Norman Conquest : On Language and Literature

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      It has been justly observed that "the Norman Conquest brought England more than a change of rulers". In order to follow the history of the English literature it is necessary to understand the deeper significance of this truth. It refers to two things, the influence of the Normans on the life and on the literature of the island. The Normans brought with them a higher order of civilization and a literature, which by its impact on the native dwellers of the island completely transformed their life and culture.

the impact on the norman invasion on the language of literature of england
Norman Invasion on England

      So far as the influence on life is concerned, it may be noted that for, two centuries England had remained culturally a province of France. The Norman rulers imposed their laws and administration on the conquered people. Hence the only culture known in the island for these two centuries is the French culture. Latin still held its sway as the official language. But French became the language of the cultured and polite people the aristocrats, who were mostly French. This aristocracy was the only educated section of the mixed population and they read only Latin and French but not the native tongue. As a result the native language fell into the background and suffered from despise and neglect. Thus the gulf between the upper classes and the common people was wide. As a result the native Anglo-Saxon literature was completely silent for century and all ties with the past were served. French poets found patrons among the aristocrats and cultivated the new poetry of courtly love and adventure. The social order had become feudal and chivalrous, on the pattern of French.

      A cult of romantic love popularised by the poetry of the Troubadours formed the basis of the higher order of the society. Love and war became the two occupations of the barons. Their manners departments, music, poetry, dancing, etc., became knightly and chivalrous. Women were highly respected and became almost object of worship. The original dwellers of the island stood apart from the tide of this new culture and civilization They still kept on their native traditions nurturing inwardly their insular patriotism. The result was constant clash and feuds between the conquerors and the conquered. While the aristocrats preferred French to English poetry, the squires, the yeomen and the common folk welcomed their professional storytellers called the gleeman. In course of time the two peoples began to intermingle. The growing needs of business and family life, court life and chivalry; new discoveries in the industrial and fine arts, the clergy, the itinerant monks and the cosmopolitan orders did much to intensify this intercourse and exchange of ideas. Thus a new nation, as it were, arose out of this fusion. The English language came to its own but it was so transformed in the course of the centuries that it became something new, with the infusion of much of French vocabulary and French grammatical rules, etc. This leads us to a consideration of the influence on the literature of the time.

      At first Middle English literature was completely French, being the work of the aristocratic Anglo-Normans. And when the English language asserted itself after a long neglect or despise of centuries a new literature was produced. Gone were the forms and themes of the old Anglo-Saxon literature. And instead French ideals passed on into English. These were mainly two Romance and Allegory. The poetry of the Troubadours of Southern France and of the Troubadours of Northern France combined to produce a new kind of poetry called Romances. The theme of the Troubadours poetry was war and not love and this is true also of Beowulf, the first English epic. The Chanson de Roland, the acme of French Romance deals with the war and defeat of the army of Charlemagne, a not very historical Charlemagne by Roland and Oliver of Spain. But in the atmosphere of the middle ages the love Interest was sure to invade the romance, The interest was supplied by the Troubadour poetry and thus love and war became the staple of romance, with morals superadded. As Spenser has said of his The Faerie Queen fierce war and
faithful love shall moralize my song. The Middle English romances form a very important and considerable volume of the poetry ot the times.

      Allegory was another gift of the French iterative to Middle English poetry. Allegory was no new thing in English literature (vide The Dream of the Rood) and as abundantly used in religious poetry. It was now taken over as the medium of the new religion of courtly love." The Roman de la Rose, an allegorical dream on love, inspired many dreams in the language. The rose is a symbol ot love and the quest of the rose supplies the theme of the poem. It is an "allegoric form of the philosophy, psychology and ritual of courtly love as currently accepted by the troubadours and trouveres." The Romance and Allegory, originating with the knightly ideas, passed on into English through French.

      In the field of lyrics, too, Middle English poetry took over much from the French. The thirteenth century was the rich flowering time of English lyrics. No doubt these were influenced considerably by the French lyrics. Some of the lyrics are religious but those on love and beauties of nature are fresh, original and musical. "Romance, Allegory, Lyric, these are the main streams of the French poetry which began to flow over into the revived English language."

      English literature underwent great changes both in content and form. One important characteristic is the clarity and freshness. To turn from Beowulf of Chanson de Roland is to come out from darkness to light. This cane of light is everywhere in subject, in manner and in the spirit of poetry. Anglo-Saxon language was marked by the predominance of consonants. In French the vowels play the more important part; their repetition in rhyme or assonance replaces the pleasure of repetition. Thus as a result of the influence of French literature, a new grace was introduced by the use of vowels.

      The Anglo-Saxon poets evoked sinister landscapes and mournful scenes; but the French, born under a blue sky, delighted in the clear bright details of the spring. Henceforth, such scenes as flower decked meadows and singing birds appear abundantly in poetry.

      The simplicity and accuracy of expression came with the introduction of French literature after the Norman Conquest. Anglo-Saxon literature was marked by periphrastic expressions, compound words, violence of apostrophe, exclamations and obscure ellipses. Anglo-Saxon poetry had one metre-alliterative. French poetry has a variety of lines, varying from one to twelve syllables and the limitless combination of assonance and rhyme. The rhymed verse of France soon replaced the Anglo-Saxon tradition, though there was a remarkable revival of alliterative verse in the fourteenth century. The romances employed octosyllabic couplets. Poem Morale, a religious poem clings fast to a rigid syllabic metre without, either rhyme or alliteration. It seems to be a first essay in blank verse. Cursor Mundi is in short couplet with considerable variety. Sinners, Beware was written in the six line stanza. It shows how the French verse entered into English poetry. Thus under the French influence, English poetry became fresh, clear and varied.

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