How the Norman Conquest Affected England and English Literature

Introduction: The tussle for supremacy between England and France goes back to ancient history. After several failed attempts in previous centuries, the Normans finally defeated the English in the Battle of Hastings in the year 1066, thereby changing the course of the island’s history significantly. Not only did the Normans take over the political reigns but also effected profound changes to the cultural and linguistic heritage of the people of England. This essay will attempt to show how the Norman Conquest of England left a lasting impact on future generations of English in the social, political, literary and cultural realms.

Immediately following the Norman Conquest, the religious orthodoxy of England faced a serious threat to their material possessions, as the new rulers ordered despoliation of church treasures, imposition of punitive gelds and taxes, introduced new mandates of knight service, and lay magnates’ seizure of the estates belonging to churches if they were strong enough to do so. In addition to such strictures, the autonomy and authority of monasteries were undermined, as bishops were bestowed with powers to annex a wealthy monastery. Further,

“the establishment of an Episcopal see in an abbey threatened not only the wealth of the community, which had to be divided to provide for the bishop and his familia, but also the independence and the status of its head, and it is not surprising that communities so threatened resisted vigorously. Tension between religious houses and bishops is a dominant theme in post-Conquest ecclesiastical histories”. (Jane Dick Zatta, 2005, p.306)

Older historical accounts of medieval England presented a rather simplistic picture. The authors of these accounts do not venture beyond stating the obvious political and cultural transformations of the period. But as the methods of research got more advanced alongside developments in such fields as archaeology and anthropology, revisionist histories and subaltern studies have given new perspectives into English past. As a consequence, such popular interpretations of medieval English history as recorded by the great nineteenth century historian William Stubbs are being revised and rewritten. In Stubbs’ works, for instance, the introduction of French feudalism to England is given a sympathetic treatment. But for contemporary historians, feudalism is a purely exploitative enterprise devoid of civil merits. Similarly, the Magna Carta and the Parliament of the thirteenth century England have now come to be seen “not as responses to popular protest but as the outcome of negotiation among the political elite, to a large extent as instruments controlled by kings who sought to mask the exercise of brute royal lordship behind a facade of communal consent” (Jane Dick Zatta, 2005, p.306).

Moreover, the Norman Conquest does not pertain only to England, for it was truly a British people’s history that comprised the Welsh, the Scots, the Irish and the Cornish. Studied in light of these new perspectives, we learn that the French speaking Normans’ conquest of the island kingdom did not induce sentiments of retribution and revenge among the conquered subjects. To the contrary, the natives easily fraternized with their new masters, leading to a state of harmony and socio-cultural assimilation. In contrast to the Austro-Hungarian and Finish ruling classes of recent centuries, the Norman aristocracy was open to intermarry as well as accept the indigenous language of the subjects. Such intermingling of ethnicity, culture and language would lead, in subsequent years, to the most dynamic and versatile of literary traditions in England. But the smoothness associated with social assimilation did not easily carry over to the language traditions of French and English. In fact, historical analysis of medieval literature reveals the then existing linguistic antagonism between the two language traditions. Given the long warring legacy between the two kingdoms, this should come as no surprise. As the English nation was forever at war with their trans-channel neighbor, it seemed apt that their languages should be dragged into a conflict as well. In particular, the notion of gender cleansing is “portrayed, enacted, and consummated in its linguistic incarnation. As the Englishmen are virile, rugged, honest, and virtuous, so must be their language, in opposition to the womanish, effete, deceptive, and perfidious language of the French” (Vincent, 2003, p.61). Such stereotypes are far too simplistic to be true. Nevertheless, the linkage between the English language, the Anglo-Saxon ethnic roots and the notion of the English nation is very strong indeed. Centuries later, when English theatre flourished under the reign of Queen Elizabeth, literary artists, including Shakespeare, would explore this sense of English identity.

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