In David Jones’s hybrid masterpiece In Parenthesis, there’s a soldier with the unlikely name of Dai de la Cote male taile; a footnote tells us to “Cf. Malory, book ix, ch. 1.” Book IX, Chapter 1 of Le Morte d’Arthur begins:

At the court of King Arthur there came a young man and bigly made, and he was richly beseen: and he desired to be made knight of the king, but his over-garment sat over-thwartly, howbeit it was rich cloth of gold. What is your name? said King Arthur. Sir, said he, my name is Breunor le Noire, and within short space ye shall know that I am of good kin. It may well be, said Sir Kay, the Seneschal, but in mockage ye shall be called La Cote Male Taile, that is as much to say, the evil-shapen coat.

So far, so good, but it happens that in French the phrase cote mal taillée means something quite different; this cote is from Latin quota and means ‘quoted value; rating; assessment,” so that faire une cote mal taillée means to make a rough-and-ready assessment, or in general to “split the difference,” to compromise. (Léon Daudet, son of Alphonse, in Vers le roi, says “C’est [le Palais de Justice] le pays de la cote mal taillée, du « Monsieur a raison, mais vous n’avez pas tort », des accommodements entre le vrai et le faux”: ‘[The Law Courts] are the land of the cote mal taillée, of “This gentleman is right, but you, sir, are not wrong,” of compromises between the true and the false.’)

Must create a minor stumbling-block for French-speaking readers attempting Malory. I wonder how it gets translated into French?


  1. Wow.
    That’s like the old question of how to translate the key phrase of Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”. Hopefully one can do better than Systran, which thinks it means “pitié de sans de dame de belle de La”!

  2. Siganus Sutor says

    Le Morte d’Arthur ? I don’t even understand the title. Le mort ? La morte ?
    “La cote mal taillée” might probably be linked to another expression : “quote-part” — with a -q —, i.e. the share, the contribution, the part, one has to pay.

  3. I would think that a French translation would use “cotte”, a surcoat worn over armor.

  4. Le Morte d’Arthur ? I don’t even understand the title. Le mort ? La morte ?
    The actual title is “Le Morte d’Arthur”, although according to the Wikipedia article the first printing had it as “Le Morte Darthur.” The correct French would be “La Mort …”, but Mallory wasn’t French and neither was his intended audience. Since the title is in mangled French, I’m not a bit suprised about “cote”….

  5. Cf. Chaucer’s Prioresse:
    “And frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
    After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
    For frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe.”

  6. Malory’s French:
    (I tried earlier but there were problems when I read the preview and I don’t think my message went through)
    – in general, French words and expressions used in Medieval English have to be taken with a grain of salt and not necessarily as actual French of the period as spoken in the Ile-de-France (Paris area), let alone Modern French. Malory should not be taken as an expert on French. His title “Le Morte d’Arthur” should be of course “La mort d’Arthur” (Arthur’s Death), but the spelling shows (a) the English confusion about the unstressed vowel of the article, coupled with the lack of grammatical gender for inanimate nouns in English, and (b) the pronunciation (still current at the time in France) of the final consonant of the French word “mort”.
    – “la cote” is primarily a business and legal term, as discussed in the post; the French word meant for the garment worn by the inelegant young man is “la cotte” – not really a “coat” but an overgarment, worn over other clothes or over armour – there are many examples in pictures from the period. This man’s “cotte” hung down way too far over his shoulders like a poncho instead of just covering them, so it was ‘badly cut’ for him in spite of its very expensive material. Perhaps he had hoped to be known as ‘the knight of the cloth-of-gold cotte’ and instead became ‘the knight of the badly-cut cotte’.
    – La Belle Dame Sans Merci: this means The Ruthless Lady
    “belle” here does not just mean ‘beautiful’ (although the lady in question is), it is also a medieval French way of showing respect, especially to a person whose exact status is undetermined. In medieval texts, noblemen are regularly addressed as “Beau doux Sire”, literally “Handsome sweet Sir”. “Belle dame” must have been the common respectful term of address to ladies, hence the English word “beldame”, which has gone down in the social scale before pretty much going out of use.
    As another example, the respectful use of “beau/belle” survives in the French terms for in-laws and stepsiblings, e.g. “belle-soeur” for sister-in-law or stepsister – a person who is welcomed into an appropriate role as part of the family and who is addressed in a respectful way. The term of address then became an everyday word, but French people often wonder about the origin of those ambiguous terms.

