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Theme 9. Short historical background


The history of Middle English is often divided into three periods:

1) Early Middle English Period: 1066 - 1204 - Decline of English

  • Norman invasion (1066): full control of England; Frenchmen in all high offices
  • decay of Anglo-Saxon traditions

loss of Normandy in 1204; separation of French and English nobility; Anglo-French dialect prevails

2) Central Middle English period: 1204 - 1348 - Rise of English

after 1300: identification of the English kings with England and its people. In the 1300s - break with the Norman tradition of allegiance to the Roman church

  • decline of French cultural dominance in England

3) Late Middle English period: 1348 1457 - Dominance of English

  • Black Death 1348-1351, death of one third of English population, social chaos, labor shortages, emancipation of peasants, wage increases, rise in prestige of English as the language of working classes
  • general adoption of English in the 14th century (in court, school, writing)
  • 1457 invention of the printing machine by William Caxton

1) At the battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066, King Harold was killed and his army defeated by the Norman invaders. This was beginning of the Norman Conquest - an event which would completely change the history of the English language.

The victorious William then conquered the southeastern coast and London and was crowned king on Christmas Day 1066. In reality, however, much of England remained independent of his rule and he had to resume his campaign against the southwest, west and north, wiping out the native English nobility. He also replaced most of native clergy with Norman bishops and abbots, and Norman merchants took over much of the English commerce. Thus the English were reduced, for the most part, to the lower stations in the social structure.

For 200 years after the conquest, French was the language of the upper classes in England. To what extent English remained in use? It is likely that its use was widespread and that at least some of the immigrated French learned enough English to communicate with their peasants. Intermarriage also helped English maintain its "legitimacy." But clearly English was socially stigmatized as the language of the conquered people

England, in fact, became much like a French colony, though gradually, as the Normans became more settled in England, the two peoples became more and more united, eventually, of course, identifying themselves as English as the split between France and England developed in the fourteenth century.


2) English begins to re-establish itself after 1200, as English kings increasingly identified themselves with England and its people. Also at that time religious dissidents, at great risk to themselves, broke with the Norman tradition of allegiance to the Roman church and produced the first English version of the Bible in many centuries.

How had the language managed to survive the French invasion? After all, Celtic had not survived the Anglo-Saxon invasion 500 years before. Evidently the English language in the 11th century was too well established for it to be supplanted by another language. Unlike Celtic, it had a considerable written literature and a strong oral tradition. It would have taken several hundred years of French invasion and large number of immigrants to have changed things; and some historians have estimated that the number of Normans in the country may have been as low as 2 per cent of the total population.


3) A great event in the 14th century was the illness known as the Black Death. Between 1348 and 1350, about thirty percent of the people in England died. This had several results. One was that many churchmen, monks, and school teachers were replaced by less educated men, who spoke only English. In 1362 English was used for the first time at the opening of Parliament. Before that records of Parliamentary addresses and debates were recorded in French or in Latin - though it's likely that a lot of this business was carried on in English and translated into French or Latin purely "for the record." Also the position of ordinary people changed. Because there were fewer of them, they felt more independent. Some of them were able to rent more land, and others demanded higher wages for their work. As they became more important, the social importance of their language, English, grew.

English was used more and more in government, as fewer and fewer people could understand French. In the 15th century English completely replaced French at home, in education and in government. It also replaced Latin as the language of written communication, so that after 1450 most letters were in English. English had survived but it had changed enormously.


Date: 2015-12-11; view: 788

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