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THE ORIGIN AND EARLY HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH
LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE.
The Ancient Inhabitants of Britain-the Romans--the Saxons
and their Language-the Anglo-Saxons and their Literature -the Norman
Period—Semi-Saxon-Early or Old English.
The ancient inhabitants of the British Islands belonged to the Celtic race. They spoke a language similar to Welsh or Gaelic, and only a few of their words, and these chiefly geographical, remain in the language now spoken by the English people. When Cæsar and his Roman legions occupied the land, they were principally engaged in military affairs, and left behind them memories of their camps, roads, and military colonies in such words as Doncaster (from castra), street (from strata), and Lincoln (from colonia). After the departure of the Romans, the country was invaded by the Saxons—a wild, fearless, and venturesome race, who were tempted to come over to Britain in the hope of gain and glory. They came in hordes from the eastern shores of the German Ocean, drove the native Britons to the hills of Wales and the wilds of Cornwall, settled down in the land they had conquered, and became the forefathers of the people of England. The language they spoke was something like modern Dutch, and consisted almost entirely of short, expressive words, which we still use in our simplest forms of speech, although time has made changes on the way of spelling them. The poetry written in the pure
Saxon tongue was, like the Saxons themselves, rugged and warlike, and full of references to warriors and heroes. The most notable of these ancient poems is the Lay of Beowulf, describing how a king was delivered by a warrior of renown from a horrible monster, which had destroyed several heroes as they lay sleeping in the palace hall.
THE ANGLO-SAXON PERIOD. A.D. 450-1150. The best remembered of the Anglo-Saxon poets is CÆDMON, a cowherd, who, we are told, was visited by an angel while he slept in the stable. The angel commanded him to sing (that is, to write poetry), and gave him the “Creation" as his subject. Cadmon immediately set to work, and produced a long, tiresome Bible poem, which, however, was at that time thought very good indeed; and there are some passages here and there throughout the poem which
are even now considered excellent. AngloSaxon verse was peculiar—not in the least like ours. It had neither rhyme nor rhythm. It had no regular number of syllables for its lines as we have. It was only necessary to have two or three words in every two lines beginning with the same letter. This is called alliteration, and here is a specimen of it from CædmonHe aerest ge-scéop
He first created, ylda bearnum
for the children of men, hecfon to hrófe
heaven as a roof, halig scyppend
the holy Creator. Previous to the sixth century the Anglo-Saxons were heathens; but when the missionaries from Rome arrived, vast numbers forsook their gods and embraced the Christian religion. Monasteries sprang up over the country, and became schools of learning, where the monks and friars taught the boys Latin from the very few books which were then to be had; for every book was written with a pen, from beginning to end by the monks themselves, and he was a rich man who could boast of a library of a dozen
THE ANGLO-SAXON PERIOD.
such volumes. There were, as yet, no Saxon books of any consequence. The learned missionaries from Rome wrote in Latin, and taught their native pupils to read and write that language; hence all the early works belonging to the literature of this country are Latin books. In the monastery of Wearmouth (Durhamshire) a boy, named BEDE, was educated by the monks. Ere long he became a monk, and proved himself to be cleverer than his masters, for he wrote no fewer than forty-five books. The most of them were theological (about divine things), but there were also histories, grammars, and books of science. His most famous work is the Ecclesiastical History of the Anglo-Saxons, which gives an account of church matters in England. He died in 735, while in the act of dictating the last sentences of a translation of the Gospel of St. John. In the following century we find the great King ALFRED anxiously trying to spread education among his subjects. He did not begin to learn Latin himself until he was forty years old; but he studied so diligently that he was soon able to translate several works into AngloSaxon, and to add besides many excellent notes of his
Bede's great History, and religious books for the guidance of the clergy, were among his translations. When it is remembered how the Danes tormented the land during his reign, and how, also, he was himself suffering from a severe disease, the perseverance and energy he exhibits in study can never be sufficiently admired.
In the tenth century the great scholar was ÆLFRIC, Archbishop of Canterbury, who translated the Books of Moses, wrote eight Homilies (plain sermons), and a Latin Grammar.
In Anglo-Saxon prose literature, the principal work of any length was the Saxon Chronicle, begun in Alfred's time, and continued till the middle of the twelfth century. It contains a record of all the events of that period, whether important or unimportant. The monks were the writers, and, as they have kept strictly to facts, the chronicle is valuable to historians, although dry and uninteresting to the general reader.
THE NORMAN PERIOD. In consequence of the
obstinate resistance of the Saxons, William the Conqueror introduced the Feudal System which the Normans themselves had been compelled to adopt when they settled in France. The result was that the liberty-loving Saxons looked sourly on their foes, and for nearly three hundred years refused to mix with them in any way. The Normans became the aristocracy of the time, and the Saxons the degraded and servile class, the former speaking a dialect of the French language, and the latter holding obstinately by their own expressive tongue. As the servants refused to learn Norman, their masters were under the necessity of acquiring some knowledge of Saxon, that their orders might be understood; so that Anglo-Saxon, though changed in some respects, was to become the real English language of the future.
The people of Northern France, where Normandy was situated, had a literature peculiar to themselves. Their writers were called Trouvères, and their works were mostly stories, in great measure inventions of their
The language in which they wrote was a corruption of Latin—a Roman dialect; hence the works so written were called Romances. There were also learned men who wrote on learned subjects. They still kept by the Latin tongue. Thus, when William came to England he brought with him writers of two kinds—scholarly Latinists and story-telling Romancers. Of the former, LANFRANC and ANSELM were the most remarkable. They were both churchmen, and they did excellent service to education by causing the establishment of numerous schools throughout the land, and by encouraging scholars to discuss subjects which, though trifling in themselves, were helpful in sharpening their minds and in making them better thinkers than previously they had been. Then there were historians or chroniclers who wrote in Latin. The three most famous were WILLIAM OF MALMESBURY, HENRY OF HUNTINGDON, and GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH, all of whom wrote about England; but
THE NORMAN PERIOD.
the last named is more remarkable than the rest, because he wrote the story of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Much of Geoffrey's history is known to be false, and hence there are many who doubt if there ever was such a king as Arthur. This story and all the others in connection with it were made the subjects of the Romances of the Norman Trouvères; but they also recorded strange stories about Charlemagne, and Richard the Lion-hearted. They wrote Fables too, in which they made fun of the people they disliked; and Metrical Romances about sea-kings and pirates.
Semi-Saxon (1150—1250).—But the language was now undergoing a change. The words were being spelt differently; the nouns were dropping their case-endings; the articles were coming into use; and many words of French origin were introduced. We cannot tell at what date these changes took place, because they were gradual; but, in the reign of Henry III., there was a difference so distinct, that from 1250 till 1350 (Edward III.'s time), the name of Old English is given to the language of the country. Previous to 1250, then, the language was changing. It was not Saxon, neither was it English, but it was something between, called Semi-Saxon. The best example of it is to be found in the Brut, or Chronicle of Britain, by LAYAMON. Here are four lines from it which will show that the words were getting more English-like than in the last quotation:
“He gef seolver, he gef gold,
He gef hors, he gef lond,
His monness † he iguende." Early or Old English (1250–1350).—The most notable authors during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were the Rhyming Chroniclers. They have the same stories to tell as the others who came before them, but they write their histories in rhyme. The important names are those of ROBERT OF GLOUCESTER and ROBERT MANNYNG. The latter wrote in this style :