The Alteration


Linguistic change is the principal arbiter of imaginative transition. A passage from the gospel of St. Matthew may illustrate the point. “Arise and nim thaet cild and his modor, and fleoh on Egypta land ” becomes “Rise up and take the child and his modir, and fle in to Egipt.” In the same passage “swefnum” becomes “sleep,” and “forspillene” is changed to “destrie.” These are neither the most marked nor the most remarkable variations between Old English and Middle English but they manifest a sea-change, rich and powerful, in the English imagination.

The dating of Middle English is of course imprecise, like all linguistic phenomena, but it is generally accepted as spanning the period 1066 to 1485 and thus conveniently covers the years from the battle of Hastings and Norman domination to the battle of Bosworth and Tudor domination. It is not quite as easy as that.

The old Anglo-Saxon culture, for example, did not wholly die. The great monasteries, particularly those which were not reorganised by the Norman clergy, preserved the inheritance of Anglo-Saxon learning; that learning represented a vigorous and sophisticated culture which could not altogether fade from the memory of man. The alliterative line, the signature of Anglo-Saxon verse, survived in ways which are not yet fully understood. But it seems likely that it was maintained by public recitation or the pressures of native tradition. It emerges fully armed, for example, in an early mystery play:

I shall make the still as stone, begynnar of blunder! I shall bete the bak and bone, and breke all in sonder.

The salient feature about traditional or customary speech is that it was not written down or transcribed by monkish chroniclers, so its latter-day silence in the written record does not testify to its absence.

That there continued a popular tradition, of heroic myth or folklore, can hardly be in doubt. When in the eleventh century the people of Christchurch rebuffed an attempt by monks to raise money, a great fiery dragon is supposed to have visited its wrath upon the town. Dragons and beasts continued to appear in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as a direct inheritance of the previous civilisation when the Anglo-Saxon world was, according to J. R. R. Tolkien, “a world of dragons.” The Old English “ draca” gave its name to Drakelaw or “Dragon’s Hill” in both Derbyshire and Worcestershire, and on the Sutton Hoo shield perched a winged dragon. To see dragons in the thirteenth century, therefore, is to see with Anglo-Saxon eyes. Celtic perceptions lingered, also; the Welsh poems and tales, the latter collected in the White Book of Rhydderch , were known in England and France and “had a liberating effect on the European imagination.”1 From them springs King Arthur, whose national exploits will soon be surveyed.

A specifically English spirit was maintained long after the Conquest in the transcription of Alfredian writings. The late twelfth-century poem The Owl and the Nightingale is in part based upon French models, and is satirical at the expense of the primitive inhabitants of Britain as covered in black and blue “woad,” but on three occasions the poet quotes the apophthegms and maxims of Alfred who is called “the wise.” The poet himself may not have perused the king’s Old English translation of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae, but the memory and indeed the living presence of Alfred’s learning, quoted in this courtly poem as if it were the most natural thing in the world, testify to the continuing influence of Anglo-Saxon scholarship in Middle English.

These allusions are farther proof of one of the most significant and salient aspects of the English imagination: its sentimental and almost pious attachment to the past, as exemplified by the large number of scriptoria at Canterbury, Malmesbury, Thorney, Ely, Rochester, Worcester, Evesham, Durham and Abingdon, all producing “historical work which ensured the survival of the Old English past.”2 For the monks of these institutions, the centuries before the Conquest were a “golden age” of art and scholarship in which Saxon liberties joined with Saxon genius to create a miraculous civilisation. Bishop Wulfstan, of Worcester, was in particular “a dedicated preserver of the past” who instituted the Worcester Chronicle and jealously guarded the ancient documents of his foundation. The writings of Aelfric, too, were copied throughout the twelfth century.

Anglo-Saxon culture was not necessarily scorned by its Norman conquerors. William was a ruthless and violent man whose principal purpose was to stamp his authority upon the country; effectively he achieved this by extirpating the old secular and sacred leaders, the thegns and some of the abbots, while at the same time importing the members of an Anglo-Norman administration. But once that power had been successfully imposed, currents and cross-currents may be seen stirring underneath. Just as the delicate liquidity of the Anglo-Saxon “line” survived in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century psalters, so native artists and sculptors “found employment and favour with the Normans.” 3 The patrons of the Bayeux Tapestry itself employed Anglo-Saxon embroiderers as well as Anglo-Saxon techniques, and indeed the Normans “found some good reasons to regard themselves as the inheritors of Anglo-Saxon tradition.” 4 It is always wise to look for evidence of continuity rather than of violent change, because in persistence and permanence lie the true strengths of human nature.

