I. Changing Conditions after 1200
The linguistic situation described in the previous chapter did not continue because the conditions under which it arose changed. Shortly after 1200 England lost an important part of its possessions in Europe. The English nobility gradually relinquished their estates in the continent. Rivalry developed between England and France, accompanied by an antiforeign movement in England and reaching its culmination in the Hundred Years’ War. Social and economic changes affecting the English-speaking part of the population were taking place. In the fourteenth century English won its way back into use all over England, and in the fifteenth century French completely disappeared from the British Isles. We are going to examine the changing conditions and the steps by which this situation came about, in subsections A-D below.
A. The Loss of Normandy
Normandy was the first link in the chain binding England to France. This link was broken in 1204 when King John lost Normandy, after the French court confiscated his territory according to feudal law. Philip, the French king, proceeded at once to carry out the decision of the court and invaded Normandy and put the greater part of it in his control, and Normandy was thus lost to the English crown.
The loss of Normandy was advantageous to both the English language and England. This is because the King and nobles looked upon England as their first concern. England then had its own political and economic ends and was on its way to becoming a nation once more.
B. Separation of the French and English Nobility
After the Norman Conquest a large number of people held lands in both England and France, and a kind of interlocking aristocracy existed. It is true that some steps toward a separation of interests had been taken from time to time, as when William the Conqueror left Normandy to his eldest son Robert and England to William Rufus, and as when Henry I confiscated the estates of unruly Norman barons. But in 1204 the process of separation was greatly accelerated when the king of France confiscated the lands of several great barons, and of all knights who lived in England. For the most part the families that had estates in both countries were forced to give up one or the other.
After 1250 there was no reason for the English nobility to consider itself anything but English. This was the most valid reason for ceasing to use English.
C. French Reinforcements
At the same time when the Norman nobility in England was losing its European connections and was led to identify itself wholly with England, the country underwent a new invasion of foreigners, mostly from the south of France. The invasion began in the reign of King John, whose wife was French. Henry III, John’s son, was wholly French in his tastes and connections. He was French on his mother’s side and was related through his wife to the French king, St. Louis. As a result of Henry’s French connections three great streams of foreigners poured into England during his long reign (1216-1272). The first occurred in 1233 when Henry III gave foreigners the charge of all the counties and baronies. In 1236 Henry’s marriage to French lady brought a second influx of foreigners into England. The third inundation occurred ten years later when Henry’s mother, upon the death of his father King John, married a Frenchman and bore him five sons. Henry enriched his half-brothers and married their daughters to English nobles. Marriages with the strangers were encouraged by both the king and the queen at that time. For example Henry’s brother, Richard, got married to the queen’s sister.
The question may now arise as to the impact of such foreign inundations upon England and the English language. An answer is attempted in the following subsection.
D. The Reaction against Foreigners and the Growth of National Feeling
An answer to the question may lie in the fact that the inpouring of foreigners was not completely unfavorable to the English language. This is because a reaction was bound to follow. Even during the reign of John there were calls for a policy of “England for the English”. And in the reign of Henry III the antagonism arose immediately after the first stream of foreigners came to England. The king dismissed the foreigners from the important offices they held, but they were soon back. Opposition to foreigners became the principal ground for national feeling. Between the years 1258 and 1265 the foreigners were driven twice from England. When Edward (1272-1307) came to the throne England entered upon a period of consciousness of its unity. The government officials were for the most part English, and the king warned against the purpose of the king of France to “wipe out the English tongue”.
The effect of the foreign incursions in the thirteenth century was to delay the natural spread of the use of English by the upper class that had begun earlier. It also stimulated the consciousness of the difference between those who participated in English affairs as to consider themselves Englishmen, and those who flocked to England to enjoy Henry’s favors. On of the frequent criticisms against the newcomers was that they did not know English. This meant that there was a general felling that some knowledge of English was regarded a proper mark of an Englishman.
E. The Cultural Ascendancy of French in Europe
In addition to the stimulus given to the use of French in England by incoming upper class foreigners, the language enjoyed a wide popularity all over Europe in the thirteenth century. At this time France represented chivalrous society, and the French language was cultivated at European courts. This status continued until the eighteenth century. In Germany all the great lords had French teachers for their children. The Italian Brunetto Latini, the master of Dante, wrote his great encyclopedia, Li Tresor (about 1265) in French because “that speech is the most delectable and the most common to all people”. At about the same time another Italian translated an important book from Latin into French “because the French language is current throughout the world and is the most delightful to read and to hear”. The prestige of French civilization constituted a strong reason for the continued use of French among upper class circles in England.
