English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History eBook

Henry Coppée
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 540 pages of information about English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History.


With the conquest of England, and as one of the strongest elements of its permanency, the feudal system was brought into England; the territory was surveyed and apportioned to be held by military tenure; to guard against popular insurrections, the curfew rigorously housed the Saxons at night; a new legislature, called a parliament, or talking-ground, took the place of the witenagemot, or assembly of the wise:  it was a conquest not only in name but in truth; everything was changed by the conqueror’s right, and the Saxons were entirely subjected.

ITS OPPRESSION.—­In short, the Norman conquest, from the day of the battle of Hastings, brought the Saxon people under a galling yoke.  The Norman was everywhere an oppressor.  Besides his right as a conqueror, he felt a contempt for the rudeness of the Saxon.  He was far more able to govern and to teach.  He founded rich abbeys; schools like those of Oxford and Cambridge he expanded into universities like that of Paris.  He filled all offices of profit and trust, and created many which the Saxons had not.  In place of the Saxon English, which, however vigorous, was greatly wanting in what may be called the vocabulary of progress, the Norman French, drawing constantly upon the Latin, enriched by the enactments of Charlemagne and the tributes of Italy, even in its infancy a language of social comity in Western Europe, was spoken at court, introduced into the courts of law, taught in the schools, and threatened to submerge and drown out the vernacular.[13] All inducements to composition in English were wanting; delicious songs of Norman Trouveres chanted in the Langue d’oil, and stirring tales of Troubadours in the Langue d’oc, carried the taste captive away from the Saxon, as a regal banquet lures from the plain fare of the cottage board, more wholesome but less attractive.

ITS BENEFITS.—­Had this progress continued, had this grasp of power remained without hinderance or relaxation, the result would have been the destruction or amalgamation of the vigorous English, so as to form a romance language similar to the French, and only different in the amount of Northern and local words.  But the Norman power, without losing its title, was to find a limit to its encroachments.  This limit was fixed, first, by the innate hardihood and firmness of the Saxon character, which, though cast down and oppressed, retained its elasticity; which cherished its language in spite of Norman threats and sneers, and which never lost heart while waiting for better times; secondly, by the insular position of Great Britain, fortified by the winds and waves, which enabled her to assimilate and mould anew whatever came into her borders, to the discomfiture of further continental encroachments; constituting her, in the words of Shakspeare,

    “... that pale, that white-faced shore,
    Whose foot spurns back the ocean’s roaring tides,
    And coops from other lands her islanders;”

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