When English Slept
W ILLIAM THE NORMAN ruled England. Norman knights and nobles filled all the posts of honor at court, all the great places in the land. Norman bishops and abbots ruled in church and monastery. The Norman tongue was alone the speech in court and hall, Latin alone was the speech of the learned. Only among the lowly, the unlearned, and the poor was English heard.
It seemed as if the English tongue was doomed to vanish before the conquering Norman, even as the ancient British tongue had vanished before the conquering English. And, in truth, for two hundred years it might have been thought that English prose was dead, "put to sleep by the sword." But it was not so. It slept, indeed, but to awake again. For England conquered the conqueror. And when English Literature awoke once more, it was the richer through the gifts which the Norman had brought.
One thing the Normans had brought was a liking for history, and soon there sprang up a whole race of chroniclers. They, like Bede, were monks and priests. They lived in monasteries, and wrote in Latin. One after another they wrote, and when one laid down his pen, another took it up. Some of these chroniclers were mere painstaking men who noted facts and dates with care. But others were true writers of literature, who told their tales in vivid, stirring words, so that they make these times live again for us. The names of some of the best of these chroniclers are Eadmer, Orderic Vitalis, and William of Malmesbury.
By degrees these Norman and Anglo-Norman monks became filled with
the spirit of England. They wrote of England as of their home,
they were proud to call themselves English, and they began to
desire that England should stand high among the nations. It is,
you remember, from one of these chroniclers, Geoffrey of Monmouth
As a writer of history Geoffrey is bad. Another chronicler says of him, "Therefore as in all things we trust Bede, whose wisdom and truth are not to be doubted: so that fabler with his fables shall be forthwith spat out by us all."
But if Geoffrey was bad as a writer of history, he was good as "a fabler," and, as we have seen in Chapter VII, it was to his book that we owe the first long poem written in English after the Conquest.
The Norman came with sword in hand, bringing in his train the
The man who struck the first blow at Hastings was a minstrel who, as he rode against the English, sang. And the song he sang was of Roland, the great champion of Charlemagne. The Roland story is to France what the Arthur story is to us. And it shows, perhaps, the strength of English patriotic spirit that that story never took hold of English minds. Some few tales there are told of Roland in English, but they are few indeed, in comparison with the many that are told of Arthur.
The Norman, however, who did not readily invent new tales, was very good at taking and making his own the tales of others. So, even as he conquered England by the sword, he conquered our literature too. For the stories of Arthur were told in French before they came back to us in English. It was the same with other tales, and many of our old stories have come down to us, not through their English originals, but through the French. For the years after the Conquest are the poorest in English Literature.
From the Conquest until Layamon wrote his Brut, there was no English literature worthy of the name. Had we not already spoken of Layamon out of true order in following the story of Arthur, it is here that we should speak of him and of his book, The Brut. So, perhaps, it would be well to go back and read Chapter VII, and then we must go on to the Metrical Romances.
The three hundred years from 1200 to 1500 were the years of the Metrical Romances. Metrical means written in verse. Romance meant at first the languages made from the Latin tongue, such as French or Spanish. After a time the word Romance was used to mean a story told in any Romance language. But now we use it to mean any story of strange and wonderful adventures, especially when the most thrilling adventures happen to the hero and heroine.
The Norman minstrels, then, took English tales and made them into romances. But when the English began once more to write, they turned these romances back again into English. We still call them romances, although they are now written in English.
Some of these tales came to us, no doubt, from the Danes. They were brought from over the sea by the fierce Northmen, who were, after all, akin to the Normans. The Normans made them into French stories, and the English turned them back into English.
Perhaps one of the most interesting of these Metrical Romances is that of Havelok the Dane.
The poem begins with a few lines which seem meant to call the people together to listen:—
We can imagine the minstrel as he stands in some market-place, or in some firelit hall, touching his harp lightly as he sings the words. With a quick movement he throws back his long green cloak, and shows his gay dress beneath. Upon his head he wears a jaunty cap, and his hair is long and curled. He sings the opening lines perhaps more than once, in order to gather the people round him. Then, when the eager crowd sit or stand about him, he begins his lay. It is most probably in a market-place that the minstrel stands and sings. For Havelok the Dane was written for the people and not for the great folk, who still spoke only French.
If you will compare this poetry with that of Layamon, you will
see that there is something in it quite different from his. This
no longer rests, as that does, upon accent and alliteration, but
upon rhyme. The English, too, in which it is written, is much
more like the English of
That, you see, except for curious spelling, is not very unlike
our English of