Yet human expression does change and, after the Conquest, Anglo-Saxon was effectively marginalised as the vehicle of law and governance. The native language gave place to Latin and to Norman French, suffering in the process a devaluation from which it never fully recovered. Old English—or, to be more precise, West Saxon—had in any case become a highly artificial dialect, far removed from the vernacular, and so its demise as an “official” writing was no difficult matter. The last poem composed in the old language was an encomium upon Durham, whose cathedral was the long home of Bede and of St. Cuthbert; in its final line that saint is said to be waiting for “Doomsday,” like the language and the civilisation themselves.

The technical developments are easily ascertained from the written records, although the history of almost two centuries must thereby be abbreviated. The inflections of Old English faded away, together with its more difficult diphthongs; an archaic or at least artificial language, as it slipped from official use, was thereby brought much closer to the sound and cadence of speech in a natural process of simplification. Prepositional structures became standardised and the now conventional syntactical order of subject-verb-object emerged. Very few texts of what can loosely be described as Early Middle English survive from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and it can be surmised that it was predominantly a spoken language; it was perhaps the spoken language, even during the period of West Saxon or Old English dominance as the medium for writing. It must also have been an amorphous and variable language, therefore, changing according to region or even local district. There is a dialect of the central midlands and another of the east midlands, one of London and another of Durham. It was, as a result, immensely susceptible to influence. Many French words entered the vocabulary, among them “mercy” and “war,” “fruit” and “grace,” but the evolving tongue also adopted Scandinavian words from the Danish settlers who had arrived before the Conquest, among them “law” and “die,” “husband” and “knife.” No other phase in English history has witnessed so profound a change in its language, and the glottochronological picture is rendered even more obscure by the fact that Latin and French were also being written and spoken; England was a multilingual, or at least trilingual, nation for the first and last time in its history.

Much speculation has been devoted to the exact status of each of these three languages, and it can be surmised that Latin was employed for administrative and ecclesiastical records, French for law and business, and English for more mundane or practical purposes. It has been suggested that French was spoken as a mark of social status, and that even artisans or tradesmen might use it in order to seem “superior.” There is a sprinkling of French words or phrases, as well as Latin “tags,” in the demotic of native Londoners. Yet so much is guesswork, and so little corroborated, that the truth is very deeply concealed in the well of history. One suggestive detail, however, has survived. There is a fourteenth-century chronicle on the life and death of Thomas Becket; it is written in Latin, but at one moment the anonymous historian breaks into English with “Hugh de Morevile, ware! ware! ware! Lithulf heth his swerde adrege!,” warning one of the murderers that Lithulf—an English name—has drawn his sword. Interestingly enough the speaker here is a Norman lady, but this interjection suggests that English was the language of instinctive feeling or emotive expression. It was the language of impulse even for those who might ordinarily write in Latin or in French. Common sense would also suggest that the vast mass of the native population customarily expressed themselves in their local dialect of English. In that sense it may also be surmised that the language itself represented the breath, or spirit, of the people. It was varied and amorphous because the inhabitants were themselves of hybrid breed; there are Celtic, Scandinavian, Norse and French elements in the language to the same extent that they also existed in the general population.

It was a heterogeneous language, absorbing and assimilating external influences, but is that not a model or metaphor for the English imagination itself? In the course of this narrative it will be demonstrated that English literature, in particular, borrowed elements and themes from continental texts only to redefine them in the native style; it might even be said that it is in the nature of English literature precisely to reside at this nodal point where two languages or perceptions meet. It is only to be expected, therefore, that the language itself will embody this perpetual tendency.

There were some after the Conquest who lamented the loss of the old learning. A fragment from Worcester Cathedral is written in the famous hand known to scholars somewhat eerily as “the Tremulous Hand of Worcester.” He can be forgiven his incapacity, however, since in the fragment he sighs over the demise of old “englisc.” In translation he declares that “These taught our people in English. . . . Now those teachings are all forgotten, the people lost and helpless; now our people are taught in other languages, and many of the teachers are damned, and the people with them.”5The supposition must be that the people, or “ folc,” were being taught in Anglo-French, although of course only a small proportion of the population would attend any of the cathedral schools. There was in any case little vernacular literature in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, although the evidence of the first religious lyrics in Middle English suggests that there was some kind of popular or oral tradition of verse-making. By the end of the twelfth century, however, can be found English compositions which testify to a developed or at least developing prose. Many of these English texts were in fact translations, from Latin or from French, and were written “for lewed men that luitel connen / On Englisch hit is thus bigonnen’ or “For him that con not iknowen / Nouther French ne Latyn.”

