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The Norman Conquest -The Middle English Period (1100-1500)

The Norman Conquest -The Middle English Period (1100-1500)

Those Scandinavians who settled in France were commonly designated by an Old French form of Northmen, that is, Normans, and the section of France that they settled and governed was called Normandy.

The Norman conquest of England, led by William the Conqueror (r. 1066-1087 CE) was achieved over a five-year period from 1066 CE to 1071 CE. Hard-fought battles, castle building, land redistribution, and scorched earth tactics ensured that the Normans were here to stay. The conquest saw the Norman elite replace that of the Anglo-Saxons and take over the country’s lands, the Church was restructured, a new architecture was introduced in the form of motte and bailey castles and Romanesque cathedrals, feudalism became much more widespread, and the English language absorbed thousands of new French words, amongst a host of many other lasting changes which all combine to make the Norman invasion a momentous watershed in English history.   

The changes of this period affected English in both its grammar and its vocabulary. Those in the grammar reduced English from a highly inflected language to an extremely analytic one. Those in the vocabulary involved the loss of a large part of the Old English word-stock and the addition of thousands of words from French and Latin. Endings of the noun and adjective marking distinctions of number and case and often of gender were so altered in pronunciation as to lose their distinctive form and hence their usefulness. To some extent the same thing is true of the verb. This levelling of inflectional endings was due partly to phonetic changes, which were simple but far-reaching.



When we study French words appearing in English before 1250, roughly 900 in number, we find that many of them were such as the lower classes would become familiar with through contact with a French-speaking nobility. Therefore, English owes many of its words dealing with:

Governmental and administrative vocabulary, their ecclesiastical, legal and military terms, their familiar words of fashion, food and social life, the vocabulary of art, learning and medicine.

Government and administration borrowings to the language of those who for more than 200 years made public affairs their chief concern such as:

 government, govern, administer, crown, state, empire, realm, reign, royal, authority, sovereign, majesty, tyrant, usurp, oppress, court, council, parliament, assembly, statute, treaty, alliance, record, repeal, adjourn, tax, subsidy, revenue, traitor, treason, exile, public, liberty. 

The word office and the titles of many offices are likewise French:

chancellor, treasurer, chamberlain, marshal, governor, councillor, minister, viscount, mayor, constable, coroner. king and queen, lord, lady, and earl,

 most designations of rank are French: baron, nobility, prince, princess, duke, duchess, count, countess, marquis, baron, squire, page, and titles of respect like sir, madam, mistress. The list might well be extended to include words relating to the economic organisation of society: manor, homage, vassal, peasant, slave, servant, messenger, minstrel, juggler, feast.

In monasteries and religious houses French was for a long time the usual language.

 We find in English such French words as  

religion, theology, sermon, homily, sacrament, baptism, communion, confession, prayer, lesson, passion, psalmody; such indications of rank or class as clergy, clerk, prelate, cardinal, hermit, dean, pastor, vicar, abbess, novice, friar, hermit;

 the names of objects associated with the service such as  

crucifix, incense, image, chapter, abbey, convent, priory, hermitage, cloister, sanctuary; words expressing such fundamental religious or theological concepts as creator, saviour, trinity, virgin, saint, miracle, mystery, faith, heresy, reverence, remission, devotion, sacrilege, temptation, penitence, redemption, salvation, immortality, piety, sanctity, charity, mercy, pity, obedience. And we shall include

some adjectives such as 

solemn, divine, reverend, devout and verbs such as preach, pray, chant, confess, adore, convert, and sacrifice.

French was so long the language of the law courts in England that the greater part of the English legal vocabulary comes from the language of the conquerors:  

justice, equity, suit, plaintiff, judgement, judge, advocate, attorney, bill, petition, complaint, summons, jury, juror, verdict, prison, punishment, gaol.  

Names of crimes such as perjury, adultery, assault, trespass, fraud,

and such words involving property such as

 estate, tenement, patrimony, heritage, heir, and bounds.

 War played a large part in English affairs in the Middle Ages, there are many borrowings of French words in this matter too: 

nay, enemy, arms, battle, combat, sergeant, captain, lieutenant, lance, banner.

 The number of French words related to fashion, meals and social life is also great:

 robe, garment, cloak, coat, collar, chemise, habit, gown.

 Verbs like embellish, adorn, and words like luxury.

 The colour blue, brown, vermilion, scarlet, saffront and russet. Jewel, ornament, brooch, ivory related to wealthy, and significant names of French stones like turquoise, ruby, emerald, sapphire, pearl, diamond, crystal and coral.

The French speaking classes used dinner and supper, feast, repast, collation and mess, so appetite, taste, viand, etc.

One could have in the menu salmon, mackerel, sole, sardine, oyster, among meats beef, mutton, pork, bacon, sausage tripe, loin, chine with gravy included: among fowl, poultry, pigeon, among seasoning and condiments we find spice, herb, mustard, vinegar, cinnamon.  

The verbs roast, boil, stew, fry, grate and mince.

 A variety of new words suggest the innovations of social life:

Curtain, cushion, screen, lamp, lantern, blanket, and basin, and

domestic arrangements such as pantry, closet, wardrobe, etc. 

Recreation, leisure:

 revel, juggler, fool, melody, music, chess and conversation reveal various aspects of entertainment.

 And hunting as a main pastime of the nobility brought words such as:

 trot, stable, spaniel, forest, park, and warren. 

The cultural and intellectual interests of the ruling class are reflected in words pertaining to the arts, architecture, literature, learning, science and medicine. Such words as 

art, painting, sculpture, music, beauty, colour, figure, image, cathedral, palace, mansion, camber, ceiling, cellar, chimney, lattice, tower, porch, bay, choir, cloister, column. 

 Literature is represented by the word itself and by poet, preface, title, volume, chapter, paper, noun, clause, gender, 

and medicine by such words as 

anatomy, physician, surgeon apothecary, malady, debility, distemper, pain, stomach, remedy, etc.

There is also a list of miscellaneous words, nouns, adjectives and verbs, to realise how universal was the French contribution:  

Nouns: coast, country, courtesy, courage, coward, fame, flower, force, reason, marriage, season, sum, tailor, substance, vision, use, etc.

 Adjectives such as common, gentle, gracious, honest, horrible, foreign, innocent, gay, contrary, brief, certain, abundant, active, actual, etc.

Examples of verbswait, rinse, purify, pay, pass, oblige, observe, flourish, launch, marry, destroy, desire, excuse, obey, remember, rob, satisfy, save, refuse, relieve, etc. 

The influence of French may be seen in such phrases and turns of expressions such as

 to draw near, to take leave, by heart, to do justice, in vain, without fail.