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Saturday, August 14, 2021

England and English Literature after The Norman Conquest of 1066 in The Middle Ages

England and English Literature in middle age,The Norman Conquest of 1066,The Middle Ages,New English Literature after the Norman Conquest

England and English Literature after The Norman Conquest of 1066 in The Middle Ages 

1. Some Preliminaries

The last Saxon King Harold was defeated by the Duke of Normandy, William II, in the battle of Hastings, fought in 1066. That was the end of the Anglo Saxon authority and the beginning of the Norman rule. On the Christmas Day, 1066, William was crowned as the King William I of England.

The Norman Conquest of 1066 was a decisive event in the history of England in all spheres. It proved to be a landmark and brought about radical changes in all matters – in English life and mind. It did not merely introduce a new sort of assertive rulers, with their rigorous administrative machinery. But it opened, too, a new phase in the growth of English literature as well as language. There was the transition from the old age of Anglo-Saxon literature to Middle English literature or what is more commonly called Medieval English literature.

Middle English literature refers to the literature that existed betwixt the end of old Anglo-Saxon literature, and the beginning of new English literature, under the impact of the Revival of Learning. It represents the medieval or middle ages, so full of romance and magic, chivalry and cruelty, heroism and villainy. It is found to bear out medieval manners and aspirations, religious rigours and social obligations.

The term 'middle English' was invented by the celebrated German Philologist Grimm. He found in English the identical stages of growth in the German language in the medieval times. Middle English is definitely different from old English and a bit more intricate, too. Whereas in Anglo-Saxon literature the only language was English, that language was completely dominated by the French language, in Middle English imposed by the Norman rulers after the conquest.

Anglo-Saxon literature and Middle English literature corresponded to two distinct literary patterns. Anglo-Saxon literature belongs to the older world and Anglo-Saxon poetry, in particular, keeps a tradition, extending to the very remote times, when the English people were still nomadic, continental, Germanic tribes. Middle English literature is cut off from old Anglo-Saxon literature, with a new look for the age-old tradition. It is in a new form and bears a new tune and seems to have its inspiration not in England, but rather in France.

Yet, this should not be taken as a complete break from the past. In fact, there is found a good deal of common materials in Anglo Saxon and Middle English Literature. In translation works and homiletic writings, the same matter is found, more or less, continued. The legends of the saints are inexhaustible subjects for poetical treatment in earlier as well as later literary works.

The specific mark of distinction is patent particularly in the disappearance of the heroic tradition of old English poetry. There is nothing of the heroic fibres of Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon, and The Fall of Angles in the Middle Ages. Even the elegiac note of The Wanderer or The Ruin is not heard in new poetry. The gravity as well as fitness of Cynewulfian Christian poetry is not traceable in the religious poems of the Middle English period.

Middle English literature initially lacked the completeness of Anglo-Saxon literature, particularly Anglo-Saxon poetry. In fact, its maturity was not found attained till the end of the thirteenth century. Thereafter, Middle English literature recorded a steady growth. That was from purely French dominated literary works to Chaucer's literary triumphs, from The Moral Ode to Canterbury Tales. That was definitely a unique growth for the age, known as the Medieval or Middle Ages, often called the dark age of Europe.


2. The Middle Ages: Europe in Darkness

Historically the duration of the Middle Ages seems to vary from land to land. Commonly speaking it lasted from the fall of Roman Empire to the capture of the Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 But the full implication of the Middle Ages came to be assessed in different continental countries at different periods. In England, Internet tarted with the Norman Conquest and continued till the The Middle Ages presented a picture of dark Europe. Constant warfare, fatal pestilence and grim famine were the general scenes of Europe in the dark Middle Ages. The existence of common people was pathetic and helpless. The triple authority of the Crown, of the Catholic Church and of the overbearing peers was reckless and ruthless in action and conduct. As a result, there were, on the one hand, tyranny and exploitation and, on the other, servitude and suffering. To add to the confusion of the age there were the wars, revered as the Crusades, for the liberation of Jerusalem.

Indeed, it was a dark time, the situation was nothing fair for the Common Englishmen, too. The forces at the top, individually or collectively, tortured and oppressed them with utmost severity. The occasional appearance of some chivalrous hero, like Robin Hood, perhaps, could bring a temporary relief for the suffering and oppressed masses.

There was, however, some beacon light even in the darkest time. That came through the scholarship and humanistic approach of some fearless visionaries. The soul of Europe gradually awakened to sanity, justice and culture. The dark ages came to an end even before the chronological closure of the Middle Ages. Chaucer's great literature was a unique achievement in the end of the dark phase of the Middle Ages.


3. The Impact of the Norman Conquest on English Literature and Language

The Norman Conquest imposed a French speaking ruling class on England. With their laws and administration, the Normans imported into England a French literary ideal and a French culture. They were the conquerors and rulers of the land. Before their supremacy, the native tongue could not but draw back. It was dragged down and spoken only by the poor English people. Latin and French were the only recognised and honoured languages in the Norman Court. Consequently the English language was ignored and English literature remained silent for a pretty long time. In fact, the development of English literature was arrested for nearly a hundred and fifty years after the Conquest.

