1902 Encyclopedia > English Literature > Amalgamation of Races - Commencements of English Literature (1215-1350): Bacon, Manning

English Literature
(Part 3)


Bacon, Manning...

The course of events in this period, as bearing upon literature, may be described. The fortunate loss of Normandy in 1204 brought the ruling classes and the commonalty of England closer together, put an end to the transmarine nationality and domicile of the former, and gave a common political interest, in relation to the outside world, to all the dwellers on English soil. Thus two out of the four nations, which we spoke of in the last section as encamped side by side on British territory, were soon in fair way of being fused into one. The third – the Welsh – losing in 1292 it political independence, lost also with it the pretension, and almost the desire, to maintain a separate literature. Still, however, in spite of common interests, and the ever – growing multiplicity of the ties of blood between the two, Norman and Englishman continued each to speak his own. Language. Layanon, about 1205, and Ormin, fifteen or twenty years later, write for the English – speaking majority understands little or no French; from French their language is just as alien as the Flemish of the present day. The first great step towards that blending of tongues which was to crown the blending of families already commenced was taken when the English writers and translators of the 13th century (the terms are almost synonymous), began to admit freely into their writing and unlimited number of those generally intelligible French words of which the stock was, through closer intercourse between the governors and the governed, perpetually on the increase. Of this practice Robert of Gloucester Manning are conspicuous examples. In spite of this approximation, we shall find that strenuous efforts were made, by or on behalf of the upper classes, to retain French as the common literary language, and keep English in the position of a popular dialect, useful for the common purposes of life, but not vivified by genius or polished by contact with refined lips. Of this effort Robert Grusseteste, bishop of Lincoln, may be considered the centre. It broke down, however, against the force of circumstances. First, as fast as good French books were produced, Englishmen translated them, and the translations probably found ten readers for one who could en.joy the originals; secondly, the wars between England and France which broke out in 1338, and in which the English speaking archers – the back – bone of the stout yeomanry, now, also! No more, which then covered the land – won the chief of glory, must have greatly tended to discrete among Englishmen of all classes the tongue of their enemies. Trevesia that the popular rage for speaking French which had existed before the "grete deth" (the plague of 1348), was since then "somedele changed". Though he naturally refers to a date still fresh in every one’s memory, the change could have had nothing to do with the plague; it was probably, as conjectured above, the effort of the French war. By the middle of the 14th century the industry of the translators, had produced a great body of English compositions, coloured everywhere by French thought, and studded with French words; the preaching of the friars had for a hundred years been working in the same direction, i.e., to break down the partition not only between the races but between the tongues; the war suddenly gave the English an enormous advantage over its rival in respect of popularity; it need not therefore surprise us to find, as we shall find in the next period, a great native writer choosing English for the instrument of his thought, and founding English literature, upon an imperishable basis.

In the last section we saw that Latin, the language of the clerical community, was holding its ground vigorously and successfully against the different forms of vernacular speech current in England. While these last remained in a rude and unsettled condition, it was inevitable that Latin should enjoy this superiority. But the French language was ever growing in importance; its grammatical forms were by this time tolerably settled, and its modes of derivation fixed; it was a spoken tongue, and the Latin was not. Hence, about the date of Magna Charta (1215), French begins to appear in our public instruments, Latin having been the documentary language since the Conquest; about 1270 it begins to supersede Latin as the language of private correspondence. Latin thenceforward was less and less used as the language of poetry, the vehicle of satire, or the voice of piety; French took its place. The theologian, the philosopher, and the annalist alone remained faithful to Latin, the third more out of habit perhaps, and because he had inherited the great works of the past, the histories of Beda, Florence & c., than because his work could not have been competently performed in French., To this period belong the important chronicle of Matthew Paris, who died in 1259, that of Nicholas Trivet, and the Polychronicon (or at any rate the earlier portion of it) of Ranulf Higden. Great developments of the scholastic theology were made in the period, chiefly by the new orders of friars funded about its commencement, the children of St. Francis and St. Dominic. Two of the most celebrated of the Franciscan writers, Duns Scotus and William of Occam, were natives of the British isles; they were respectively the chiefs of the, realist and nominalists, the parties representing among the schoolmen Platonic and Aristotelian theories. Robert Holcot, a distinguished Dominican writer and a nominalist, was carried off by the plague of 1348.

Philosophy now for the first time, in the person of Roger Bacon, devotes herself systematically to the study of nature and its law. This great man, the chief part of whose long life was spent in the Franciscan friary at Oxford, died in 1292. The main plan of his principal work, the Opus majus, - was – in the words of Dr. Whewell – "to urge the necessity of a reform in the mode of philosophizing, to set forth the reason why knowledge had not made a greater progress, to draw back attention to sources of knowledge which had been unwisely neglected, to discover other sources which were yet wholly unknown, and to animate men to the undertaking by a prospect of the vase advantages which it offered." But the subsidiary aids which physical science requires were wanting him, and in that rude age only could be obtained with extreme difficulty. Mathematical instruments were terribly expensive; tables were scarcely to be had; books were both rare and costly. That he discovered so much as he did – chiefly chemistry and optics- is a thing to wonder at. Vague reports of these discoveries circulating among the ignorant populace caused Roger Bacon to be deemed a conjuror or necromancer; the chap-books and low comedies of the reign of Elizabeth represent him exclusively in the light.

