History of English Literature: Part-1

The Norman conquest of England in the 11th century made a break in the natural growth of the English language and literature. The Old English or English axon had been a purely Germanic speech with a complicated grammar and a full set of inflections for 300 years following the Battle of Hastings this native tongue was driven from the Kings court and the courts of law from Parliament school and university during all this time there were two languages spoken in England Norman French was the birth tongue of the upper classes.

And English of the lower when the latter finally got the better in the struggle. And became about the middle of the 14th century the National speech of all of England. It was no longer the English of King Alfred. It was a new language a grammar less tongue almost wholly stripped of its inflections. It had lost a half of its old words and had filled their places with french equivalents the norman lawyers had introduced legal terms the ladies and courtiers words of dress and courtesy the knight had imported the vocabulary of war and of the chase the master-builders of the norman castles and cathedrals contributed technical expressions proper to the architect.

And the mason the art of cooking was French the naming of the living animals ox swine sheep deer was left to the Saxon churls had the herding of them while the dressed meats beef pork mutton venison received their baptism from the table talk of his Norman the four orders of begging fryers and especially the franciscans or Greyfriars introduced into England in 1224 became intermediaries between the high and the low.

They went about preaching to the poor and in their sermons they intermingled French with English in their hands to was almost all the science of the day their medicine botany and astronomy displayed the old nomenclature of leech them wart cunning and Starcraft and finally the translators of French poems often found it easier to transfer a foreign word bodily than to seek out a native synonym particularly when the former supplied them with a rhyme but the innovation reached even to the communist words in everyday use so that voice drove out stiffen poor drove out air and Colour use and place made good their footing beside hue want instead a great part of the English words that were left were so changed in spelling and pronunciation as to be practically new Chaucer stands in date midway between King Alfred and Alfred Tennyson but his English differs vastly more from the former’s than from the ladders to Chaucer anglo-saxon was as much a dead language as it is to us the classical anglo-saxon moreover had been the Wessex dialect spoken and written at Alfred’s capital Winchester when the French had displaced this as the language of culture there was no longer a King’s English or any literary standard the sources of modern Standard English are to be found in the east Midland spoken in Lincoln Norfolk Suffolk Cambridge and the neighboring shires here the old Anglian had been corrupted by the Danish settlers and rapidly threw off its inflections when it became a spoken and no longer a written language after the conquest the West Saxon clinging more tenaciously to ancient forms sunk in to the position of a local dialect while the East Midland spreading to London Oxford and Cambridge became the literary English in which Chaucer wrote the Normans brought in also new intellectual influences and new forms of literature there were a cosmopolitan people and they connected England with the continent land Frank and Ansel first to Norman Archbishop’s of Canterbury were learned and splendid pilots of a type quite unknown to the anglo-saxons they introduced the scholastic philosophy taught at the University of Paris and the reformed discipline of the Norman Abbey’s they bound the English church more closely to Rome and officered it with Norman’s English bishops were deprived of their C’s for illiteracy and French Abbott’s were set over monasteries of saxon monk down to the middle of the 14th century the learned literature of England was mostly in Latin and the polite literature in French English did not at any time altogether cease to be a written language but the extant remains of the period from 1066 to 1200 are few and with one exception unimportant after 1200 English came more and more into written use but mainly in translations paraphrases and imitations of French works the native genius was at school and followed awkwardly the copy set by this master the anglo-saxon poetry for example had been rhythmical and alliterative it was commonly written in lines containing four rhythmical accents and with three of the accented syllables alliterated rested in a barroom heart races Nevada gear and gold Fah guests in his fifth rested him then the great hearted the Hall towered Rumi and gold bright the guest slept within this rude energetic verse the Saxon shop had sung to his harp or his gleaming dwelling on the emphatic syllables passing swiftly over the others which were of undetermined number and positioned in the line it was now displaced by the smooth metrical verse with rhymed endings which the French introduced and which our modern poets use a verse fitted to be recited rather than some the Old English alliterative verse continued indeed an occasional use to the sixteenth century but it was linked to a forgotten literature and an obsolete dialect and was doomed to give way Chaucer lent his great authority to the more modern verse system and his own literary models and inspires were all foreign French or Italian literature in England began to be once more English and truly national in the hands of Chaucer and his contemporaries but it was the literature of a nation cut off from its own past by three centuries of foreign rule.

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