Historical Background of the Middle English Period

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The Northern dialect had developed from OE Northumbrian. In Early M.E. the Northern dialects included several provincial dialects, e.g. the Yorkshire and the Lancashire dialects, and also what later became known as Scottish.

In the course Early M.E. the area if the English language in the British Isles grew. Fallowing the Norman Conquest the former Celtic kingdoms fell under Norman recluse. Wales was subjugated in the late 12th c. the English made their first attempts to conquest Ireland. The invaders settled among the Irish and were soon assimilated, a large proportion of the invaders being Welshmen. Though part of Ireland was ruled from England, the country remained divided and had little contact with England. The English language was used there alongside Celtic languages-Irish and Welsh and was influenced by Celtic.

The E.M.E. dialectal division was preserved in the succeeding centuries, though even in Late M.E. the linguistic situation changed. In Early M.E. while the state language and the main language of literature was French, the local dialects were relatively equal. In Late M.E., when English had been reestablished as the main language of administration and writing, one of the regional dialects, the London dialect, prevailed over the others.

For a long time after the Norman Conquest there were two written languages in England, both of them foreign: Latin and French. English was held in disdain as a tongue used only by common illiterate people and not fit for writing. In some dialects the gap in the written tradition spanned almost two hundred years.

The earliest samples of Early M.E. prose are the new entries made in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles from the year 1122 to the year 1154, known as the Peterborough Chronicle.

The works in the vernacular, which began to appear towards the end of the 12th c., were mostly of a religions nature. The great mass of these works are homilies, sermons in prose and verse, paraphrases from the Bible, psalms and prayers. The earliest of these religious works, the Poema Morala (Moral Ode) represent the Kentish dialect of the late 12th or the early 13th.

Of particular interest for the history of the language is Ormulum, a poem composed by the monk Orm in about 1200 in the North-East Midland dialect (Lineolnshire). It consist of unrhymed metrical paraphrases of the Gospels. The text abounds in Scandinavianists and lacs French borrowings. Its most outstanding feature is the spelling system devised by the author. He doubled the consonants after short vowels in closed syllables and used special semicircular marks over short vowels in open syllables. Here are some lines from the poem where the author recommends that these rules should be followed I copying the poem.

Among other works of religious nature we can mention Ancrene Riwle (The Rule of Anchorites), a prose treatise in the Northern dialect: Cursor Mundi, an amplified version of the Gospels, and the Pricke of Conscience, a translation attributed to Richard Rolle of Hampole.

Alongside these religious works there sprang up a new kind of secular literature inspired by the French romances of chivalry. Romances were long composition in verse or prose, describing the life and adventures of knights. The great majority of romances fell into groups or cycles concerned with a limited number of matters. Those relating to the matter of Britain were probably the most popular and original works of English poets, though many of them were paraphrased from French.

One of the earliest poems of this type was Brut composed by Layamon in the early 13th c. It is a free rendering of the 12th c., which tells the story of the legendary foundation of Britain by Brutus, the alleged great grandson of Aeneas of Troy; the last third of the poem is devoted to Bruts most famous descendant, the mythical British King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, Who became the favourite subject of English knightly romances. The poem is written in alliterative verse with a considerable number of rhymes. It is noteworthy that the West Midland dialect of Brut, thought nearly a century and a half after the Norman Conquest, contains very few French words; evidently the West Midlands were as yet little affected by French influence.

Some romances deal with more resemnt events and distinctly English themes: episodes of the Crusades of Scandinavian invasions. Havelock the Dane (East Midland dialect of the later 13th c.) narrates the adventures of a Danish prince who was saved by a fisherman, Grim (the founder of Grimsby). Another poem in the same dialect and century, King Horn, is more of a love story. Doth poems make use of characters and plots found in French sources but are nevertheless original English productions.

Among the Early M. E. texts in the South-Western dialects we should mention The London Proclamation of the year 1258 and the political poems of the early 14th c. which voiced the complaint of the poor against their oppressors. In the poem Evil Times of Edward2 the unknown author described the vices of the clergy and the nobility as the causes of the wretched condition of the people. Those were the earliest M.E. texts in the London dialect.

: 7/05/2009