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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

§ 2. The Coming Change

There had not been wanting signs of some coming change. Already, in pre-Conquest days, there had been a tendency to seek some “new thing.” A growing sense of the existence of wonderful things in the east, of which it was desirable to have some knowledge, had led an unknown Englishman to translate the story of A pollonius of Tyre into English. The marvellous deeds of the Lives of the Saints had already proved that a taste for listening to stories, if not, as yet, the capacity to tell them with conscious literary art, grace and skill was in existence. And, in addition to this, we learn from the list of books acquired by Leofric for Exeter cathedral, sixteen years only before the battle of Hastings, that the love for books and learning which had inspired Benedict Biscop and Dunstan had by no means died out; of some sixty volumes, many were in English and one is the famous “mycel Englisc boc” “of many kinds of things wrought in verse,” from which we know much of the little we do know concerning Old English literature.

The facility with which Englishmen adopted what Normans had to give was, in some measure, due to the blood-relationship that already existed between the two races. Scandinavian seafarers, mated with women of Gaul, had bred a race possessing certain features akin to those of the Teutonic inhabitants of England. It was a race that, becoming “French,” adapted itself rapidly to its new surroundings, soon forgetting its northern home and tongue; and, when it was master of England, further barriers between race and race were soon broken down. The Norman conquest of England differed altogether from the English conquest of Britain. The earlier conquest was a process of colonisation and gave the land an almost entirely new population, with entirely new thoughts and ways of looking at things, save in the borderlands of the “Celtic fringe”; the later brought a new governing, and then a new trading, class, and added a fresh strain to the national blood without supplanting the mass of the people. Intermarriage, that would begin, naturally enough, among Norman servingmen and English women, spread from rank to rank, receiving its ultimate sanction when Anselm crowned Matilda as Henry’s queen. Sooner or later the Norman, whether of higher or of lower degree, adopted England as his country, spoke and acted as an Englishman and, before the great Charter, that is to say, a hundred and fifty years after the battle of Hastings, when the French homes of Normandy and Anjou had been lost, the mixture of the invading race and the conquered people was approaching completion. The more stolid native had been touched with “finer fancies” and “lighter thought”; the natural melancholy of the Old English spirit had been wedded to the gaiety of the Norman; and England… in due season was recognised to be

  • a wel god land, ich wene ech londe best,
  • Iset in the on ende of the worlde as al in the west:
  • The see geth him al aboute, he stond as in an yle
  • Of fon hii dorre the lasse doute—bote hit be thor3 gyle
  • Of fole of the sulve lond, as me hath iseye 3wile,,
  • in language that irresistibly recalls the “fortress built by Nature for herself,” the “happy breed of men,” the “little world,” the “precious stone set in the silver sea,” the “blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,” of Shakespeare. So it came to pass that, though, as the immediate result of the Conquest, Norman-French became the exclusive language of the rich and courtly nobles and ecclesiastics, knights and priests, and Latin the exclusive language of learning—the conduits thus formed tending inevitably to trouble the isolated waters—yet the language
  • in the country places.
  • Where the old plain men have rosy faces,
  • And the young fair maidens
  • Quiet eyes,
  • and among the serfs and the outlaws in the greenwood, and “lowe men” generally, was the unforbidden, even if untaught, English of the conquered race. And, contrary to the expectation and, perhaps, the desire of the governing class, it was this language which, in the end, prevailed.

    The gain to English literature that accrued from the Norman conquest in three directions is so great as to be obvious to the most superficial observer. The language was enriched by the naturalisation of a Romanic vocabulary; methods of expression and ideas to be expressed were greatly multiplied by the incursion of Norman methods and ideas; and the cause of scholarship and learning was strengthened by the coming of scholars whose reputation was, or was to be, European, and by the links that were to bind Paris and Oxford.