Middle English History

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If you remember nothing else at all from this course, remember 1066 :)

In 1066, a dynastic quarrel over the throne of England ended in victory for William, Duke of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings. William became King William I of England and his Norman companions (Normans were originally Norsemen who had conquered Northern France) became the feudal overlords of the Anglo-Saxon population. There was never a great amount of Norman immigration into England. Instead there was a grafting of a great superstructure of economic, political, religious and military power onto a population that remained largely English in ethnicity and language.

The Normans were tremendous builders of abbeys (churches associated with religious orders) cathedrals (churches associated with bishops), and castles, and they built much of what we now see as the surviving look of medieval England. Yet they built these colossal symbols of their military and religious institutions on top of, or alongside, the patterns of village and agricultural settlement that had been imposed on the island by the Saxons.

England in the late 1000s, the 1100s, and 1200s became a bilingual country. Norman French was the prestige language, English the language of everyday folk. Few Normans learned English in this early Middle English period. French was the language of court, of law, of the literature of the period (though remember that Latin was still a significant literary and religious language). Since few Anglo-Normans learned English, initially, there was little borrowing of French words into English in the period 1066-1300. The changes in English during this period were nevertheless quite substantial.

Early Middle English (1100-1300) has a largely Anglo-Saxon vocabulary (in the North, with many Norse borrowings). But it has a greatly simplified inflectional system. The complicated grammatical relations that were expressed in Old English by means of the dative and accusative cases are replaced in Early Middle English with constructions that involve prepositions. This replacement is incomplete. We still today have the Old English genitive in many words (we now call it the "possessive": the form dog's for "of the dog"; but the apostrophe here doesn't mean that anything has been "left out." But most of the other case endings disappear in the early ME period, including, you'll be happy to learn, most of the dozens of forms of the word the. Grammatical genders also disappear from English during the Early ME period, further simplifying matters.

Some of these developments don't leave much trace in the record. In fact, just as enormous changes are in action, we lose sight of them historically. Such a trade-off is almost necessary. The Old English literary tradition ends soon after 1066. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle keeps going till 1154, but it isn't the most talkative of books in a good year. With the clergy and court of Norman England working in French or Latin, the great outpouring of literature in English effectively stops cold in the late 1000s, and the 1100s, though a great century for cathedrals, are a linguistic Dark Ages for the English language. We have only scraps, such as a passage in a charter of Henry II (from the year 1155) which begins:

"Henri, þurh godes 3efu ænglelandes king gret ealle mine bissceopas 7 ealle mine eorlas 7 ealle mine scirereuan 7 ealle mine þeinas frencisce 7 englisce . . . " – a fascinating cultural and legal document but not really stirring reading. Moreover, such scraps seem like ad hoc measures taken by the powerful side in a bilingual situation – we might as well try to read contemporary Spanish through official (and awkwardly translated) government documents in 2000s Texas.

English begins to re-establish itself in the 1200s, in the sense that native speakers developed the beginnings of a literary culture. (The majority clearly spoke English without interruption, of course.) We look at some of a very early major work of English literature, Layamon's Brut, in short #7.

In the mid-1200s, an English friar named Thomas of Hales wrote a remarkable piece called "Love Rune," an erotic (and because he was medieval, probably also allegorical) lyric poem. In the middle of the poem, Thomas realizes that it's probably a good idea to start sucking up to Henry III for a bit:

He is ricchest mon of londe,
So wide so mon spekeð with muð;
Alle heo beoð to His honde,
Est and west, north and suð!
Henri, King of Engelonde,
Of Hym he halt and to Hym buhð.
Mayde, to þe He send His sonde,
And wilneð for to beo þe cuð.
Ne byt He wið þe lond ne leode,
Vouh ne gray ne rencyan;
Naveð He þerto none neode,
He is riche and weli mon!
If þu Him woldest luve beode,
And bycumen His leovemon,
He brou3te þe to suche wede
That naveð king ne kayser non!

The language here seems transitional between Old and Middle English. Of course, Thomas had no idea he was in transition; he was just writing poetry. One thing we do not see in Layamon, or Thomas, very much, is French vocabulary. There's the odd line here "vouh ne gray ne rencyan," where "rencyan" is an Old French word for a luxury fabric – very much the kind of thing we'd expect there to be no English word for in this cultural situation. Other than that, I don't see any French words here ("riche" is in French, of course, but they got the word from Germanic, not the other way round; it's good Old English vocabulary).

After about 1300, it's a different story, and we can see more of it happening. In the years 1066-1300, the Norman dynasties saw themselves as part of an international aristocratic community. They were as comfortable on the Continent (where they owned many feudal possessions) as in Britain. Norman French high culture extended across much of Western Europe, including Ireland. But after 1300, English kings increasingly identified themselves with England and its people. Also in the 1300s, religious dissidents like John Wycliffe, at great risk to themselves, broke with the Norman tradition of allegiance to the Roman church and produced the first English versions of the Bible in many centuries.