  7. I’ve heard about pidgin English before (and even “pigeon English”), be it in literature, but not really about pidgin French…
    Marie-Lucie: If “your tailor is rich” and if you are interested in cotte-making:

  8. James Crippen says

    England in the middle ages spoke Norman French, not Parisian French. The two are rather different; why for instance we say castle instead of chateau.

  9. James Crippen says
  10. Yes, in the 15th cenury there were still plenty of people in England, especially at Sir Thomas’s social level, who spoke French as a first language — but it was a dialect of Norman French, riddled with English and full of “bad” (i.e. different) grammar.
    I wonder if Malory knew this legal/commercial phrase, and if this echo of it was part of Sir Kay’s ill-bred mockery, implying that the knight’s rank, as well as tailor, were inadequate? I wouldn’t be at all surprised. That kind of sneer would be quintessential Kay.

  11. Ian Myles Slater says

    Stephen H.A. Shepherd, in his recent Norton Critical Edition of “Le Morte Darthur” (2004), observes that “Malory frequently misapplies *le* in titular compounds, perhaps on a simple sonic and gender-neutral analogy with ‘the'” (page 1).
    This observation is based on having the Winchester MS available to compare to Caxton’s edition. Others had long ago pointed out that the written French of Caxton’s Malory apparently had as its ultimate model the Norman and Anglo-Norman scribal practices of previous centuries, not that of fifteenth-century Paris.
    It seems to have been “provincial” in its idioms and spellings from the beginning, and the written form prevailing in England followed archaic models. Which presumably carried for scribes the prestige of age and patriotism, as against the new-fangled and suspiciously foreign varieties used on the Continent.
    This tendency may have been reinforced for Malory by the fact that he was largely translating and adapting thirteenth-century French works in the late fifteenth-century. Since there is no agreement on the nature of the manuscripts that would have been available, to him, however, arguments from their presumed age and/or insular linguistic character become circular.

  12. (Malory spoke Norman French …)
    Perhaps I expressed myself poorly, but I was not suggesting that Malory’s French should be viewed in the light of Modern so-called “Parisian” French, and thereby found wanting, but readers who are only familiar with Modern French are puzzled when they try to interpret his words as if they were modern.
    It is true that the French dialect originally brought to England was one spoken in Normandy, a variety which persisted in rural areas until very recently, but it also acquired a strong admixture of what was then more standard French, brought by later immigrants, which is why English has “castle” not “chastel” as pointed out (“chateau” reflects a later pronunciation with a triphthong instead of -el), but “chapel” not “capel”, along with “chain”, “chair”, “chief”, “chimney”, and many others. But the Norman dialects in France have never lost the gender distinction for articles and nouns, for instance. “le” may have a “sonic” resemblance with “the”, but there is never any confusion in French between e (schwa) and a as there is is for English speakers (this confusion did exist at one time, but long before the Normans came to England). Perhaps I am misled by the name “Norman French” instead of “Anglo-Norman” to refer strictly to the varieties formerly spoken and written in England – not only by native speakers – and thereby somewhat pidginized.
    Besides “le Morte d’Arthur”, another instance where I have seen “le” used for “la” in medieval legend is in the name of “Morgan le Fay”, known in French as “la fée Morgane”. The word for “fairy” (a supernatural being but a woman in size and shape, not like the tiny winged insect-like creatures this words often refers to in English) is the outcome of the phonological evolution of the Latin word “fata”, originally a neuter plural that was later interpreted as a feminine singular. It was never used to refer to a male supernatural. I read legends about Morgane and “l’enchanteur Merlin” when I was a child and remember my puzzlement that this female character actually introduced herself as “le Fay” and not “la fée”. Perhaps these legends were translated from Malory’s works, by someone who did not quite understand Malory’s French either.
    Re an intended double meaning of “la cot(t)e mal taillée”, I find this very doubtful. The literal meaning is quite enough as a putdown of the upstart, such a show-off with his cloth of gold cotte which is not even cut properly. The meaning of “la cote (not cotte) mal taillée” (I did not know this expression but it is in the Robert dictionary) seems to refer to a juridical context of unfair arbitration in a dispute, which does not correspond to the situation in the story.

