The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

VIII. The Norman Conquest

§ 1. Dunstan

THE NORMAN conquest of England, from a literary point of view, did not begin on the autumn day that saw Harold’s levies defeated by Norman archers on the slopes of Senlac. It began with the years which, from his early youth onwards, Edward the Confessor, the grandson of a Norman duke, had spent in exile in Normandy; and with his intimacy with “foreigners” and its inevitable consequences. The invasion of Norman favourites, which preceded and accompanied his accession to the throne, and their appointments, for a time, to the chief places in church and state, led to the tightening of the bonds that bound England to the Roman church, and paved the way for the period of Latin influence that followed the coming of William, Lanfranc and Anselm.

The development of the old vernacular literature was arrested for nearly a hundred and fifty years after Hastings; and, as the preservation of letters depended on ecclesiastics, professed scholars and monastic chroniclers of foreign extraction, the literature of England for practically a couple of centuries is to be found mainly in Latin. Happily for England, her connection with the continent became intimate at a time when Paris, “the mother of wisdom,” was about to rise to intellectual dominance over Europe.

Of the national vernacular literature of France, at the time of the Conquest, little was transplanted to English soil; but, in the two centuries that followed, the cultivation of romance, aided by “matter” that had passed through Celtic hands, flourished exceedingly among the Anglo-Norman peoples and became a notable part of English literature.

The development of Old English literature, as we have said, was arrested. It was by no means, as some have urged, lifeless before this break in its history; and speculation would be futile as to what might have been its future, had there been no Norman conquest. Where so much has been lost, there is no safety in sweeping generalisations, based upon what is left. As a whole, the evidence which we possess shows Old English literature to have been richer than that of any other European nation during the period of its most active life; and, through there was, apparently, throughout Christian Europe, a lowering of letters, in which England shared, during “the gloom and iron and lead” of the tenth century, yet the lamps of learning and of literature, though low, were not extinguished in this island. It was the age of Dunstan, a lover of ballads and music and illuminated missals and precious jewels and letters, a learned saint, a dreamer of dreams, a worker in metal, the reformer of Glastonbury, a statesman and teacher who “filled all England with light.” It was, as we have seen, the age of Aelfric, in whose hands Old English prose had been fashioned from the condition in which we find it in the early days of the Chronicle, and in the days of Alfred, into an instrument capable of expressing different kinds of thought in ways of lightness and strength. And it was the age, certainly, of The Battle of Maldon and of Brunanburh, and, possibly, of Judith also. Old English poetry had proved itself capable of expressing with notable aptitude, and with grave seriousness, the nobler views of life.

A period of warfare with the Danes follows, during which monasteries like that of Cerne, in Dorset, are sacked, and literature wanes; but there is evidence that the national spirit, fostered by the beneficent rule of Canute, was strong in England in the days preceding the coming of the Conqueror; and it is but reasonable to assume that this spirit would not have withered away and become a thing of naught, had Harold won, instead of lost, the battle of Hastings. The main stream of its literary expression was dammed at that time, and portions of it were turned into other, and, so far as we can now see, into better, because more varied, channels; but, when the barriers were gradually broken down, and the stream regained freedom of action, it was not the source that had been vitally altered—this had only been changed in ways that did not greatly modify its main character—but, between altered banks, and in freshly wrought-out channels, the old waters ran, invigorated by the addition of fresh springs.

Into what the folk-songs, of which we have faint glimmerings, were about to develop, had there not been an interregnum, we know not; but the literary spirit of the people, though they were crushed under their Norman masters, never died out; it had little or no assistance at first from the alien lettered classes; and, when it revived, it was “with a difference.”