Later Middle English shows heavy French borrowing and continued reduction of the inflectional system. It is in many respects "modern" except for two key factors: 1) it was probably pronounced quite a bit differently from modern English; and 2) it had no central standard. Instead there are several different literary standards in Middle English (as there were in Old English) and no sense till very late in the period that any one of those literary standards was a "dialect" in opposition to a national "standard." Late in the Middle English period, with the introduction of printing into England in 1470 and following, and the adoption by the printing industry (centered in London) of many features of "Chancery English" as standard in its orthography and usage, we have the first inklings of modern Standard English.

Why did English speakers borrow so many French words in the period after 1300? What kinds of words got borrowed?

To understand these dynamics, let's look at some vocabulary that was borrowed in the "early" period, before 1250 or so. (Selected from Williams, Origins of the English Language, NY 1975.) In addition to obscure words like "rencyan," some French words that appear in early English texts include "canon, countess, sermon, custom, virgin, purgatory, tournament, witness, constable, medicine, butler, abbey, crown, baron." There are others, and from other registers; such everyday words as "fruit, rich, poor, pay, mercy, change, very, catch" also enter English during the Early Middle period. But basically, words in what we might broadly term "administrative" use crossed over – concepts used in Norman law, religion, and economics (and that applies to the more everyday words too, if you think about it).

Between 1250-1350, we see words entering like "easy, season, sound, piece, count (as in number), continue, form, join, move, please, sudden, face, use, people, task, solid, second, final, honest." By and large, simpler words, truly everyday words – and why? What kinds of people were using them; why would they introduce them into English? I suspect that a sort of Franglish was in circulation among a lot of noble but not necessarily intellectual Anglo-Normans who were learning English for the first time and for good, and carrying with them an entire linguistic heritage.

After 1350, French borrowings tend to be words like "combustion, harangue, register, solace, furtive, conjecture, representation, explicit" – not esoteric, but Latinate, learned, and multisyllabic, the words of educated and literate people who moved between French and English and Latin easily.

[We've never stopped borrowing from French, but the imports have slowed considerably – "quiche" and "vinaigrette" are two of the major imports into common English during my lifetime. C'est la nouvelle cuisine!]

Modern Standard English is strongly influenced by the dialect spoken in London and the surrounding counties in the years 1350-1450. This was only one of several competing literary standards in its own day. It is the language of Geoffrey Chaucer, and his Canterbury Tales, but Chaucer had no sense that he was writing the "true" or "pure" English of his time – he recognized (in fact he pretty much had to) that there were other English standards in other parts of the country, standards that produced literary works like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Langland's Piers Plowman. In retrospect, we come to see Chaucer as the great model for "standard" Middle English because his dialect was the one chosen as the standard in the century after his death.

We've looked a little at some Middle English dialects, and it's now time to talk in some detail about Chaucer's English – which, with some variation, is the language of other Southern Middle English writers like John Gower, John Lydgate, and Thomas Malory. Until the 1300s, the language of the English court and bureaucracy centered on London had been French, with Latin reserved for some special civil and ecclesiastical purposes. In a few decades that all changed, with French mostly disappearing from the privileged uses where it had flourished since the Norman conquest. John H. Fisher's essays in The Emergence of Standard English (Kentucky 1996) are some of the best sources of information on this process.

The first time that contemporary records admit that Parliament was conducted in English, for example, is 1362 (Fisher 45). 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." The Parliament of 1362 passed a law requiring courts to conduct proceedings in English; though that law was ignored by common-law courts until the 1700s (!?), the court of Chancery – which was in a very broad sense the "federal" (that is, Royal and Parliamentary) bureaucracy of its time – conducted its business in English from the mid-1300s.

Fisher notes that the crucial years of institutional transition were 1420-1460, however. Before that time, legal documents in England are still predominantly in French and Latin; during that time, there is an entire shift to English. The Royal council and the subsidiary courts that processed petitions to Parliament began to conduct their business in English, and this "Chancery English" became the standard written form of a national government that began to address all of its subjects in Chancery English as a standard form instead of in standardized French and Latin. Fisher also notes that the Kings of England, especially starting with Henry V (who reigned 1413-1422) had a great impact on national language policy--for one thing, because starting with Henry they began to speak and write in English instead of French.

Let's look at some comparative versions of the 23rd Psalm in different stages and dialects of Middle English to get some idea of the dynamics I've presented here. I stress dialects because there is no single "Middle English" any more than there is a single or standard Old English; there are, instead, Kentish, London, Midlands, Southwestern, East Anglian and Northern varieties of Middle English, each with its peculiarities.

Middle English Spelling and Phonology

Academics read Middle English texts according to conventions which approximate what we think the language might have sounded like. To do this, follow a few simple rules. There are lots of flourishes one might add, but the following are probably essential:

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