  13. marie-lucie: I agree, I think the idea of double meaning is extremely unlikely, not only on semantic but chronological grounds (I seriously doubt the modern meaning existed in Malory’s day). By the way, I added the accents for you; I don’t know why they were causing problems for you. I just copied and pasted them from my post, but HTML should work as well: & eacute ; (put together) gives é.

  14. The word “cotte”, FWIW, is frequently found in the Brother Cadfael books.
    La Belle Dame Sans Merci: this means The Ruthless Lady.
    Sure, but if Coleridge had meant “The Ruthless Lady” he would have said that. (It distressed me greatly to learn that the (formerly?) standard German translation of “The Ancient Mariner” is “Die Alte Matrose”; “It is an old salt, and he stoppeth one of three”? I don’t think so.)
    The trick is, how should one capture the almost indefinable flavor (claritas, if you like your Aquinas Joycefully) of the French phrase in English context, when the context is now French. I don’t claim to know the answer.
    Yes, in the 15th century there were still plenty of people in England, especially at Sir Thomas’s social level, who spoke French as a first language
    The 15th century seems way too late for Anglo-French as a first language. Can you point to evidence for that?
    But anyway, here’s my favorite bit of Law-French, from a decision establishing that a soap factory (which smells awful) is not ipso facto a nuisance at common law:

    La utilité del chose excusera le noisesomeness del stink.

  15. La utilité del chose excusera le noisesomeness del stink.
    Thank you — that’s the best thing I’ve read all day!

  16. Hmm… a little googling convinces me that the usual form of the quote is “le utility del chose excusera le noisomeness del stink” (though it doesn’t convince me the quote is genuine, since nobody gives an actual citation). I also found this delightful example:
    You may want to consult Frederic W. Maitland, _English Law and The Renaissance_”The Rede Lectures for 1901″ Cambridge University Press, 1901 for some references and a famous example, a report telling how a successor of Sir Robert Rede was assaulted by a prisoner “que puis son condemnation ject un brickbat a le dit justice que narrowly mist.”

  17. marie-lucie says

    “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” does mean literally The Ruthless Lady but using the French words in an otherwise English text places the poem in a medieval, mythical context such as is found in Malory, as well as leaving the reader wondering about the exact meaning. If Coleridge had used the literal translation, readers might have expected some tale of a beautiful but nasty, powerful woman, but not one with the same aura of otherworldliness and legend. You could possibly call Catherine the Great “the ruthless lady”, but not “la belle dame sans merci” which even in French has an aura of medieval legend.

  18. Not Coleridge, Keats.
    Do you think the phrase sounds sufficiently gothic even in a French context to produce the same aura? Would you choose instead an Italian phrase, perhaps? Or use faux-medieval Englysshe — “thysse ladye rare and crewel”?

  19. John, no I can’t. I’m sure there were a hundred years earlier, and I was just assuming it wouldn’t have disappeared that quickly. But it might have. Sorry.

  20. “Beldam” has the meaning of “old hag”, presumably with an undertone of “witch”. “Belle” as respectful reminds me of “good” in “goodman” / “goodwife”. As I understand, these terms mean entry-level respectability, without eminence or wealth, and not any special “goodness”.

