Essay on the Historical Background of Medieval English (1150-1500)

From time immemorial, battles have been an unforgettable but in a sense an inevitable part of human history. The medieval period in particular was full of battles all over the world. Kings and queens fought battles to satisfy their ambitions, soldiers were killed in large numbers, one of the two kings participating in the battle either died or surrendered to the other king, one of the kingdoms was enlarged as a result of the battle and the other one dwindled in size.

These battles determined the fates of royal dynasties and often led to drastic changes in the socio-economic condition of the people. No two battles were alike; the pattern changed from battle to battle. But perhaps no battle in the history of the world led to a drastic change in the basic character of a language as the Battle of Hastings in 1066 did in the case of the English language.

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It had no direct and immediate impact on the English language but William’s victory in this battle created conditions which affected the basic character of this language in a big way. Harold, the king of England, who was killed in this battle, was a typical Englishman with the English language as his mother tongue. His courtiers, his nobles, his earls and the officials in his government were all Englishmen for whom

English was virtually the only means of personal and professional communication. The Christian missionaries from Rome who had introduced Christianity in England around the middle of the ninth century had introduced the study of Latin as well and since then Latin continued to be a desirable subject of study for clergymen. Even outside the church it was cultivated as a language of scholarship by people interested in scholastic studies.

The sermons preached from the pulpit in the church were, however, usually in English. In the battle of Hastings an arrow from the Norman side pierced Harold’s eye and he died instantaneously. After gaining victory in the battle, William ordered his army to plunder and burn the southeast of England. Demoralized by Harold’s death and defeat in the battlefield, the English people realized that the best thing for them was to accept William as the king of England and so on the Christmas day in 1066, William, the Duke of Normandy, was crowned king of England.

With William as the king of England, the linguistic situation in England took a sudden and drastic turn. The only language that William knew was French. After his coronation he made some attempts to learn English but he could not find time for it. He wanted to consolidate his position as king in the country hostile to him and so he devoted all his time to take steps necessary for him to strengthen his position among the nobles, in the church, in the army and in all other corridors of power in the country.

He was not a man of scholastic interests and had no aptitude for learning new languages quickly. So he decided to manage with the help of interpreters. His strategy for strengthening his position was to fill all positions of power in his kingdom with French speaking people from Normandy. Some of the people in his Norman army were hired mercenaries.

He rewarded them with gold and silver and then sent them back to Normandy. He allotted large tracts of land to the remaining persons in his army, his strategy being to get them established as permanent sources of strength for him.

As Stenton (1965:14) has pointed out, William was the first king of England to stress the fact that “by right all land was the king’s and that land was held by others only as his gift and in return for specified service”. He distributed estates among his Norman supporters as a matter of his right as a conqueror.

The result was the emergence of a new kind of Norman feudalism in England. It is said that by 1072, only six years after the Norman Conquest, all earls in England except one had been replaced by Normans and even that one earl was executed in 1076. The feudal system of England was now completely in the hands of the Normans. As Willson (1972:44) has observed, “the old Anglo-Saxon nobility disappeared and foreign French-speaking nobility took its place “.

William filled almost all important positions in the church with his supporters from Normandy. There were two posts of archbishops and both the posts were offered to Normans. Nearly all posts of the bishops were also filled with Normans. The only Englishman who was allowed to continue as bishop was Wulfstan of Worcester.

Although Wulfstan was a man of known ability, he was only tolerated and never admired by the Norman coterie of the king. Lanfranc, who was the king’s principal adviser on ecclesiastical matters, is reported to be full of scorn for Wulfstan because of his ignorance of French. William took time to replace the abbots but he did replace most of the abbots as well.

When an English abbot died, the monk to be appointed in his place was nearly always a Norman. It can be assumed that many of these high-ups in the church knew English. But there is definite evidence in support of the fact that some of the Norman bishops and abbots did not know English at all. St Hugh, who was the Bishop of Lincoln during the reign of Henry II, could preach in Latin and French but not in English.

Similarly, William Longchamp, who was not only the Bishop of Ely but who also held the important post of the Chancellor of England during the reign of Richard I, did not know English at all. In short, French was, during William’s reign and for about two centuries thereafter, not only the language of feudal lords but also the language of high officials in the church.

