The Tretiz is a rhymed vocabulary of French, written in England in the mid-13th century. Its author, Walter de Bibbesworth, promises at the outset that he will not teach ‘le fraunczois qe cheascun siet dire’ (‘the French that everyone knows’), but instead claims that his text was written ‘pur gentyls home ou pur fyz de gentyls home enfourmer de langgage’ (‘to teach language to noblemen or their sons’). Despite this rather unexciting opening statement, it soon becomes clear that the Tretiz is no ordinary phrasebook or dictionary. Instead, the reader is treated to a 1,000-line rambling tour of all manner of scenarios, ranging from a detailed list of the noises made by assorted wild animals to an anecdote about a dwarf whose attempts to fish in the river Seine are constantly frustrated by inclement weather. Throughout, Bibbesworth shows a pronounced taste for wordplay, often in the context of distinguishing between homophones, making the Tretiz at once a practical wordbook and an experimental exploration of language and sound.
Despite these unusual features — or, perhaps, because of them — the Tretiz has become something of a touchstone for scholars working on language use in medieval Britain. Over the years, it has been referenced in research on subjects ranging from lexicography to social history or language change, often with respect to both English and French. Much of this valuable work has, however, been limited by an incomplete editorial tradition. The most recent critical edition of the Tretiz, produced by William Rothwell in 2009, offers an indication of the work’s elasticity and of the lexical riches to be mined in both text and gloss, but is limited in scope to two of the text’s 17 witnesses. With each copy offering significant variants and a unique configuration of Middle English glosses, and previously-unknown manuscripts of the Tretiz emerging as recently as 2011, it has become clear that a full understanding of the text will only be possible once the whole manuscript tradition can be consulted. Drawing on the possibilities offered by digital text editing, this project aims to make this a reality, and thus enable a deeper understanding of what the Tretiz more can offer to scholars in fields as varied as lexicography, cultural history, history of education, sociolinguistics, and manuscript studies.
A video introduction to the Tretiz is now also available! Tom Hinton’s recent presentation to the Agile Rabbit public engagement event can now be watched on YouTube.