The Norman Conquest
On the second half of the 11th century William, the Duke of Normandy, built up an army with the help of the local warlords and invaded England and defeated the English king Harold II to become the king in the year 1066. This incident, known as the Norman Conquest, was destined to exercise a profound influence on the social, political and religious life of the English people; in fact, this incident changed the course English history and culture. The immediate consequence of the Conquest was the introduction of feudalism, a new kind of aristocracy. Along with this came French as the normal language of the aristocracy, which continued to be used at least for two hundred years. English, however, remained the language of the mass, of the uncultivated. Again, all the important positions in the church were given to the French clergy, who would use Latin as their vernacular and as the language for learning. This provided the much-needed stimulus to the intellectual life of the English people, as it opened their ways to the classical worlds of Greece and Rome. By the beginning of the 14th century English became universal for all practical purposes, but it was no longer purely a tongue of the Anglo-Saxons; for, the Old English saw the rise of a new English language, Middle English, which was more or less the beginning of Modern English. The most prominent change in the field of literature was that the Old English poetic themes and forms were replaced by the French ones—romance and allegory. The love poetry of the troubadours of Southern France and the war poetry of the trouveres of the Northern France together in combination produced a new kind of poetry called romance. In this Chanson de Roland became the model of the romances. On the other hand, Roman de la Rose became a model for the medieval allegorical love poetry. In consideration of the type of production, the literature following the conquest can roughly be divided in some groups—(i) “the matter of Britain”, dealing with the stories of King Arthur, (ii) “the matter of England”, celebrating the English heroes, (iii) “the matter of France”, connected with the French king Charlemagne the Great, (iv) “the matter of Greece and Rome”, connected with the classical heroes like Alexander. The period following the Conquest saw the rise of a body of popular tales, a great majority of which is in verse often having a moral. Some of them are short anecdotes, called exemplum, teaching a lesson or illustrating a point. The counterpart of the ‘exempla’ was the ‘fabliau’, a kind of short story made by laymen in the fashion of exemplum and circulated orally. Another type was bestiary, derived from Aeshop’s fables and Physiologus. On the other hand, we find the writing of some chronicles, mainly based on legends and imagination. The striking exception is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, describing the miseries of the English under their ruthless French rulers. Other instances can be made of Layamon’s Brut and Robert of Gloucester’s Chronicle, The Bruce, Robert Maning’s Story of England etc. In order to touch the heart of the conquered people and leave them to miracles and legends connected with saints, the French clergy gave birth to a new kind of didactic and religious verse such as Ormulum, Poema Morale, Cursor Mundi, The Prick of Conscience, Synne etc. Along with the religious verses there appeared a new kind of secular poems. This is known as Breton Lay; for instance, Sir Orfeo, Le Freins and Sir Launfal. The Norman Conquest caused the death of the age-old Old English lyrics, and in their place came a new kind of lyric on various subjects; for instance, Sumer is icumen, The Cuckoo’s Song, Alysoun etc. Among the ballads mention may be made of Geste of Robinhood. Regarding prose Acrene Riwle, a twelfth century work written in the southern dialect, deserves mention. The Middle English literature, largely a production of the Norman Conquest, was mainly a transitional cultural production, which paved the way for such great writer as Chaucer and prepared the cultural ground for the beginning of the Modern Age with the Elizabethan Renaissance.