Of course, that was nothing unusual. After all, the Normans were superior to the Anglo-Saxons, politically and militarily. They also had a better cultural attainment, with their French language and French literary tradition that enjoyed then almost the position of the classical languages and classical literature.

When English literature reappeared, after a lapse of more than a century, it was found different, significantly influenced by French literature. The whole literary ideal underwent a great change, under the influence of French culture and French literature. Of course, the national vernacular literature of France was hardly transplanted to the English soil, just after the Conquest. But, in the next two centuries, the cultivation of romances immensely enriched and expanded English literature, under the French literary influence, direct as well as indirect.

The Norman Conquest contributed to the expansion of English culture and literature in other ways, too.

First, there was the enrichment of the English language and literature by the direct cultural and literary influence of Rome, which the Normans had brought.

Second, there was the immense enlargement of scholarship and learning as a result of the contact with the scholars of much repute of Europe.

Third, literary themes and expressions were greatly multiplied by the Norman inclusion of French themes and modes of expression.

Fourth, the Normans inspired England with the ideal of a strong, national, centralised government, without which no nationality or national literature could at all flourish.

On the English language the effect of the Conquest was, indeed, profound. A large number of French words, supposed to be nearly ten thousand, found their way into English, particularly into the areas dominated by the Norman rulers - government, law and justice, military matters, feudalism, art and architecture, dress and fashions, sports and pastimes, food, and so on. Moreover, prefixes and suffixes from French, too, served to have new word-form with native words. Post-conquest borrowings from French, added to the pre-conquest retention, have definitely enriched the English language and served to make a great headway for modern English. The elaborate inflexions of the Old English were given up. Its structure became analytical, showing more clearly the relationship between the words in a sentence. The sound grew less harsh, and a natural gender system was adopted. From a state of chaos, the language seemed to pass into an order of cosmos. That was definitely a linguistic advancement, ready to welcome Chaucer's genius.


4. New English Literature after the Norman Conquest

Native literature remained in a prolonged silence for more than a century. Of course, there had grown, in the meantime, a kind of Anglo Norman literature. That consisted of chronicles in rhymes. The revival of English literature was first heard through religious poetical works. The native tongues could express itself, under the rigours of foreign masters, only through religious matters initially. But those religious works were inspired by the literary ideal of the French.

The literary ideal of the French, however, was immensely different from that of the Anglo-Saxon. Anglo-Saxon literature was rather grave, reflective and pensive. But French literature was full of liveliness and gaiety. Anglo-Saxon literature mostly missed the finer element of humour or the sharp sense of wit. But French literature was immensely rich in wit and humour. Again, love, an elemental passion of life, was scrupulously absent in Anglo-Saxon literature, except in the three cases of short elegies. But love featured remarkably in French romance. Lastly, Anglo-Saxon poetry had but one metre - the alliterative. That single metre made Anglo-Saxon poetry monotonous and mechanical. The French lines, on the other hand, had the variety of different syllables and rhymes.

The earliest of those religious works was Poema Morale or Moral Ode, which was possibly written about 1170. It was followed by the Ormulum or the Works of the Monk Orm, written about 1200. The third important religious work was Cursor Mundi, written about 1320. Another work Pricke of Conscience was possibly written in 1340. Among those religious works, there was a fine prose piece, Ancrene Riwle, which might be taken as the best example of the prose of the time. The Life of Saint Brendan and The Life of Saint Dunstan were two other popular works of the period. All those religious works had their inspiration in French religious poetry.


A sort of secular literature, however, soon sprang up by the side of religious literature. It was not of a high order, and had not much originality to call its own. It was also mainly inspired by the literary ideals of France. The desire for story telling was stirred and satisfied by the French Romances. The French tales were carried over and used in English in the verse romances that were entirely French in form. Floriz and Blancheflur and the Romance of Sir Tristrem were versified before 1300, along with many other romantic tales. The lay of Havelok the Dane was perhaps adapted from French towards the close of the thirteenth century, and so was the song of King Horn. The romances of King Alexander and of Richard Coeur de Lion, and of Arthur and Merlin, while romantic in form, preserve English sentiment and originality.

The secular tradition was also manifested in allegorical works, patterned after French allegorical poetry. The most outstanding work in that respect was The Owl and the Nightingale. Founded on French symbolic poetry, it was a lively allegory of wisdom and youth. Pearl, rather a later poem, was such an allegory with an elegiac background.

Other important secular works included The Love Songs of Alysoun, Spring, The Song of Husbandman, and so on. Those were all secular lyrics, inspired by French songs and poems.

The adoption of French themes and forms continued for nearly a century. Thereafter French matters and manners were naturalized in English, just as the Normans in England lost their French attachments and became entirely the English. As a result, when the patriotic struggle with the French King closed in the reign of Edward I, English literature rose up independently through religious and secular works, written by the people made up of the Normans and the English. Chaucer was the most natural talent to come out of that very situation.

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