II. The Status of English and French in the Thirteenth Century
The thirteenth century witnessed a shifting emphasis upon English and French in England. The upper classes continued to speak French, not as a mother tongue inherited from Norman ancestors, but rather as a language supported by social custom and by business and administrative convention. At the same time English made steady progress and by the middle of the century it became generally used by the upper classes. By the end of the century some children of the nobility spoke English as their mother tongue and had to be taught French through manuals provided with English glosses.
Even at the end of the thirteenth century French was used in Parliament, in the law courts, and in public interaction. French was read by the educated, including those who could not read Latin, but that ability was on the decline, and the knowledge of French was sometimes imperfect.
The spread of English among the upper classes became general, especially in the latter part of the thirteenth century. King Henry III probably knew English; his brother, Richard, earl of Cornwall certainly did; and Henry’s son, Edward I spoke English readily, probably even habitually. English children were taught French by means of manuals with an interlinear English gloss. This was the practice by the middle of the thirteenth century, and in 1300 the mother tongue of the children of the nobility was, in many cases, English. At this time the proper language for Englishmen to know and use became English. This attitude became more noticeable later, and was sometimes accompanied by protest against the use of French, to sum up, in the latter part of the thirteenth century English was widely known among people of all classes, though not necessarily by everyone.
To have a complete picture of the status of English and French in England during the thirteenth century we have to deal with some of the factors that tended to be favorable or otherwise for each of the two languages. These factors are dealt with in subsections A and B below, with their divisions.
A. Factors Affecting the Status of French
There were three factors that had their effect upon the status of French in England during the thirteenth century. These were the attempts to slow the decline of French, the provincial character of the French language spoken in England, and the Hundred Years’ War. Following is a brief discussion of these three factors.
1. Attempts to Slow the Decline of French
In the last decades of the thirteenth century and in the course of the fourteenth the French language was losing its hold on England. Evidence for this fact is seen in the measures adopted to keep it in use, especially when the tendency to speak English became stronger in the two most conservative institutions, namely the church and the universities. A fourteenth-century statute of Oxford University required the students to construe and translate in both English and French “lest the French language be entirely disused”. The foundation statute of Queen’s College (1340) required that the conversation of the students be in Latin or in French. A Cambridge college expected the students to speak English rarely, after Latin and French. Similar regulations were also found necessary in the church.
A further effort to keep the French language from going out of use was made by parliament in 1332, when it called for teaching children the French language. Such efforts indicate that the use of French in England was artificial by the fourteenth century. Evidence for this fact can be found in the appearance as early as 1250 of many manuals for learning French, in which the language was treated frankly as a foreign language.
2. The Provincial Character of French in England
One factor against the continued use of French in England was the fact that Anglo-French was not “good” French. The French introduced into England was predominantly Norman, but under the influence of English linguistic tendencies it gradually developed into something different from any of the dialects spoken in France. Before long the French of England drew a smile from European speakers, and became the subject of humorous treatment in literature. Children were sometimes sent to France to have the “barbarity” taken off their speech. But the situation did not mend, and the provincial character of French in England contributed to its decline there.
3. The Hundred Years’ War
In the centuries following the Norman Conquest the connection of England with the continent was broken. This was followed by a conflict of interests and an increasing feeling of animosity that reached its highest point in a long period of hostility between England and France (1337-1453). A major cause was the interference of France in England’s attempts to control Scotland. King Edward III finally put forth a claim to the French throne and invaded England. Although this long war turned people’s attention to the continent once more, and the expeditions might have tended to keep the French language in use, it had no such effect, but rather led to an opposite consequence. This is probably because the intervals between the periods of actual fighting were too long and the obstacles to trade and other activities were too discouraging. The feeling that remained in the minds of most English people was one of animosity. During this period it was impossible for the English people to forget that French was the language of an enemy country. Thus the Hundred Years’ War was one of the causes that contributed to the disuse of French.
B. Factors Affecting the Status of English
An important factor in helping English recover its former prestige was the rapid improvement in the conditions of the laboring classes and the rise of a considerable middle class during the latter part of the Middle English period. These changes were greatly accelerated when in 1348 there appeared in England a quite contagious and fatal disease that spread rapidly all over the country, reaching its height in the following year, and continuing into the early months of 1350. the mortality was incredibly high, approximating 30 percent. This high mortality rate is quite sufficient to justify the mane “The Black Death”.