So the vernacular, the language of the “lewed,” could not be artificially depressed. It sprang up at the end of the twelfth century—from Portesham in Dorset with Nicholas of Guildford’s The Owl and the Nightingale, from Arley Kings in Worcestershire with Layamon’s Brut, and from the north with Cursor Mundi. It is for all practical purposes inconceivable that these three fully achieved poems came out of darkness and silence; they may have been derived from French and Latin originals but they are in no sense apologetic about their employment of the vernacular. As the poet of Cursor Mundi puts it:

This ilk bok is es translate In to Inglis tong to rede For the loue of Inglis lede, Inglis lede of Ingland, For the commun at understand

This love of the English people is complemented by the introductory verses of Layamon’s Brut when he declares “thet he wolde of Engle tha aethelaen tellen.” The use of alliteration in Brut suggests some form of continuity with the archaic past, even if it may be an artificial and deliberately imposed connection. Both Cursor Mundi and The Owl and the Nightingale are conducted in rhymed octosyllabic couplets which come out of French, Anglo-Norman and Latin verse, and represent what has been described as a European or international art-form, but the very tone and sprightliness of the verse are already recognisably English in sympathy and feeling:

The nightingale bigon the speche . . . In ore vaste thicke hegge Imeind mid spire and grene segge

It must be admitted that at this relatively early date it is not a particularly illustrious or noble language, but it has the freshness and vivacity of all newly awakened things. The resurgence of English has been somewhat tendentiously linked with the loss of Normandy in 1204, at which point the Anglo-Norman aristocracy were forced to choose between homelands, but there is without doubt a new emphasis upon Englishness as a defining term. In the thirteenth century, too, various historical chronicles were written in English verse in order to identify “the national community of the English” and thus “to provide a history of the land in its distinctive language.” 6 Layamon’s Brut, which first narrates the life and career of Arthur in the vernacular, is similarly preoccupied with this singular “land” as the focus of endeavour.

In the fourteenth century the language once more became an instrument of power and force, in one of those explosions of range and energy which occur in the interaction of various elements that on their own would precipitate no great movement; the next such galvanic charge would take place in the last two decades of the sixteenth century. At the parliament of 1337 a French ambassador spoke “in English, in order to be understood of all folk.” When Thomas Usk composed a Testament of Love in 1385 he wrote that “Treuly, the understanding of Englishmen wol not strecche to the privy termes in Frenche, what-so-ever we bosten of straunge language . . . let us shewe our fantasyes in such wordes as we lerneden of our dames tonge.” The invocation of “dames” here may suggest the matrilinear bonds of native English, but again it has recourse to the notion of the maternal land itself. That sense of identity is reassembled in another verse history of the period where

Here may men rede whoso can Hu Inglond first bigan Men mow it finde in Englische As the Brout it telleth ywis

It is important to recognise that the spread of the language was itself accompanied by, and cannot be distinguished from, the extension of historical consciousness. There also came with it a strong sense of exclusiveness:

Selden was for ani chance Praised Inglis tong in France

writes the anonymous author of Cursor Mundi with a suspicion of wounded pride. In 1352 a history in Latin by Ranulph Higden, a monk of Chester, complained that English children felt obliged to “leave their own language, and to learn their lessons . . . in French, as they have since the Normans first came to England. Also gentlemen’s children are forced to speak French from the time they are rocked in their cradles . . . and rustic men wish to liken themselves to gentlemen, and seek with great eagerness to speak French, in order to be more respected.”7 No more than thirty years later Higden’s history was translated by a Cornishman, John of Trevisa, who appended the following remarks: “Thys manner was moch y-used tofore the furste moreyne, an ys sith then somdel ychanged . . . so that now, the yer of oure Lord a thousand three hundred foure score and fyue . . . in al the gramer scoles of Engelond children leveth Frensch and construeth and lurneth an Englysch. . . . Also gentil men habbeth now moche yleft for to teche here children Frensch.” The only unusual word in this passage, “moreyne,” signifies plague and refers to the Black Death of 1349, which dramatically reduced the native population. A sense of mortality, or of dwindling numbers, may also encourage a sense of identity, threatened or otherwise. It is nevertheless true that by the last year of the fourteenth century English had more or less supplanted French. A book of Travels has a prologue which explains that it is translated “out of Frensch into Englyssch, that every man of my nacioun may understonde it.” There is also an intimation here of a democratic and egalitarian temper which the use of the old language—one might say, the liberties of the native language—might encourage. Thus Robert Mannyng, in his Chronicle, declares that he has written in “symple speeche”:

