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Morley's English Writers. Vol. I. (London, 1867.)
Hadley's Brief History of the English Language, in Webster's Dictionary.
March's Anglo-Saxon Grammar and Anglo-Saxon Reader.
LIGHTER COLLATERAL READING.
Taylor's Tragedy of Edvin the Fair.
POETRY OF THE TRANSITION PERIOD.
Changes in the Anglo-Saxon Language—The Normans—The French
Language in England-Formation of the English Language-The Abbey of Cokaygne—The First English Love-Song-Rhyme and Metre -Sing Cuccu—Metrical Version of the Psalms--Geoffrey of Monmouth-Wace-Layamon's Brut-Robert of Gloucester's ChronicleRobert of Brunne–The Ormulum-Lives of the Saints-Handlynge of Synne-Hampole’s Pricke of Conscience-Vision of Piers Plowman-Other Poems of this Period.
DURING the six centuries which intervened between the Saxon and the Norman conquests of England, there had been, as we have said, but few changes in the language spoken by the English people. True, the invasion of England by the Danes had added a few Scandinavian terms—mostly proper names, however—to the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. And the use of the Latin language in the services of the church, and the cultivation of the Latin literature in the monasteries, had caused the introduction of a considerable number of Latin derivatives. The superior civilization of the French, too, and the intimate relations existing between England and Normandy for many years previous to the Conquest, had doubtless infused a little of the French character into the Anglo-Saxon tongue. Nevertheless, the vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon literature remained so uniform, that the language, during that period, may be said to have been fixed--as fixed as the English language of to-day. But the three hundred years from 1066 to 1366 was a period of great change; new manners and a new spirit, in mind and speech, were introduced, and a new language was built up. The time during
which the change from the old to the new was being effected, and during which the language was in an imperfect, and to a degree chaotic, condition, we know as the Transition Period. The literature of this period is, as might be inferred, peculiar to the age in which it was produced. There was much versifying and but little real poetry; and of prose-English prose—there was almost none.
The Normans were originally of the same race as the Saxons. A little more than a century previous to their conquest of England, their ancestors, under the leadership of Rollo the Ganger, had settled in Northern France. They had come from Scandinavia, a mere band of pagan adventurers; but they possessed, in a large degree, those qualities of courage and masterly enterprise which soon caused their descendants to be recognized as the foremost people in Europe. They adopted the religion of those among whom they had settled. They learned the French language, and forgot their own. They became polished in manners and refined in taste, and developed a spirit of inquiry and an activity of imagination totally unknown to their Anglo-Saxon neighbors and kinsmen. The conquest of England they accomplished with comparative ease; and they proceeded at once to uproot, if possible, all the cherished institutions of the Anglo-Saxons, and to establish their own instead.
“ They would not and could not borrow any idea or custom from such boors; they despised them as coarse and stupid. They stood amongst them, as the Spaniards amongst the Americans in the sixteenth century, superior in force and culture, more versed in letters, more expert in the arts of luxury. They preserved their manners and their speech. England, to all outward appearance,—the court of the king, the castles of the nobles, the palaces of the bishops, the houses of the wealthy,—was French; and the Scandinavian people, of whom sixty years ago the Saxon kings used to have poems sung to them, thought that the nation had forgotten its language, and treated it in their laws as though it were no longer their sister."*
For two hundred years the children at school were forbidden to read in their native tongue; but they were obliged first to learn the French, and from the French the Latin language. As would naturally be supposed, the Saxons, neglecting their own books, soon forgot their handwriting, “ until,” says Ingulphus, a historian of the time, “few besides the eldest men could understand the characters.” Matthew Paris relates that in the year 1095, Wolstan, bishop of Worcester, was deposed simply from the reason that he was “a superannuated English idiot who could not speak French.” Of course, the laws were all administered in French, but accounts and records were usually written in Latin.
But the old language did not die. It was still the language of the common people, the language of every-day life. In the more remote country districts, the only speech was Saxon. The sturdy Englishman refused to adopt the tongue of the Normans. But, on the other hand, it became very necessary for the Norman to learn English; it was the speech of his Saxon wife; his children learned it from their mother; his tenants and his servants knew no other. “From generation to generation the contagion spreads; they breathe it in the air, with the foresters in the chase, the farmers in the field, the sailors on the ships: for the Saxon people, shut in by their animal existence, are not the kind to learn a foreign language; by the simple weight of their dullness ”—firmness, rather-"they impose their idiom upon their conquerors, at all events such words as pertain to living things.” The old language survived, but it had passed through such a metamorphosis that its former individuality could scarcely be recognized.
The English language was not formed, as some assert, by the union of two languages—the Anglo-Saxon and the Norman-French. It is the Anglo-Saxon language, modified, simplified, and perfected. Of the manner in which the old language was converted into the new, Hallam says: “It was effected in three ways: 1, by contracting or otherwise modifying the pronunciation and the orthography of words; 2, by omitting many inflections, especially of the noun, and consequently making more use of articles and auxiliaries; 3, by the introduction of French derivatives. Of these, the second alone, I think, can be considered as sufficient to describe a new form of language; and this was brought about so gradually that we are not relieved of much of our difficulty, whether some compositions shall pass for the latest offspring of the mother, or for the earliest proofs of the fertility of the daughter.” In the confusion of speech resulting from the existence of the two languages side by side, the English became careless of genders and inflections. The Normans, seeking to make themselves understood in the language of the conquered, were naturally neglectful of those niceties of inflection, pronunciation, and spelling which had formerly characterized the Anglo-Saxon. At the same time many old words were dropped, and their places taken by the more convenient new terms derived from the rival language. Scholarly speech, abstract and philosophical terms, the language of the law,“ in short, all words depending on reflection and culture," find their origin in the Norman-French. But the speech of every-day life, the names of common actions and visible objects, the homely words expressing the passions of the heart-all these are Saxon.
* Taine, I., 117.
One of the earliest poems of the Transition Period is a satire on the monastic profession. The high-living of the monks is represented in the description of a monastery, every part of which is constructed of some costly or delicious viand:
There is a wel fair abbei