As in most epidemics the rich suffered less than the poor, in the sense that the mortality was greatest among the latter. The result was a serious shortage of labor, and an immediate rise in wages. The effect of the Black Death thus increased the economic importance of the laboring class, and as a result the importance of the English language which they spoke.
At this time there arose another important group, namely the craftsmen and the merchant class, who stood halfway between the rural peasants and the hereditary aristocrats. Such social and economic changes benefited particularly the English-speaking part of the population, and contributed to the final triumph of English in the fourteenth century. This will be our concern in the next section.
III. The Status of English and French in the Fourteenth Century
As we have done in Section II above, we are going to examine the position of both English and French in England, but this time in the fourteenth century. Unlike what we did in Section II, the present Section purports to deal with English first and with French second. This is because English in this century regained its status as the language of all the English people.
A. The Status of English
This subsection includes three points, namely the general adoption of English all over England, the employment of English in the law courts, and the use of the English language in the schools. Following is a discussion of each of these points:
1. The General Adoption of English
At the beginning of the fourteenth century everyone in England knew English. Until a generation or two before that time so much of the polite literature of England had been in French. When writers used English they felt called upon to justify their decision. They frequently did this in a prologue, and incidentally made interesting observations on the linguistic situation. One prologue to a work written in 1300 tells us that both the learned and unlearned understood English at that time. In another prologue written in 1325 the writer acknowledges that some people who lived at court know French, but he specifically states that old and young, learned and unlearned, all understand the English tongue. In a third introduction written not later than 1325, and probably earlier, the author makes the expected statement that everybody knows English, and additionally asserts that at a time when gentlemen still “used” French he had seen many nobles who could not speak it.
At this time England had a king, Richard II, who spoke English fluently. Edward III also knew English. Outside the royal family, among the governing class English was the language best understood. And in 1362 the Parliament was opened with a speech in English for the first time. In the last year of the century the order deposing Richard II was read in English, and Henry IV’s speeches claiming the throne and later accepting it were delivered in English. Such instances show that in the fourteenth century English was again the principal tongue of all England.
2. English in the Law Courts
Soon after the Norman Conquest, French was the language of all legal proceedings. But in 1356 proceedings in the courts of London and Middlesex were ordered to be in English. And in 1362 the Statute of Pleading was enacted in the Parliament, and was to go into effect in the following year. According to this statute all lawsuits were to be conducted in English, because “French is much unknown in the said realm,” i.e. in England. Although the statute was not fully observed at once, it constituted the official recognition of English in the law courts.
3. English in the Schools
Shortly after the Conquest, French replaced English as the medium of instruction in the schools. In the twelfth century there were complaints that former education was in English, but was now in French, because “other people now teach our folk”. Until the fourteenth century the use of French in the schools was quite general. Some writers of the period attributed the corruption of the English language partly to this fact. However, after the Back Death, two Oxford schoolmasters were responsible for a great innovation in English education, namely John Cornwall and Pencrich. These two schoolmasters introduced English as the vehicle of instruction in their schools, probably because of a scarcity of competent teachers. Anyhow, after the middle of the fourteenth century English began to be used in the schools, and by 1385 the practice became general.
B. The Status of French
Although everyone understood English, this does not mean that French had entirely gone out of use, it was still sometimes used at the court although English had replaced it. French was chiefly the language of two groups, the educated class and the French. The learned included the legal profession and the church. French was the language of lawyers and the law courts until 1362. Churchmen could still speak French at that time. But churchmen of the younger generation were losing their command of the language.
French was also generally known to government officials. It was the language of parliament, local administration, town councils, and the guilds, with some instances of the intrusion of English. French was common in letters and local records, and was often written by people who did not habitually speak it, and thus was the kind of French of people who were obviously thinking in English.
People who could speak French in the fourteenth century were bilingual. Following is a brief discussion of the increasing ignorance of French in the fifteenth century, followed by the rise of the language as a language of culture and fashion.
1. Increasing Ignorance of French in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries
In A. l. above we have mentioned that there were many nobles who could not speak French in the beginning of the fourteenth century. This condition became more prevalent as time went on. By the fifteenth century the ability to speak French fluently was looked upon as an accomplishment, and the ability to write if became less general among people of position. Ignorance of French was quite common among the governing class in England from the beginning of the fifteenth century.
2. The Rise of French as a Language of Culture and Fashion
When French went out of use as a spoken language in England its sphere became more restricted and the reasons for cultivating it changed. French started to be learned to enable Englishmen to communicate with their neighbors in France, not to communicate among themselves as before. Cultivation of French continued in the fifteenth century and later because of the feeling that it was the language of culture and fashion. This feeling, which was later strengthened in the eighteenth century, is still present in the minds of many people today.
