The world of Old English Literature underwent a radical upheaval due to the invasion of the new French Language and culture, which was an aftermath of the Norman conquest of 1066, which set into motion a very different trend of life and literature in the island of Brittany. The influence of the Norman culture, especially its literary aspect, is immense. The debts of the vernacular literature of France penetrated very little into the English soil as the French were no apostles of culture. However, the Norman Conquest forced English into a subservient position from which it only gradually re-emerged as a language simplified in structure, and its spelling, vocabulary, and literary expression were strongly influenced by the arrival of the French language and culture. It has been very rightly put by Sampson that the asperities of the Northern Ocean and the Baltic were softened by the waters of the Mediterranean.
The Influence of the Norman Conquest in English Literature
The English had always been a poetic race, and the Norman Conquest enhanced this trait by introducing the Romance Vocabulary, which seeped into the English language and made it more beautiful and apt for poetry. An exclusive aristocratic taste for the forms, tropes and subjects of contemporary French Literature shifted the subjects of writing in English away from its old Germanic insularity towards a broader, shared, Western European pattern. The warrior hero hung up his sword, took up a musical instrument, and began to sing songs of love.
The Trouveres of Northern France influenced War poetry; allegory became a popular subgeneric form and the lyric and the Romance which started being penned brought out the best of the French rhyme and assonance, which became the new mode of expression of poetic ideas. In short, the Norman Conquest replaced the sinister and melancholic psychosphere of English with the clear blue sky of the French counterpart, decked with glamour and vitality of youthful spring.
The Norman Conquests opened England’s doors to Continental Literature, and the Englishmen came in contact with the culture of Bagdad, Spain, and they also became aware of the wisdom of the East, which greatly strengthened the impetus of learning. Learning and Literature were further gained by the coming of great scholars like Lanfranc, who opened the famous monastic school at Bec, and the interconnection between great learning centers like Paris and Oxford.
As a result of the Norman Conquest, Wessex lost its political and cultural importance because of which its dialect of West Saxon, which had established its supremacy in the Anglo-Saxon Age, lost its former stronghold, which led to the flourishing of other Middle English dialects as the writers were now encouraged to write in the dialects of their own region. The newfound political, economic and geographical importance of London and not Winchester as the administrative center of the kingdom also helped to determine the future written and spoken forms of the ‘standard English’ of today. However, with the growing prestige and popularity of French, the native culture and language had to suffer from aristocratic unconcern and neglect. This is noticeable because the alliterative verses of the Anglo-Saxon Age were replaced by the French rhymed verses. However, they revived again later in the mid-fourteenth century.
The Norman Conquest stands for much more than a change of rulers. It altered the socio-cultural life of England and imparted a higher and more sophisticated, and specialized order of civilization. The English language lost its rigid inflections and was enhanced by ornamental vocabulary. The writers of English, at school under the new masters of the land, were able to give fuller expression to their creative impulses. The stage was set for the full blossoming of the genius of Chaucer.