Bot for the luf of symple men That strange Inglis can not ken

The author of Of Arthour and of Merlin vouchsafes similar sentiments when he admits that:

Of Freynsch no Latin nil-y tel more Ac on Inglisch ichil tel ther-fore; Riyt is that Inglische understond That was born in Inglond

Even when writing poetry in French, John Gower dedicated his work to the English nation of the fourteenth century: “O gentile Engletere, a toi j’escrits.” The public events of the period confirm this new dispensation. In 1356 the mayor and aldermen of London decided that the proceedings in the sheriff ’s courts were to be conducted in English; it is both the context of Chaucer and the explanation for the fact that eleven out of the twenty-five extant Arthurian manuscripts were copied or distributed in the capital. From a very early period London was a center of national consciousness. The oldest legal document written in the vernacular is dated 1376, and the first parlimentary document in English survives from 1378; the Lord Chancellor opened the parliamentary session of 1363 in his native tongue, and from that session emerged the Statute of Pleadings, in which the king ordained that all pleas “shall be pleaded, shown, defended, answered, debated and judged in the English tongue.” 8 The same latitude was not advanced to the students of Oxford, however, where Latin remained the common language; any scholar heard to converse in English was, on a second offense, to be exiled to a corner of the room where he was obliged to eat alone. Yet we can say that by the fourteenth century a body of work had emerged, written in the English language and celebrating English tradition. Thus Robert of Gloucester, in his chronicle of 1300, sets out to assert that “Engelond is ryght a mery lond, of all others on west the best.”

Henry IV was the first English king since the eleventh century who returned to English as his native speech. He claimed the throne before the 1399 parliament in English—“he chalenged in Englyssh tunge,” as a chronicle puts it—and nine years later composed his testament in the vernacular. By the end of the fourteenth century, in fact, “English had invaded the realms of lyric and romance, of comedy and tragedy, of allegory and drama, of religion and education” so that it had become “the language, not of a conquered, but of a conquering people.”9 One musical historian has noted that “this change of orientation coincides with a renaissance in the setting of English words to music”; 10 there was in court circles a resurgence of interest in English songs and carols, although their popularity in the wider country is never likely to have diminished.

The English language was also being strengthened by the new technology. In 1474 William Caxton printed a narrative of Trojan history because he had “never seen hit in our englissh tonge.” Having been born in the Weald of Kent, however, he was familiar with the “brode and rude” language of his compatriots; he also recognised how much it had changed in his own lifetime. So he decided to regularise it, and to avoid “curios” or excessively simple speech; he did not print any alliterative works, either, because they varied too much from the standard. The drive and animating force within the language was the pressure towards uniformity; only then would it acquire the strength and significance of Latin or French. It is perhaps not surprising that London, the seat of “documentary culture”11 and the common home of poets as diverse as Langland and Chaucer, should provide the conditions and the aspirations towards such a standard. We read of the “imposition of normative discourse” from the examples of monarchy and parliament, of a shift “to heavily authorised texts and stylistic uniformity” as well as “a rise in the status of literate professionals”; by 1450 there emerge “intensified ritualisations and an obsession with codes of conduct,”12 some of them literary. Caxton himself was part of the merchant class of London but, perhaps more significantly, the offices of the government were settled in London and in adjacent Westminster; while the spoken dialect of London was a bewildering argot of English and foreign influences, the standard of writing became that of London heavily influenced by the central midlands. The clerkly standard, or “Chancery standard,” then became the basis of what is now known as “modern literary standard English.” There is, again, a recognisable continuity within the English imagination.


Arthur, Prince of Wales. Henry VII named his eldest son after the legendary King Arthur, in an attempt to win over the people in the west and to legitimise the Tudors’ dubious claims to the throne


Queen Victoria and Prince Albert dressed as Queen Guinevere and King Arthur, at the Bal Costumé of 12 May 1842, by Edwin Landseer


“Figure of Guinevere,” circa 1858, by William Morris, who was described as possessing a “medievalised mind and turn of thought,” like so many of his contemporaries


“Guenever.” David Jones’s illustration to the Arthurian legend takes the obsession into the twentieth century

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