IV. The Use of English in Writing
The last step in the gradual ascent of the English language was its employment in writing. This is because in this respect it had to compete with both Latin and French. French was the first language in England to break the monopoly of Latin in writing. It was only in the fifteenth century that English succeeded in replacing both. About 1350 French was at its height as the language of private and semi-official correspondence. The earliest letters written in English appeared in the latter part of the fourteenth century, although there were few before 1400. eventually, after 1450 English letters were used everywhere.
The situation was rather similar with wills. The earliest known English will after the Conquest dates from 1383, but wills written in English were rare before 1400. in 1397 the earl of Kent made his will in English, and in 1438 the countess of Stanford did likewise. The wills of Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI were all written in the English language.
In the fifteenth century English was adopted for the records of towns and guilds, as well as in some branches of the central government. About 1430 some towns translated their ordinances and books of customs into English. English became generally used in their transactions after 1450. It was likewise with the guilds, in some of which English was used along with French in their ordinances. This was the case in a London guild as early as 1345, and later at York in 1400.
The records of Parliament are a similar case. The petitions of the Commons, on which statutes were based if they were approved, were usually in French until 1423. These petitions were enrolled in French even when they had been originally presented in English. As for the statutes themselves, they were generally in Latin until about 1300, then in French until the reign of Henry VII. It was in 1485 that they began to appear in English side by side with French, until French entirely disappeared in 1489.
The reign of Henry V (1413-1422) marked the turning point in the use of English in writing. The king set an example in using English in his correspondence, and exerted certain efforts to promote its use in writing. Apparently his victories over the French gave the English a pride in things that were English. The end of the reign of King Henry V and the beginning of the next mark the period at which English began to be generally adopted in writing. The year 1425 represents the approximate date of the general employment of the English language in writing.
V. Middle English Literature
The literature written in England during the Middle English period reflects the changing conditions of the English language. When French was the language best understood by the upper classes, the books they read were in French. The literature in English that has come down to us from 1150 to 1250 was almost exclusively religious or admonitory in nature, e.g. interpretations of Gospel passages, and stories of saints’ lives. However, there were some exceptions of works that did not deal with religions subjects, e.g. the astonishing verse debate between The Owl and the Nightingale, about the year 1195. The hundred years between 1150 and 1250 were justly called the Period of Religious Record. The absence of works in English appealing to courtly tastes marks the English language at this time as the language of the middle and lower classes.
In addition to written literature, there was also a body of popular literature that circulated orally among the people. But such literature left only slight traces in this early period.
The separation of the English nobility from France around the year 1250, and the spread of English among the upper class is reflected in the next hundred years of English literature. Polite literature that had until that time appeared only in French now appeared in English. The most popular type of this literature was the romance. Only one English romance exists from an earlier date than 1250. but from this time on translations and adaptations from French began to appear, and their number increased largely during the fourteenth century. Although the religions literature characterizing the previous period continued, there appeared now other types. Thus the hundred years between 1250 and 1350 is labeled the Period of Religious and Secular literature in English literature. This period indicates clearly the wider spread of the English language.
The general employment of English by all cases, which took place by the latter half of the fourteenth century, resulted in a body of literature that represented the high point in English literature during the Middle Ages. The period from 1350 to 1400 is called the Period of Great Individual Writers. The chief name among these writers was Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400), who is considered the greatest English poet before Shakespeare. In addition to delightful minor poems, Chaucer composed a long narrative poem called Troilus and Criseyde, but his most famous work is the Canterbury Tales, which constitutes in its variety of tales an anthology of medieval literature. To this period belong William Langland, John Wycliffe, and other prose writers and poets, who made the latter part of the fourteenth century an outstanding period in Middle English literature.
The fifteenth century is sometimes called the Imitative Period because so much of the poetry written at that time was imitating that of Chaucer. The same century is sometimes also referred to as the Transition Period, because it covers a large part of the time between the age of Chaucer and that of Shakespeare. To this period belong the writers Lydgate, Hoccleve, Skelton, and Hawes. At the end of the century English literature had the prose of Malory and Caxton. Scottish imitators of Chaucer, e.g. Henryson, Dunbar, Gawin Douglas, and Lindsay, produced significant work. These authors carried on the tradition of English as a literary medium into the Renaissance. Thus, English literature during the Middle English period sheds interesting light on the status of the English language