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THE NORMAN-FRENCH PERIOD (1066 to 1360)
FREEMAN, E. A. The Norman Conquest, v. 5, c. 17.
From the Origins to the Renaissance.
monastery of the period, the daily life and many-sided activity of its
inmates.) JEWETT, S. O. Story of the Normans.
THE year 1066 is not strictly either a linguistic or a literary date; it marks a political event the effects of
which on literature were ultimately very imporHistorical Sketch. tant. The central authority was taken possession of by a foreign conqueror who could not speak the national language. His officers, spiritual and temporal, were given positions of authority in all parts of England, and many French traders settled in the cities. The speech Change in of the ruling class was French; the technical Language language of the priests and scholars was Latin. But the great body of the people continued to use their mother tongue, — Anglo-Saxon, already considerably simplified in grammatical inflections. We have no means of telling how numerous they were, but the race had lived in England for five hundred years, and the French ruling class was comparatively insignificant in numbers,
although it controlled the military and ecclesiastical organization. The Anglo-Saxon language passed in two centuries (1150 to 1350) through stages of transition, till it became middle English, used by Chaucer, which differs from our modern English principally in spelling and the retention of a few Saxon words which have since been dropped.
The conquest of England by William, Duke of Normandy, with an army of possibly sixty thousand men Other Effects speaking French, and his assumption of the of Norman throne as king of England, was one of the Conquest.
most important events in English history from the social, national, and literary points of view. In the course of two hundred years it created a new England and a new language. The national spirit was modified without losing its essential character. King William was a man of great administrative ability and force, and sternly repressed all resistance to his authority. He spoke no English, and French became the language of the court. Norman priests were appointed to the most important ecclesiastical offices. The feudal system of landholding and a graded nobility with the sovereign as the head were imposed on the nation. The social institution of chivalry, which cherished an ideal at once manly, unselfish, and poetic, though sometimes degenerating into fanciful and affected absurdities, also took firm root in England under the Norman kings and their successors. The social code, even of manners, influences literature, but the social code that furnishes elevated standards for the conduct of life as chivalry did, must profoundly affect all artistic expression. The “perfect knight without fear and without reproach” is still a favorite type in literature.
The Normans, the ruling class in Normandy, were descendants of Danes or Northmen who had conquered a
province in France and given it their name.
The second and third generation of Northmen had amalgamated with the French, given up their Danish language, and become Frenchmen. The successors of William the Conqueror were not only kings of England, but Dukes of Normandy, and became by marriage and conquest lords of all the western part of France from the English Channel to the Pyrenees. The Normans proper were the most able and adaptable of all the northern races, and the conquest of England is rightly called the Norman Conquest; but intellectually it was France, and not merely Normandy, that was brought into relation with England.
After a period of depression the English began to translate and adapt works of French literature, in the twelfth
and thirteenth centuries. Rhyme and stanzaic Influence. forms were imitated in the English language. This alone was an important innovation. The French tone of gay, mocking persiflage and witty, ironical social satire, so well exemplified in the next period in Chaucer's “ Canterbury Tales," began to modify the seriousness of the English mind. The French imagination is less disposed to dwell on the shadowy, the vague, and the terrible than is the original English imagination, and the French sense of artistic form is more logical and better regulated than is that of the English. It is not without significance that Taillefer, the first to advance against the English force at the battle of Senlac, rode forward singing " The Song of Roland,” for the spirit of the French literature entered into English literature somewhat as Norman-French words have entered into the English language; adding variety
and increasing scope without changing its fundamental character.
For some time the relation between English and Normans was that of rulers and ruled. But historical events soon made them one nation. Normandy and Anjou were lost by King John early in the thirteenth century. The Great Charter, which affirmed the rights of the English people and limited the power of the throne in imposing taxes, was wrung from him in 1215. By this, and still more by the Barons' wars, the nobles and the people were brought into sympathy. Gradually the English tongue became the national language. It was used in the grammar schools in the middle of the fourteenth century, and the statute of 1362 ordered English to be used in the courts of law. “ The perfect fusion of conquerors and conquered into an English people was marked by the disuse even among the nobler classes of the French tongue.” It was, however, a new England that arose after the transition. It had taken up a new element. Its culture was wider, its sympathies and power of appreciation were broadened. It found its expression in the verse of Geoffrey Chaucer, the great poet of the next period.
Literatura of the
The great intellectual activity of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is evinced by the volume and variety of
the writings produced. The old Anglo-Saxon
Chronicle was kept up intermittently for some Anglo-Nor time, but history was usually written in Latin man Period.
and in a more connected form. The legend or religious story and the secular short story, usually lively and satirical, contributed to the mass of literary material on which poets have drawn ever since. The rhymed chronicle and the romance in various forms, the allegor
ical or didactic poem, the romance of adventure, the love romance, and the Provençal song of gallantry, became known in England, and in time these forms were translated, imitated, or adapted. English literature became more cosmopolitan and began to show the effect of a wider culture and of contact with another civilization.
The most important literary phenomenon was the appearance in literature of the Arthurian story, into which
a great number of episodes were worked, the
sources and development of which constitute a special study of great intricacy. Frenchmen and Englishmen took up the Celtic legends about Arthur, and, in a succession of poems, infused into them new ethical ele
its of knightly courage, fidelity, and idealism. The British or Celtic historical tradition became vastly enriched and elevated by assimilating the Christian legend of the Holy Grail, the conception of the perfect or holy knight, Galahad, and by compounding Christian ideas with the old race stories of the fellowship of the Round Table and all the episodes which go to make up the Arthurian cycle. These have been one of the great fountain-heads of English poetry, and they took definite literary form during the Norman period, and in the Norman-French language. They were translated into the vernacular or English tongue even before French ceased to be the language of literature, and it therefore happens that although King Alfred remains the ideal English race-hero, Anglo-Saxon tradition has had much less inspirational effect on the national imagination than has the semi-epic song of the conquered Celtic race. The Norman Conquest is, therefore, quite as important an event in English literary history as it is in English political history, although the English national character remained
JOHNSON'S Lit. - 3