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GENERAL SURVEY. —— The designation “ formative period ” is applied to the centuries lying between the Norman Conquest and the death of Chaucer. It is a period of great importance for English history and English literature. England passed under a succession of alien rulers, and the state of society underwent a great change. For a long time violent antagonisms existed between Norman conqueror and Saxon subject. Their languages were kept distinct; and a French and an Anglo-Saxon literature existed side by side, while Latin, as the language of the church and of scholars, added to the confusion.
But toward the close of the period, especially in the fourteenth century, the people of England became more homogeneous. The Normans coalesced with the AngloSaxons, and added new elements to the English character. At the same time the Anglo-Saxon language, which had hitherto maintained its highly inflected character, made a gradual transition into modern English. It gave up its complicated inflections, and received into its vocabulary a host of foreign elements, chiefly from the French. The new tongue, which gradually supplanted French and Latin, gained official recognition in 1362, when it became the language of the courts of law; and the following year
it was employed in the speech made at the opening of Parliament.
The name of Normans is given to the Scandinavians who, at the beginning of the tenth century, conquered a home in the northern part of France. They speedíly adopted the language and customs of the subjugated country, and rapidly advanced in refinement and culture. By intermarriage with the native population, a vivacious Celtic element was introduced into the grave Teutonic disposition. Though of kindred blood with the AngloSaxons, the Normans, by their stay in France, developed a new, and in many respects admirable, type of character.
Along with their native Teutonic strength they acquired a versatile and imitative temper, which made them accessible to new ideas, and prepared them to be leaders in general progress. Losing their slow, phlegmatic temperament, they became impulsive and impatient of restraint. Their intellects acquired a nimble quality, quick in discernment, and instantaneous in decision. Delicacy of feeling produced aversion to coarse pleasures. They delighted in a gay social life, with hunting, hawking, showy equipage, and brilliant festivities. Diplomacy in a measure supplanted daring frankness. Brilliant superficiality took the place of grave thoughtfulness. Such were the people that were to rule in England, to introduce their language and customs, and, amalgamated at last, to impart a needed element to the English character.
In 1066 William, Duke of Normandy, landed on the English coast to enforce his claim to the English throne. In the battle of Hastings he gained a complete victory over the force under Harold, and won the title of Con
queror. He distributed England in the form of fiefs among his followers, and reduced the Anglo-Saxon population to a condition of serfdom. Feudal castles were erected in every part of England; and the barons or lords, supported by the labors of a great body of dependants, lived in idleness and luxury. These baronial residences became centres of knightly culture. Here noble youths acquired courtly graces, and wandering minstrels entertained the assembled household with their songs. Brilliant tournaments from time to time brought together the beauty and chivalry of the whole realm. French became the social language of the ruling classes ; and the AngloSaxons, reduced to servitude, were despised. It required many generations to break down this harsh antagonism.
The social condition of England in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was most intimately related to the first great outburst of English literature. The Normans and the Saxons were drawn more closely together. When compelled to give up the hope of establishing a kingdom on the continent, the Norman fixed his thoughts upon his island home. The valor of the Saxons on many a field of France had conquered the respect of their haughty rulers.
A restraint was set upon absolutism by the provisions of the Great Charter. The growth of cities and towns had been rapid, and there existed in all parts of England a wealthy and influential citizen class. The serfs of the time of the Conquest had risen to the rank of free peasants. Parliament was divided into two bodies, and the people acquired a growing influence in the affairs of government. The amalgamation of the two races that had lived side by side for centuries was gradually completed, and the great English nation, in its modern form, had its beginning - a nation that in its type of character is second to none in the history of the world. But many evils still existed.
The nobility lived in luxury and extravagance, while the peasants lived in squalor and want. The public taste was coarse, and the state of morals low. Highwaymen rendered travel unsafe. Through gross abuses of its power and the extensive corruption of its representatives, the church had in large measure lost its hold upon the people. Immense revenues, five times greater than that of the crown, were paid into the coffers at Rome. Half the soil of England was in the hands of the clergy. The immorality of the friars was notorious, and provoked vigorous denunciation and resistance. Yet there were faithful pastors and prelates, who, like Chaucer's poor parson, taught “ Christes lore” and followed it themselves ; and magnificent cathedrals were built to stand as objects of admiration for succeeding ages.
The substantial element in all literature is knowledge. This was not lacking in the fourteenth century. Various agencies contributed to the general increase of knowledge. The Crusades had opened up the Orient and brought new ideas into vogue.
The literature of France — the long narrative poems of the trouvère and the short love ballads of the troubadour introduced a new taste and furnished improved models of style. The legends that had gathered about the names of Charlemagne, Alexander, and King Arthur, appealed strongly to the imagination of the age. The monasteries had multiplied in their scriptoria the writings of the ancients. Through Arabic influence and