonne by ‘one of his knights, Henry, who was called Zolunta in Slavic.’ […] Przemysl Ottokar II even had two seals, one for his Czech-speaking lands, inscribed with the name Przemysl, one for his German-speaking lands, bearing the name Ottokar. Among the Mozarabs of Toledo, Romance-Arabic binomialism was widespread. ‘In the name of God,’ begins one document of 1115, ‘I, Dominico Petriz, as I am called in Romance (in latinitate) and in Arabic (in algariva) Avelfaçam Avenbaço; also I, Dominiquez, as I am called in Romance, and in Arabic Avelfacam Avencelema…’ […]
A growing strand of linguistic nationalism or politicized linguistic consciousness emerges in the later Middle Ages. A symptom of the identification of language and people is the use of the word for language in contexts where it almost certainly means ‘people’. The West Slav word jazyk denoted both ‘language’ and ‘people’ […]. The German translation […] uses zung, i.e. ‘tongue’, and this has a similar semantic complexity. Iaith, the Welsh word for ‘language’, was likewise ‘charged in contemporary parlance with a far greater range of attributes than the purely linguistic one’. […] In Latin documents lingua enshrines the same ambiguity. […] In all these instances a semantic ambiguity points to a conceptual one — ethnic and linguistic identity tended to blur into one another.
We discussed the flexibility of ethnic identities last year; it is important to keep such things in mind to counteract the simplistic, ahistorical claims of ethnic nationalists.