Le Morte d'Arthur, often considered the first English novel, is an early version of the story of Camelot. The book is according, to Wikipedia, written in Middle English. Why, then, is the title of the book in French?
We don't know very much about the life of Thomas Malory, but it is clear that Le Morte Darthur draws on French sources. For example, in "Capitulum tercium" (in the version printed by Caxton, which is available at the University of Michigan), Malory writes (emphasis mine),
Soo in the grettest chirch of london whether it were Powlis or not the Frensshe booke maketh no mencyon
Le Morte Darthur makes frequent references to "the Frensshe book". According to scholars, the sources used by Mallory include the following, not all of which are actually in French:
- The "Alliterative Morthe Arthure, a 14th-century poem in English, which probably used the 12th-century Roman de Brut as a source. In spite of the French titles, both Morthe Arthure and Roman de Brut are in English.
- The Suite du Merlin (also known as the Huth Merlin because it is contained in a manuscript at the British Library that is also known as the "Huth MS"), which is also in English. See Prose Merlin: Introduction by John Conlee.
- The prose Vulgate Queste del Saint Graal (see also Lancelot-Grail, also known as Vulgate Cycle on Wikipedia).
- The French Vulgate Morte Artu.
- The 15th-century stanzaic Le Morte Arthur (in English).
Private and commercial correspondence was carried out in Anglo-Norman or Anglo-French from the 13th to the 15th century though its spelling forms were often displaced by continental spellings. Social classes other than the nobility became keen to learn French: manuscripts containing materials for instructing non-native speakers still exist, dating mostly from the late 14th century onwards.
So Malory probably chose a French title for two reasons: French sources and familiarity with either French or Anglo-French in part of the English population.
Sources not linked or listed above:
- Stephen Coote: The Penguin Short History of English Literature. London: Penguin, 1993. (Page 50)
- Margaret Drabble (editor): The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Revised edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.