  21. My own favorite, probably apocryphal bit of Law French: “En oyant le sentence, le defendant jeta un brickbat a le dit Justice, que narrowly mist.”

  22. I don’t know where the first clause comes from, but the rest is perfectly authentic, though it comes from a judge’s marginal note in a copy of a law report rather than from the report itself, and as such may be untypical. The original says instead “que puis son condemnation”.

  23. Which I quoted on September 4, 2006 at 4:01 pm. Hmpf.

  24. marie-lucie says

    I well remember la cotte mal taillée, not too long after I discovered LH. It was also my first acquaintance with Siganus Sutor, who knew the meaning of la cotte.

    About Norman French or Anglo-Norman versus “Parisian French”: I agree that legal and other everyday documents written in French at the time were most likely of the Norman variety, but an English writer inspired by recent literary works in French probably read them in the original French.

    Anglo-Norman still exists, although endangered, as Jerriais and Guernesiais, the French dialects of the “Anglo-Norman” islands of Jersey and Guernsey off the coast of Normandy. (The final -ey of course being a leftover from the language of the real “Northmen”).

    “que puis son condemnation”. : This has to mean “just after his condemnation”.

  25. marie-lucie says

    “Belle” as respectful reminds me of “good” in “goodman” / “goodwife”. As I understand, these terms mean entry-level respectability, without eminence or wealth, and not any special “goodness”.

    This must have happened also in French with bonhomme/bonne femme which does not now suggest goodness but not even “entry-level respectability”: old, unkempt, perhaps drunk, and such. An exception is when these words are applied to children: mon petit bonhomme, ma petite bonne femme can be used affectionately in talking about one’s children or even addressing other children up to about 6 years old. (Or at least one could do so in my youth).

  26. marie-lucie says

    “que puis son condemnation”. : This has to mean “just after his condemnation”.

    Correction: que here would be qui ‘who” in Modern French, as in qui juste après sa condamnation…

  27. David Marjanović says

    « Nous sommes en 50 avant Jésus-Christ. Toute la Gaule est occupée par les Romains… Toute ? Non ! Car un village peuplé d’irréductibles Gaulois résiste encore et toujours à l’envahisseur. Et la vie n’est pas facile pour les garnisons de légionnaires romains des camps retranchés de Babaorum, Aquarium, Laudanum et Petibonum… »

  28. marie-lucie says

    Ah, Petibonum, bien sûr!

  29. I think que is not archaic but simply corrupt: by the 17C, as WP says, Law French was basically a dead language in which people were still trying to compose, and making all sorts of errors.

  30. marie-lucie says

    JC: Here is part of an old (or archaizing) French song, of the same type as the English A partridge in a pear tree. Each month of the year the beloved is given gifts equal in number to the number of the month (as well as repeating previous gifts!). Each verse ends with this formula, which uses que not qui:

    une perdriole
    que va, que vient, que vole,
    une perdriole
    que vole dans le bois.

    “a little partridge
    that goes, that comes, that flies,
    a little partridge
    that flies in the wood”

  31. marie-lucie says

    Back to la cote/la cotte:

    Many words which are spelled with double consonants in traditional French spelling (before the latest reforms) only had single consonants in older (Old or Middle) French, as in home, feme (now homme, femme) and many others. La cotte was probably one of them, while the legal term la cote remained the same because of its Latin origin (quota).

  32. Hmm… a little googling convinces me that the usual form of the quote is “le utility del chose excusera le noisomeness del stink” (though it doesn’t convince me the quote is genuine, since nobody gives an actual citation).

    All these years later, I feel the same way; the oldest available source seems to be James Fitzjames Stephen, A General View of the Criminal Law of England (1890), p. 106, where it is attributed to “an old case.” Sorry, J.F., that’s not a citation, it’s an anecdote. (The OED entry on noisomeness, updated December 2003, has its first citation from 1506 [“As fyrst euyll thought Noysumnes”], so it’s not medieval.)

Speak Your Mind