What were the effects of the Norman conquest on Middle English literature?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Norman conquest led to the transition from Old English to Middle English literature. The changes occurred on the level of language, prosody, and content.

When William the Conqueror arrived in England in 1066, he brought with him an Anglo-Norman aristocracy. While the language of the church and university was Latin, and that of the locals was English or Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic language, the language of the court became Norman French. Many loan words from French were added to the English. While English peasants retained their own terms for living animals (e.g. cow, cattle, sheep, pig), the aristocrats who consumed food used French terms such as beef (boeuf), veal (veau) or pork (porc). This meant that English developed a complex nature, included an educated vocabulary of words derived from Greek and Latin, a polite or aristocratic vocabulary from French, and a simple peasant vocabulary from Anglo-Saxon roots. This complexity meant Middle English literature had a large and complex vocabulary.

Pronunciation of many words changed, as did meter. Middle English fused the accentual meter of Old English with the syllabic meter of French to form the accentual-syllabic prosody that we can see in Chaucer and other Middle English writers.

The French courtly tradition of literature and of chivalry also influenced the themes and subjects of Middle English literature.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Before the conquest of England by the Duke of Normandy in 1066, the language of the country was what we call Old English. This change in leadership changed nearly everything else in the country, including the literature.

Old English literature is characterized by great tales of valor about heroic figures who eventually fall. These stories were composed and sung long before they were formally written down, and they contained elements of mythology. The most prevalent theme is that the destiny of man is determined by fate (Wyrd), and great acts of heroism would be followed by a great downfall. The most well known and representative literary work of this period is, of course, Beowulf, which declares “Fate will unwind as it must!” 

Middle English literature is distinguished by the French influence after the Norman invasion. The language used in writing was Latin. English had many dialects including the dialect used in London where Chaucer lived. Literature after the Conquest was written in French or Latin until Chaucer. Geoffrey Chaucer was often criticized for writing his Canterbury Tales in the dialect of London (which much later became "English") rather than in French or Latin (but his choice was popular as this work was the most widely reproduced work of the period, with many original copies still in existence).

In addition to the changes in language, Middle English literature also changed in theme. The Church, in the eleventh century, wanted to reduce the violence and created a common enemy. They chose the heretic Saracens (Muslims), and thus the Medieval knight was born in life and in literature. 

A knight from this period embodies the virtuous qualities supported by (though not necessarily practiced by) the Church. He is a selfless man who protects virtuous women and the weak; he is willing to fight the enemy of all for the benefit of all. Literature such as the Song of Roland led to all the grand tales of courtly love: a knight's platonic love for a lady which prompts him to do great deeds in her honor. These stories are called romances. 

Perhaps the most representative, or at least the most popular, Medieval romances are the King Arthur stories and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It was said of Gawain:

Gawain was reputed as virtuous, like refined gold,
Devoid of all vice, and with all courtly virtues
adorned.

What Old English and Middle English literature have in common, at least for a time, is the poetic form; however, many of the same themes from both periods still appear in literature today. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial