The religious, social, and intellectual life of the time was profoundly affected by the coming of the friars (1220), who included the earnest followers of St. Francis (1182-1226), that Good Samaritan of the Middle Ages. The great philosopher and scientist, Roger Bacon (1214-1294), who was centuries in advance of his time, was a Franciscan friar. He studied at Oxford University, which had in his time become one of the great institutions of Europe.
The church fostered schools and learning, while the barons were fighting. Although William Langland, a fourteenth-century cleric, pointed out the abuses which had crept into the church, he gave this testimony in its favor:—
“For if heaven be on this earth
or any ease for the soul, it is in
cloister or school. For in cloister no man cometh to chide or fight,
and in school there is lowliness and love and liking to learn.”
The rise of the common people was slow. During all this period the tillers of the soil were legally serfs, forbidden to change their location. The Black Death (1349) and the Peasants’ Revolt (1381), although seemingly barren of results, helped them in their struggle toward emancipation. Some bought their freedom with part of their wages. Others escaped to the towns where new commercial activities needed more labor. Finally, the common toiler acquired more commanding influence by overthrowing even the French knights with his long bow. This period laid the foundation for the almost complete disappearance of serfdom in the fifteenth century. France waited for the terrible Revolution of 1789 to free her serfs. England anticipated other great modern nations in producing a literature of universal appeal because her common people began to throw off their shackles earlier.
This period opens with a victorious French army in England, followed by the rule of the conquerors, who made French the language of high life. It closes with the ascendancy of English government and speech at home and with the mid-fourteenth century victories of English armies on French soil, resulting in the rapture of Calais, which remained for more than two hundred years in the possession of England.
At the close of this period we find Wycliffe, “the morning star of the Reformation,” and Chaucer, the first great singer of the welded Anglo-Norman race. His wide interest in human beings and his knowledge of the new Italian literature prefigure the coming to England of the Revival of Learning in the next age.
It will now be necessary to study the changes in the language, which were so pronounced between 1066 and Chaucer’s death.
THE EMERGENCE OF MODERN ENGLISH
Three Languages used in England—For three hundred years after the Norman Conquest, three languages were widely used in England. The Normans introduced French, which was the language of the court and the aristocracy. William the Conqueror brought over many Norman priests, who used Latin almost exclusively in their service. The influence of this book Latin is generally underestimated by those who do not appreciate the power of the church. The Domesday survey shows that in 1085 the church and her dependents held more than one third of some counties.