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The Norman Period Literature (12th-13th centuries)_

The Norman Conquest. When King Alfred died, fighting with the Danes soon began again. Parties of the Norsemen sailed round Scotland and over to Ireland. Others sailed south across the Channel to France. They conquered the north of France and settled there. In the next hundred years they came to be called Normans, and their country Normandy.

In the middle of the 11th century the internal feuds among the Anglo-Saxon earls invited a foreign conquest. The Normans did not miss their chance. In the year 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, crossed the Channel and defeated the English at Hastings in a great battle. Within five years William the Conqueror became complete master of the whole of England. The lands of most of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy were given to the Norman barons, and they introduced their feudal laws to compel the peasants to work for them. The English became an oppressed nation.

William the Conqueror could not speak a word of English. He and his barons spoke the Norman dialect of the French language; but the Anglo-Saxon dialects were not suppressed. During the following 200 years communication went on in three languages:

  1. at the monasteries learning went on in Latin;
  2. Norman-French was the language of the ruling class and was spoken at court and in official institutions;
  3. the common people held firmly to their mother tongue.

In spite of this, however, the language changed so much in the course of time.

The history of English literature shows us how the popular tongue became the language of the educated classes because it was spoken by the majority of the population, by those who tilled the soil, sowed and reaped, by those who produced the goods and struggled against the foreign oppressors.

Norman-French and Anglo-Saxon were moulded into one national language only towards the beginning of the 14th century when the Hundred Years' War broke out. The language of that time is called Middle English.

The First Universities, Oxford and Cambridge. Before the 12th century people thought that books and any kind of learning belonged to the Church only, and that common people who were not priests or monks had no business to meddlewith books. But with the development of such sciences as medicine and law, corporations of general study called "univer-sitas" appeared in Italy and France. A fully developed university had four faculties: three superior (higher) faculties, that of Theology (the study of religious books), of Canon Law (church laws) and of Medicine; and one inferior (primary) faculty, that of Art, where seven subjects were studied: Latin Grammar, Rhetoric (the art of expressive speaking), Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy and Music.

Paris was the great centre of higher education for English students. In the middle of the 12th century a controversy on the study of Logic arose among the professors. A group of professors were expelled. Followed by their students, they went over to Britain and in 1168 founded schools in the town of Oxford which formed the first university. A second university was formed in 1209 in Cambridge, to which a large group of students migrated from Oxford.

The graduates were awarded degrees: Bachelor, Master and Doctor. Towards the end of the 13th century colleges where other subjects were studied appeared around the universities.

It became the custom for students to go about from one university to another, learning what they could from the most famous teachers in each place.


Romances. During the Anglo-Norman period feudal culture was at its height. Tales in verse and lyrical poems appeared praising the bravery and gallantry of noble knights, their heroic deeds and chivalrous attitude towards ladies. At first they were all in Norman-French. Many of the stories came from old French sources, the language of which was a Romanic dialect, and for that reason these works were called "romances". They were brought to England by medieval poets called "trouveres" (finders), who came from France with the Norman conquerors. Later in England such poets were called minstrels, and their art of composing romances and ballads and singing them to the accompaniment of a lute was called the art of minstrelsy.

A number of romances were based on Celtic legends, especially those about King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. The heroes of these romances, unlike the characters of Church literature, were human beings who loved, hated and suffered. Their worship of fair ladies motivated the plots of the stories.

King Arthur, a historical character and the national hero of the Celts, was described as an ideal feudal king endowed with all the virtues of a hero. He possessed magical powers, and was helped by Merlin, the cunning wizard. Arthur was honest, and wise, and fair to all his vassals, the knights. They had their meetings at a round table so that all should be equal.

In the 15th century Sir Thomas Malory collected the romances of King Arthur and arranged them in a series of stories in prose. They began with the birth of Arthur and how he became king, then related all the adventures of King Arthur and his noble knights and ended in the death of these knights and of Arthur himself.

The work was published in 1485 by Caxton, the first English printer, at Westminster (London), under the title of "Sir Thomas Malory's Book of King Arthur and of His Noble Knights of the Round Table". The book was more widely known as "Morte d'Arthur" (Old French for "Death of Arthur").

This epic in twenty-one books reflects the evolution of feudal society, its ideals, beliefs and tragedies. In the "Death of Arthur" the author describes not only the end of a hero's life; the very title of the book implies that the epoch of knighthood, medieval chivalry and feudalism has come to an end.

Sir Thomas Malory's "Morte d'Arthur" is the last work in English literature to depict dying feudalism.

The Fable and the Fabliau. In the literature of the townsfolk we find the fable and the fabliau. Fables were short stories with animals for characters and conveying a moral. Fabliaux were funny stories about cunning humbugs and the unfaithful wives of rich merchants. They were metrical tales (poems) brought from France. These stories were told in the dialects of Middle English. They were collected and written down much later. The literature of the towns did not idealize characters as the romances did. The fabliaux show a practical attitude to life.

From: English Literature, Moscow "Prosveshcheniye", 1974.

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