« ZurückWeiter »
MIDDLE ENGLISH OR FORMATIVE PERIOD.
Limits of period - Normans — Their character - Norman Conquest – Modern English - Social condition of England — Existing evils
Literary development — Esteem for learning – Trouvère poetry
“ Chanson de Roland" Arthurian cycle – Italian influence – History, romance, religion —“ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle " - Latin Chroniclers — Lyrical poetry Layamon's “ Brut" – Robert of Gloucester — Robert Manning - Wycliffe — Ormin - Langland – Gower - CHAUCER.
The designation Middle English or Formative Period is applied to the centuries lying between the Norman Conquest and the death of Chaucer. It is a period of great importance for English history and English literature. England passed under a succession of alien rulers, the state of society underwent a great change, and our language approached its modern form.
The name of Normans is given to the Scandinavians who, at the beginning of the tenth century, conquered a home in the northern part of France. They speedily adopted the language and customs of the subjugated country, and rapidly advanced in refinement and culture. By intermarriage with the native population, a vivacious Celtic element was introduced into the grave Teutonic disposition. Though of kindred blood with the AngloSaxons, the Normans, by their stay in France, developed a new, and in many respects admirable, type of character.
Along with their native Teutonic strength they acquired a versatile and imitative temper, which made them accessible to new ideas, and prepared them to be leaders in general progress. Losing their slow, phlegmatic temperament, they became impulsive and impatient of restraint. Their intellects acquired a nimble quality, quick in discernment and instantaneous in decision. Delicacy of feeling produced aversion to coarse pleasures. They delighted in a gay social life, with hunting, hawking, showy equipage, and brilliant festivities. Diplomacy in a measure supplanted daring frankness. Brilliant superficiality took the place of grave thoughtfulness. Such were the people that were to rule in England, to introduce their language and customs, and, amalgamated at last, to impart a needed element to the English character.
In 1066 William, Duke of Normandy, landed on the English coast to enforce his claim to the English throne. In the battle of Hastings he gained a complete victory over the force under Harold, and won the title of Conqueror.
He distributed England in the form of fiefs among his followers, and reduced the Anglo-Saxon population to a condition of serfdom. Feudal castles were erected in every part of England; and the barons or lords, supported by the labors of a great body of dependants, lived in idleness and luxury. These baronial residences became centres of knightly culture. Here noble youths acquired courtly graces, and wandering minstrels entertained the assembled household with their songs. Brilliant
tournaments from time to time brought together the beauty and chivalry of the whole realm. French became the social language of the ruling classes; and the AngloSaxons, reduced to servitude, were despised. It required many generations to break down this harsh antagonism.
But toward the close of the period, especially in the fourteenth century, the people of England became more homogeneous. The Normans coalesced with the AngloSaxons, and added new elements to the English character. At the same time the Anglo-Saxon language, which had hitherto maintained its highly inflected character, made a gradual transition into modern English. It gave up its complicated inflections, and received into its vocabulary a host of foreign elements, chiefly from the French. The new tongue, which gradually supplanted French and Latin, gained official recognition in 1362, when it became the language of the courts of law; and the following year it was employed in the speech made at the opening of Parliament.
The social condition of England in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was intimately related to the first great outbreak of English literature. A restraint was set upon absolutism by the provisions of the Great Charter. The growth of cities and towns had been rapid, and there existed, in all parts of England a wealthy and influential citizen class. The serfs of the time of the Conquest had risen to the rank of free peasants. Parliament was divided into two bodies, and the people acquired a growing influence in the affairs of government. The amalgamation of the two races that had lived side by side for centuries was gradually completed, and the great English nation, in its modern form, had its beginning - a nation that in its type of character is second to none in the history of the world.
But many evils still existed. The nobility lived in luxury and extravagance, while the peasants lived in squalor and want. The public taste was coarse, and the state of morals low. Highwaymen rendered travel unsafe. Through gross abuses of its power and the extensive corruption of its representatives, the church had in large measure lost its hold upon the people. Immense revenues, five times greater than that of the crown, were paid into the coffers at Rome. Half the soil of England was in the hands of the clergy. The immorality of the friars was notorious, and provoked vigorous denunciation and resistance. Yet there were faithful pastors and prelates, who, like Chaucer's poor parson, taught "Christes lore” and followed it themselves; and magnificent cathedrals were built to stand as objects of admiration for succeeding ages.
As compared with the preceding period, literature exhibits great expansion. It gained in variety and extent
a result that was due to a number of coöperative causes. The crusades had a stimulating effect in Europe, and brought new ideas into vogue. The caliphs of Bagdad and Cordova became rivals in the patronage of learning, and for a time the Arabians became the intellectual leaders of Europe. Their schools in Spain were largely attended by Christian youths from other European countries, who carried back with them to their homes the Arabian science, and through it gave a new impulse to learning in Christian nations.
During this period learning was held in greater esteem and prosecuted with greater vigor throughout Christian Europe. The monastic and cathedral schools were generally improved. The growth of towns and cities led to the establishment of burgher schools for secular education. Learning was no longer confined to representatives of the church. The first great universities were founded in this period — those of Bologna, Salerno, and Paris in the twelfth century. The oldest colleges of Oxford and Cambridge date from this period. The universities were often attended by enormous numbers of students from every part of Europe; there were as many as twenty thousand at the University of Paris at one time. “A new fervor of study,” to use the words of Green, “sprang up in the West from its contest with the more cultured East. Travellers, like Adelard of Bath, brought back the first rudiments of physical and mathematical science from the schools of Cordova or Bagdad. In the twelfth century a classical revival restored Cæsar and Virgil to the list of monastic studies. The scholastic philosophy sprang up in the schools of Paris. The Roman law was revived by the imperialist doctors of Bologna. The long mental activity of feudal Europe broke up like ice before a summer's sun."1
In France the trouvère produced long narrative poems, full of legend, war, and chivalry. These poems are grouped in three principal cycles, of which Charlemagne, Alexander, and King Arthur are respectively the heroes. They are known as “Chansons de Geste," and were very popular in France and England. They were sung or recited by minstrels, and in England elevated the taste, supplied literary materials, and exerted no small influence on
1 " History of English People," Vol. I, 198.