The loss of Normandy was advantageous to both the English language and England. This is because the King and nobles looked upon England as their first concern. England then had its own political and economic ends and was on its way to becoming a nation once more.
After 1250 there was no reason for the English nobility to consider itself anything but English. This was the most valid reason for ceasing to use English.
The question may now arise as to the impact of such foreign inundations upon England and the English language. An answer is attempted in the following subsection.
The effect of the foreign incursions in the thirteenth century was to delay the natural spread of the use of English by the upper class that had begun earlier. It also stimulated the consciousness of the difference between those who participated in English affairs as to consider themselves Englishmen, and those who flocked to England to enjoy Henry’s favors. On of the frequent criticisms against the newcomers was that they did not know English. This meant that there was a general felling that some knowledge of English was regarded a proper mark of an Englishman.
Even at the end of the thirteenth century French was used in Parliament, in the law courts, and in public interaction. French was read by the educated, including those who could not read Latin, but that ability was on the decline, and the knowledge of French was sometimes imperfect.
The spread of English among the upper classes became general, especially in the latter part of the thirteenth century. King Henry III probably knew English; his brother, Richard, earl of Cornwall certainly did; and Henry’s son, Edward I spoke English readily, probably even habitually. English children were taught French by means of manuals with an interlinear English gloss. This was the practice by the middle of the thirteenth century, and in 1300 the mother tongue of the children of the nobility was, in many cases, English. At this time the proper language for Englishmen to know and use became English. This attitude became more noticeable later, and was sometimes accompanied by protest against the use of French, to sum up, in the latter part of the thirteenth century English was widely known among people of all classes, though not necessarily by everyone.
To have a complete picture of the status of English and French in England during the thirteenth century we have to deal with some of the factors that tended to be favorable or otherwise for each of the two languages. These factors are dealt with in subsections A and B below, with their divisions.
A further effort to keep the French language from going out of use was made by parliament in 1332, when it called for teaching children the French language. Such efforts indicate that the use of French in England was artificial by the fourteenth century. Evidence for this fact can be found in the appearance as early as 1250 of many manuals for learning French, in which the language was treated frankly as a foreign language.
As in most epidemics the rich suffered less than the poor, in the sense that the mortality was greatest among the latter. The result was a serious shortage of labor, and an immediate rise in wages. The effect of the Black Death thus increased the economic importance of the laboring class, and as a result the importance of the English language which they spoke.
At this time there arose another important group, namely the craftsmen and the merchant class, who stood halfway between the rural peasants and the hereditary aristocrats. Such social and economic changes benefited particularly the English-speaking part of the population, and contributed to the final triumph of English in the fourteenth century. This will be our concern in the next section.
At this time England had a king, Richard II, who spoke English fluently. Edward III also knew English. Outside the royal family, among the governing class English was the language best understood. And in 1362 the Parliament was opened with a speech in English for the first time. In the last year of the century the order deposing Richard II was read in English, and Henry IV’s speeches claiming the throne and later accepting it were delivered in English. Such instances show that in the fourteenth century English was again the principal tongue of all England.
French was also generally known to government officials. It was the language of parliament, local administration, town councils, and the guilds, with some instances of the intrusion of English. French was common in letters and local records, and was often written by people who did not habitually speak it, and thus was the kind of French of people who were obviously thinking in English.
People who could speak French in the fourteenth century were bilingual. Following is a brief discussion of the increasing ignorance of French in the fifteenth century, followed by the rise of the language as a language of culture and fashion.
The situation was rather similar with wills. The earliest known English will after the Conquest dates from 1383, but wills written in English were rare before 1400. in 1397 the earl of Kent made his will in English, and in 1438 the countess of Stanford did likewise. The wills of Henry IV, Henry V, and Henry VI were all written in the English language.
In the fifteenth century English was adopted for the records of towns and guilds, as well as in some branches of the central government. About 1430 some towns translated their ordinances and books of customs into English. English became generally used in their transactions after 1450. It was likewise with the guilds, in some of which English was used along with French in their ordinances. This was the case in a London guild as early as 1345, and later at York in 1400.
The records of Parliament are a similar case. The petitions of the Commons, on which statutes were based if they were approved, were usually in French until 1423. These petitions were enrolled in French even when they had been originally presented in English. As for the statutes themselves, they were generally in Latin until about 1300, then in French until the reign of Henry VII. It was in 1485 that they began to appear in English side by side with French, until French entirely disappeared in 1489.
The reign of Henry V (1413-1422) marked the turning point in the use of English in writing. The king set an example in using English in his correspondence, and exerted certain efforts to promote its use in writing. Apparently his victories over the French gave the English a pride in things that were English. The end of the reign of King Henry V and the beginning of the next mark the period at which English began to be generally adopted in writing. The year 1425 represents the approximate date of the general employment of the English language in writing.
In addition to written literature, there was also a body of popular literature that circulated orally among the people. But such literature left only slight traces in this early period.
The separation of the English nobility from France around the year 1250, and the spread of English among the upper class is reflected in the next hundred years of English literature. Polite literature that had until that time appeared only in French now appeared in English. The most popular type of this literature was the romance. Only one English romance exists from an earlier date than 1250. but from this time on translations and adaptations from French began to appear, and their number increased largely during the fourteenth century. Although the religions literature characterizing the previous period continued, there appeared now other types. Thus the hundred years between 1250 and 1350 is labeled the Period of Religious and Secular literature in English literature. This period indicates clearly the wider spread of the English language.
The general employment of English by all cases, which took place by the latter half of the fourteenth century, resulted in a body of literature that represented the high point in English literature during the Middle Ages. The period from 1350 to 1400 is called the Period of Great Individual Writers. The chief name among these writers was Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400), who is considered the greatest English poet before Shakespeare. In addition to delightful minor poems, Chaucer composed a long narrative poem called Troilus and Criseyde, but his most famous work is the Canterbury Tales, which constitutes in its variety of tales an anthology of medieval literature. To this period belong William Langland, John Wycliffe, and other prose writers and poets, who made the latter part of the fourteenth century an outstanding period in Middle English literature.
The fifteenth century is sometimes called the Imitative Period because so much of the poetry written at that time was imitating that of Chaucer. The same century is sometimes also referred to as the Transition Period, because it covers a large part of the time between the age of Chaucer and that of Shakespeare. To this period belong the writers Lydgate, Hoccleve, Skelton, and Hawes. At the end of the century English literature had the prose of Malory and Caxton. Scottish imitators of Chaucer, e.g. Henryson, Dunbar, Gawin Douglas, and Lindsay, produced significant work. These authors carried on the tradition of English as a literary medium into the Renaissance. Thus, English literature during the Middle English period sheds interesting light on the status of the English language