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Home School Life Journal ........... Ceramics by Katie Bergenholtz
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Saint Francis DeSales

Medieval Literature, part 2: The Norman Conquest and Middle English

Previous post: Medieval Art and Literature: Part I: Introduction and Beowulf
The Bayeux Tapestry is perhaps the most famous graphical depiction of the Norman Conquest.

The Norman Conquest

William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, invaded and conquered England and the Anglo-Saxons in 1066. The new overlords spoke a dialect of Old French known as Anglo-Norman. The Normans were also of Germanic stock, with "Norman" coming from "Norsemen," and Anglo-Norman was a French dialect that had considerable Germanic influences in addition to the basic Latin roots.
Prior to the Norman Conquest, Latin had been only a minor influence on the English language, mainly through the traces of the Roman occupation and from the conversion of Britain to Christianity in the seventh century that were left, but now there was a whole infusion of Romance words. The split, where words commonly used by the aristocracy have Romantic roots and words frequently used by the Anglo-Saxon commoners have Germanic roots, can be seen in many instances. "Beef", for example, which was commonly eaten by the aristocracy, derives from the Anglo-Norman, while the Anglo-Saxon commoners, who tended the cattle, retained the Germanic word," cow." The Normans also ran the court system, so many legal terms (indict, jury, verdict, for example) have Anglo-Norman roots. 
Sometimes the French words replaced Old English words. "Crime" replaced "firen" and "uncle" replaced "eam." for example. Other times, French and Old English components combined to form a new word, such as the French "gentle" and the Germanic "man" came together to form "gentleman". Sometimes both the French and Germanic words survived, making basically synonyms, such as "desire" and "wish".

Comparing Old, Middle and Modern English

It is interesting to see the progression of English from its Old English beginning to our Modern English. Let us look at a familiar passage, first in Old English:

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum;
Si þin nama gehalgod
to becume þin rice
gewurþe ðin willa
on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg
and forgyf us ure gyltas
swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge
ac alys us of yfele soþlice

It might be useful for you to hear how this sounded.

We might be able to pick out a few words that are familiar, however the same passage in Middle English, becomes even more recognizable.

Oure fadir that art in heuenes,
halewid be thi name;
thi kyngdoom come to;
be thi wille don, in erthe as in heuene.
Yyue to vs this dai oure breed ouer othir substaunce,
and foryyue to vs oure dettis, as we foryyuen to oure dettouris;
and lede vs not in to temptacioun, but delyuere vs fro yuel. Amen.

And finally, in Early Modern English, from the King James Bible of 1611:

Our father which art in heauen, 
hallowed be thy name. 
Thy kingdome come. 
Thy will be done, in earth, as it is in heauen.
Giue vs this day our daily bread.
And forgiue vs our debts, as we forgiue our debters.
And lead vs not into temptation, but deliuer vs from euill: 
For thine is the kingdome, and the power, and the glory, for euer, Amen.

In 124 King John lost the province of Normandy to the King of France This began a process where the Norman nobles of England became increasingly estranged from their French cousins. England became the chief concern of the nobility, rather than their estates in France, and so the nobility adopted a modified English as their native tongue. Between 1349 and 1350, which was about 150 years later, the Black Death killed about one third of the English population, resulting in the laboring and merchant classes growing in economic and social importance, and along with it, English increasing in importance compared to Anglo-Norman. This mixture of the two languages came to be known as Middle English. 
The Middle English period came to a close around 1500 with the rise of Modern English.


The most famous example of Middle English is Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. I favor this version of the Canterbury Tales translated and adapted by Barbara Cohen.
For younger children, you can just start with Chanticleer and the Fox, (this verison from Barbara Cooney is wonderful, although a little harder to obtain)which many do not even realize is one of Geoffrey Chaucer's works.

Mystery Plays

The Mystery Plays are groups of plays in English verse dramatizing key Biblical stories from Creation to the Last Judgement. The cycles of plays were usually performed in connection with the new early summer feast of Corpus Christi, and may have developed from the processions held on that day in honor of the Eucharist. They were performed on pageant wagons, the costs of which were borne by the craft guilds, wheeled through the city streets, allowing performance at certain  points or stations throughout the town. Different guilds sponsored different plays and the actors were guild members. We read selections from a version of the York Mystery Plays by Oxford World Classics that has modern spelling to make the read a bit easier. 

The Song of Roland 

The Song of Roland is a heroic poem based on Charlemagne's army fighting the Muslims in Spain. It is the oldest surviving major work of French literature, having enormous and enduring popularity in the 12th to 14th centuries. We read Stories of Roland Told to Children by H E Marshall, which is an excellent introduction to the story for younger students (8 and up).
For older students, this book is interesting because there are two versions in this one book. You will have to look up many now archaic words.

  • I used this study years ago with my daughter, who graduated a few years ago. Because of this, I am not sure if I made this unit up entirely myself or if I found some of it on the internet. If you know if any of this has come from a source I have not credited, please let me know, and I will make the appropriate corrections.

Our next lesson will be on Spanish Literature and The Cid.

1 comment:

  1. Hee hee hee, I'm enjoying this peak into your past units because it's letting me stock up my Rome to Reformation board, yes it's all falling into place with my plans, mwa ha ha ha.........

    Oh, loved the comparison of Middle English and modern English.
    Have you ever read the Thursday Next series?


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