In the reign of Henry III. A strong effort was made to make French exclusive literacy language of the English people. It was a struggle between the tongue of the upper class and the tongue of the middle class. Robert Grosseteste, the admired and venerate bishop of a great see, was surrounded by ecclesiastics of rank’, and in constant intercourse with earls and barons. All such persons would speak French; those were laymen would stand in great need of spiritual and moral instructions, and this could not well be conveyed to them in any language but their own; it was quite natural, therefore, that the bishop should cencourage the writing of French treatises; and it is probable that the sincerely thought the English tongue not to be worth cultivating for the purposes of literature. He may be excused for holding this opinion, if the only specimens of it which he had seen on paper, were such as the Ormulm, or even as Layamon’s Brut. A French work, the Manuel de Peche, treating of the Decalogue and the seven daily sins, which are illustrated with many legendary stories, was formerly ascribed to Grosseteste – is tis now known to have been the work of William of Waddington; yet if the statement be true, that it is a version of a little known Latin treatise, there remains a probability that the bishop, in pursuance of a general plan of action, encouraged Waddington to make his version. To the Chastel d’ Amour, a work of devotion dwelling on the mode of the miraculous incarnation of the Redeemer, Grossteste’s claim seems to be better founded; if he did not write it, certainly caused it to be written. The same despair of maing anything of English, or the same connexion with a circle of readers in the upper ranks of society, led Peter Langtoft, a canon of Bridlington, in spite of his unmistakably English name, to write in French a rhyming chronicle of English history, which he brings down to 1307. Other cases might be mentioned; in fact, as Warton says, "anonylmous French pieces both in prose and verse, and written about this time, are innumerable in our manuscript repositories." There were French originals of Guy of Warwick Bevis of Hamtoun, and many other romances, although few of them are now extant.

But if the attack was vigorous, the defence was sturdy and persistent, with a tenacity which spoke of final victory. Ormin’s rhythmic gospels (supposed to have been written about 1225), though the orthography proceeds upon a theory, and is so far interesting, presents, it must be admitted – owing to the strangeness of the spelling, the want of rhyme, and the paucity of words of Latin origin – a barbarous, almost repulsive, aspect to the reader. The war of the barons in Henry III.’s reign, in which the cause of Leicester and other French – speaking aristocrats enthusiasm, certainly had the effect of introducing a number of French words into the popular speech. This may be gathered from the remarkable English ballad on the battle of Lewes (1264). Written by a partisan of Leicester, the phraseology of which is marked by almost the same proportion of words of French origin as prevails in modern English. Moreover, the movement of the verse in vigorous and free, and such as benefits a language that is fats into importance, and has a great destiny before it. In the reign of Edward I, appeared the English rhyming chronicle of Robert of Gloucester. The early portion of it is founded on Wace’s Brut, but the author continues the history down to 1272, the date of Edwards’ accession. Robert is a plodding dull writer, but his work proves that he knew of a considerable class of persons knew no French, yet were capable of deriving pleasure from literature; it is for this class that his somewhat ponderous poem was intended. The pretty poem describing a contest an owl and a nightingale (date about 1270) is the dialect of the south of England. It is no translation, but seems to have been suggested by passages in the Roman de la Rose. Many English romances, e.g, Havelok, King Horn, King Alexander, Richard I., Guy of Warnick, &c., date from the reign of Edward I., or say, from the last twenty years of the 13th century. Most of these are translations from the French; in the case of Havelok, however, this remains to be proved, no French version (other than the sketch, much earlier in date, given in Gaimar’s Estorie) being now extant. There is a French version King Horn, but it differs greatly from the English romance, and there is good reason for believing that the English poem is the earlier of the two. Both Havelok and King Horn,are founded on Anglo-Danish traditions and current in the east of England; on thisn account, and in consideration of the long intellectual blight which the Danish inroads produced in those parts of the country, they are extremely interesting and valuable. They abound in French words, and on reading them we feel that a language which has become so fluent, flexible, and accommodating cannot but make its way and attain to predominance.

Perhaps the works of single writer contributed so much to this result as those of Robert Manning, or, as he is also called, Robert of Brunne. Robert was a monk of the order founded by St. Gilbert of Sempringham; his monastery was in South Lincolnshire. He belongs to the reigns of Edward II. and Edward III.; the date of his death is unknown; but is probably about 1340. He executed a new version of Wace’s Brut inoctosyllabic rhyming verse, and added to it a translation of the French rhyming chronicle of Peter Langtoft, mentioned in a previous paragraph. He also translated Waddington’s Manue des Peches, adding may characteristic and lively passages which make his version much more entertaining than the original work. To all these labours the good mon was impelled, not by the love of fame, which would have been more easil.y gratified if he had written in French, but by the benevolent desire to give his lay friends and acquaintance something pleasant to read and talk about, -

"For to half solace and gamen,
In felauship when tha sit samen [together]."

We had found that by degrees men of better, or least equal, mark have taken to writing in English, as compared with those who preferred French; for instance, Robert Manning is at least equal as a versifier to Peter Langtoft. In the next section will be described the rise to Chaucer, Langland, Gower, and the final victory of the native speech.

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