The army was no exception to this great influx of Norman people. Normans were great experts in building castles and William got a number of castles built with their help to augment his military strength. The important thing for the purpose of the present discussion is that these castles were garrisoned mostly by troops from Normandy. The officers in the army were of course all Normans.

William’s sons, grandsons and great grandsons continued the process started by him and for more than two hundred years after the Norman Conquest the king’s court continued to be a stronghold of the French language. William and, similarly, many of his children and grand-children had a greater sense of identity with Normandy than with England.

Initially, the invasions of England by Anglo-Saxons and, similarly, the invasions by the Vikings were by violent plunderers but later they turned into mass scale immigrations made effective on the basis of fierce battles.

The Norman conquerors, however, did not want to migrate to England; they wanted to be rulers. With a base in Normandy in France, they ruled over England as a matter of right bestowed on them by William’s conquest in the battle of Hastings.

Their instinctive refusal to become one with the people of England can be deduced from the fact that for as many as eleven generations after William the Conqueror, the kings of the Norman dynasty continued to speak French as their mother tongue”: Henry IV (1399- 1413) was the first king of the Norman dynasty who spoke English as his mother tongue.

For about three hundred years these kings had most of their official transactions in French and many of the members of the royal family knew so little of English that even after generations of Norman rule in England they needed interpreters to communicate with those people who spoke only English. It is known, for example, that although Henry II (1154-1189) understood English, he lacked the ability to speak it.

His wife, Eleanor of Acquitane, did not know a word of English and always needed an interpreter when someone spoke to her in English. From the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 until about 1204, when Normandy was taken over by the king of France, whoever was the king of England was automatically the Duke of Normandy as well. For about 400 years all the kings of the Norman descent except Henry I sought a wife in France.

As these Norman kings had a sense of emotional identity with France and with Normandy in particular and not with England, they tended to spend most of their time in France. Because of this attitude on the part of the Norman rulers, French continued to be a language of great importance and English was utterly neglected for centuries.

French was used in the court, in sermons in the church, in discussions among government officers and in royal communications. It was used as the medium of instruction in schools and as the medium of communication by the upper class people of the society in England.

During the first 250 years of the Norman rule, English had an utterly subdued status, whereas French was a mark of social distinction, a language of opportunities, a language by using which one could obtain royal favours.

Because of this privileged status of French, upper class children started learning it as their mother tongue. The following extract from Higden’s book of history called Polychronicorf presents a vivid description of the highly privileged status of French during the Middle English period.

children in school, contrary to the usage and customs of all other nations are compelled to abandon their own language, and to construe their lessons and their tasks in French. Moreover, gentlemen’s children are taught to speak French from the time that they are rocked in their cradle and are able to speak and to play with child’s trinket; and rustic men want to make themselves like gentlemen, and strive with great industry to speak French, in order to be more highly thought of.

Another language that enjoyed a privileged status during the Middle English period simultaneously with French was Latin. For the first time the study of Latin was introduced in England during the Roman rule. When the Romans left England after ruling over that country for more than three hundred years, Latin had to encounter an inevitable neglect. When the Roman monks introduced Christianity into England in 597, they re-introduced and reinforced the study of Latin in that country.

Latin was not only the language of the Roman monks; it had by that time acquired the status of the language of scholarship and was learnt and spoken in that capacity all over Europe. So even at the time when French was its highest peak of importance in England, Latin was extensively studied and used by certain sections of society in England, particularly by the Christian monks.

French was the medium of instruction in schools but Latin was the medium of instruction in the two universities, the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, founded in England during the Middle English period.

French started losing its importance in England in the fourteenth century. Latin, however, continued to be as important as ever before. The following extract from Trevelyan (1946:75) shows how important Latin was in schools during the fifteenth century in England.

Boys in the grammar schools wrote Latin verse and prose compositions only in some schools French was used alternatively, not because it was any longer spoken by the boys at home but on the contrary, lest the French tongue be wholly lost.

But out of school hours no language must be talked except Latin! For some centuries to come this amazing rule was sanctioned by the usual brutalities of flogging. Sometimes a “lupus” or spy was paid to sneak among the boys and report if any of them used an English word in their play.

Discussing the importance of Latin during the fifteenth century, Trevelyan further says that it “was not merely the priest who needed it; it was required also by the diplomat, the lawyer, the civil servant, the physician, the merchant’s accountant, the town clerk, in many of the documents connected with their daily work”.

Because of this strong French and Latin atmosphere pervading everywhere in England, English was used, particularly during the first three hundred years of the Middle English period, only by the poor and the downtrodden, by the illiterate and the semi-literate peasants living in villages, by those who had no direct access to the corridors of power in England.

The educated upper class people of society have an instinctive fascination for standards in the use of language. They have a natural respect for rules of grammar and they are always in favour of cultivating the niceties of usage and style. Because of all this they always exercise a conservative influence on the process of change in the use of a language, their attitude being the attitude of enlightened prescriptivism.

The poor and the illiterate have an entirely different attitude towards language. They are interested more in the simplicity, ease and naturalness of communication than in its grammatical correctness. These two extreme ends of society, the upper and the lower, with the middle class being no less important than either of these two, constitute an attitude of balance in which there is scope for stability and also for change.

The Middle English period was one of those very few periods of history in which the upper class people were so much involved in learning and cultivating a foreign language that the poor and illiterate users of the language of the land became its sole masters and, therefore, shaped and moulded it as they wished. And the result was what one would expect.

The inflexions were dropped out. The process started around the beginning of the twelfth century and by the beginning of the sixteenth century nearly all the inflexions were gone. Prepositions took the place of inflexions. Even during the Old English period a certain order of words was often preferred to the other possible order of words for a sentence but the grammatical relationship between the words in a sentence was understood on the basis of inflexions and not on the basis of the position of words in that sentence.

In the Middle English period, particularly towards the end of that period, the order of words in a sentence was no longer a matter of mere preference; it became a grammatical necessity. Like a snake that acquires a new glow, freshness and agility after shedding its old skin and like a caterpillar that grows out of its messy existence and acquires the colourful wings of a butterfly, the English language shed its inflexions and acquired the character of an analytic language.

The Middle English period is a period of great importance in the history of the English language because it was in this period that the English language had to pass through a process of such a basic change.

Revival of Interest in English:

Black Death and its Impact on the Masses:

In 1348 the epidemic of bubonic plague known as Black Death broke out in England and people died in large numbers.

This epidemic started because of fleas living on black rats which somehow came to England, hiding in ships plying between England and Central Asia but later it spread from one infected person to another and turned out to be one of the largest killers in history. Some victims of this terrible epidemic died within a few hours of the attack, most others died within three or four days but very few of them survived.

As the medicine for this disease was not known, the rich who could afford a very expensive treatment were not in a better situation than the poor. The rich people, however, had the facility to shut themselves up in their big mansions or they could easily retire to their castles located at long distances from the hutments of the poor people infected in large numbers.

So, as at the time of any other epidemic in the history of the world, the poor died in larger numbers than the rich. As Chancellor (1967:129) has said, “So many died that the harvest rotted in the fields, for there was no one to gather it in”.

This created an acute shortage of labourers working on farms all over the country. Because of the short supply of labourers, wages went up very high. As farm labourers were often not available in spite of high wages, landlords started tempting them from nearby farms on promises of better conditions of work. The following extract from Trevelyan (1972:9) can be taken as supporting evidence in this connection.

Often, when the bailiff pressed a villein to perform his field-work, he “fled” to better himself on the other side of the forest, where every town and every village were so short of labour after the Black Death that high wages were given to immigrants, and no questions asked as to whence they came.

Because of this demand and supply situation in their favour, poor people gained recognition and wealth and freedom that they never had before. This is evident from the following extract from Langland’s Piers Plowman (B.IV, 308-12).

Now they’ll accept no penny-ale, no piece of bacon, they must have meat and fish, well fried and baked, they must be richly paid or else they rage and curse the King and his council too who make such laws which hurt the working man.

The importance of a language in society depends on the importance we attach to the users of that language. As the peasants and labourers gained importance in society after the Black Death, their language, i.e., the English language, also gained recognition and importance.