The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Development of Culture in Feudal England

Category: 14th century

With the Norman conquest the Norman-French language became the official language in the country. It was the tongue spoken by the ruling class, the language of the court. Court literature was written in Norman-French. But it was not the language of the people and could not become the means of communication between the various layers of society. The English were now subdued, separated from their rulers by birth and language. Even today we are reminded by synonyms that the Anglo-Saxon peasantry tended the cows, calves, swine and sheep, but that it was the Normans who ate them as beef, veal, pork and mutton.

Although the development of English from Anglo-Saxon to Middle English showed a very strong French influence, especially on vocabulary, English did not lose its fundamental linguistic characteristics, either in its grammatical structure or in its basic vocabulary. During the 13th century the various dialects of Middle English came ever closer to forming a single language, and in the 14th century, although considerable dialect differences still existed, the dialect of London and the South-East Midlands began to be accepted as the standard written language. The acceptance of one standard for the written language was hastened during the 15th century by the introduction of printing and the consequent spreading of printed books from the London area throughout the country. In 1474 William Caxton the printer set up his press at Westminster and printed the first book in English — the History of Troye. It was a remarkable event which contributed to the spreading of the English language which could be understood by the largest number of people. Caxton printed nearly 100 books, including The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer and a book Morte d’Arthur about the chivalry of King Arthur by a Yorkist knight named Sir Thomas Malory.

Norman-French ceased to be used in the daily intercourse of the upper classes, though a knowledge of French was still a mark of gentility and good education. Latin was still the language of learning, the language of the church, of monastic and grammar schools, which were beginning to be founded in the towns for the sons of merchants and the gentry.

Already in the early Middle Ages in England there developed an interest in learning. More schools were established, with theology and philosophy added to the curricula. Classical literature declined in popularity, and a greater interest developed in medicine, astronomy, and other sciences. Law and history also received some attention.

One notable result of this intellectual revival was the rise of universities. They had no campuses or buildings of their own, conducted their work in Latin. In the early stages, English students went to Paris and other centres of university life, but about 1167 the university of Oxford was established, with a curriculum similar to that at Paris. Shortly afterwards the university of Cambridge (1209) appeared.

In the thirteenth century Roger Bacon (1214—94) at Oxford gained fame as a writer. Bacon may be described as the founder of English philosophy. His name is inseparably connected with the beginning of natural sciences in England. He was a man of great learning and as a practical scientist he invented spectacles and indicated the manner in which a telescope might be constructed.

Roger Bacon attacked the methods of scholasticism and emphasized the importance of the inductive method of reasoning. He considered man’s duty to be critical of the opinions of others, stressing that one should not submit automatically to authority. He attached great importance to mathematics. Bacon’s ideas were considered heretical and as a result he spent 14 years in confinement. However, he staunchly defended his views and his outlook of the world contributed to the development of natural sciences and philosophy.

The large increase in the number of private and official documents also contributed to later historical knowledge of the period. Scholars began to use their own language instead of Latin, for writing, and thus tended to fix the form of a literary English.

Grammar schools existed at some of the convents and were supported by fees. They were accessible only to the rich. In 1440 Eton college was founded where the tutorial system of learning prevailed. The famous inns of court were beginning to train lawyers at London.

Of the works of literature of this period most outstanding were The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1342—1400) and Piers Plowman by William Langland (1330—86). Piers Plowman is an allegorical poem and its aim is of mainly religious and moral character. However, the author attacks the decadent life of the church and the higher religious hierarchy. The greatest figure of English literature of the 14th century is undoubtedly Chaucer. In his The Canterbury Tales he achieves a realism, especially in The Prologue, which brings almost the whole of the medieval English world before us, drawn sometimes with subtle irony, sometimes with open and robust satire, but always with complete mastery.

Besides poetry written within the literary tradition, English literature of the Middle Ages has a great wealth of traditional folk poetry. This ranges from ballads, like the Robin Hood cycle, nearly always dealing with some form of revolt against feudal oppression, religious songs and carols, as well as love songs.

From the 12th century to the 15th century is the great period of English Gothic architecture, the most striking instances of which are the many fine cathedrals throughout the country. Among them are Wells Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral, which is the most perfect example of the first phase of early English architecture, the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge and others. However, the great cathedrals were not only architectural values created by these centuries. Many simple but beautiful village churches, manor-houses, cottages and farm-houses still bear witness to the skill of the medieval craftsmen.

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