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In the Silence of the Darkest Century

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Average Everygirl #73, Average encounters the Distant Past, Part 1 | Panel 1: Average and Nerdly retry their time travel. A red glow encircles them as Nerdly declares, "12th century England, here we come!" | Panel 2: The glow recedes and a third person, a plain stick figure, appears in frame. Average, looking the other direction, asks, "Did it work this time?" Nerdly asks the new person, "Good sir! Pray, tell me what year it be!" | Panel 3: The person turns and says something garbled, written in the old insular script. Average, out of the corner of her mouth, asks, 'Did you catch any of that?" | Panel 4: Nerdly replies, "I think he said, 'Hail, strange warlock and his lewdly clad harlot.'" Average, scowling, says, "Okay. Time to go." [Author's note: Nerdly's translation is exactly what the figure said, the words directly transliterated from the insular script used in Panel 3.]

Twelfth century England marks the transition period between Old and Middle English. William the Conqueror’s victory in 1066 ushered in a slew of French nobility and clergymen. The ruling class, though a distinct minority, spoke a different language than the peasantry. In the decades that followed, this factor led to a very quickly evolving native tongue.

Class Warfare

Old English—or Anglo-Saxon, or simply Saxon, as it was called in this period—fell out of favor. It branded its speaker as a member of a lesser social class, while French indicated a more elite status. (English would remain “vulgar” up until about a hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, by the way, and the narrative of its inherent inferiority persists even today.)

This difference in language statuses resulted in a lovely phenomenon, however: many of those on the lower end of the social spectrum sought to elevate their standing through language acquisition, so that French and Saxon co-mingled to produce a new hybrid English.

That’s right. There’s a fun little theory that our beloved language is, at its roots, a creole.

Marks of a Merged Culture

Evidence lies in the shift from the Old English structure of Subject-Object-Verb (SOV, very Germanic) to the Middle English structure of Subject-Verb-Object (SVO, a common creole structure). French vocabulary piled into the language with class distinctions firmly attached. This is the period that gave us the Saxon terms for animals in the field—cow, pig, and chicken—but French terms at the dinner table—beef, pork, and poultry. The peasants in the field spoke Saxon, but their feudal, meat-eating masters spoke French, and the surviving terms reflect as much.

French and Latin dominated the written word. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ended its approximately 300-year run in A.D. 1154, but it was a singular relic by then. The Insular Script, developed in Ireland and popular in the Old English period, would give way to Carolingian cursive and a more gothic style (both of which are super difficult to read, haha), so that not even the alphabet looked the same.

Not that it mattered: for the duration of the 12th century, only peasants spoke English, and they were more than likely illiterate.

Adding Fuel to the Fire

This illiteracy added to the rapid linguistic change. The written word provides an anchor; from A.D. 1100-1200, the English language was a ship adrift. Accents shifted and dialects mushroomed. The feudal system chained English speakers to their French masters’ lands, isolating communities from one another. The language of London arose as the standard-bearer while the western and northern dialects became marked and increasingly distinct.

King John I’s loss of Normandy in 1204 heralded the slackening of French influence upon the island nation. From that point onward, English would gradually reclaim its rightful place once more. But in the midst of the 12th century, native speakers could harbor little hope for their spoken word.

Truly this is the Dark Age of the English language, out of which a brilliant future emerged.

6 thoughts on “In the Silence of the Darkest Century”

  1. Oh, Kate, you used the word “Carolingian”! I’ve always loved that one purely for its sound. Ten bonus points to you!
    In the midst of all the linguistic turmoil, England was also in a state of civil war, with Stephen of Blois fighting his cousin Mathilda (the designated heir) for the crown. Not the best time for any attempts to unify a language. The divided loyalties–Southeast England including London for Stephen, and Southwest England for Mathilda, with the North varying in its support but mostly holding itself apart–might have helped the development of regional dialects.

    1. Oh, good ol’ Mathilda vs. Stephen! Yes, the political upheaval there didn’t help for a cohesive language among the peasantry. This was also the era of the Crusades (which drove a lot of people to port cities, as knights and vassals were embarking in waves) and pilgrimages, both of which created intersects for the regional dialects. Lots of fun history happening here.

  2. And to add just a titch more nuance to the beginning of the story: in Marc Morris’ The Norman Conquest, he argues (convincingly, to me) that it wasn’t JUST the Norman conquest which caused English to become, in the immortal words of Dr. Graham, “the cheapo language.” Morris points out that just before Edward the Confessor (from whom William claimed to have “inherited” the English throne) there had been another Norman– Canute– on the throne for quite some time. The difference between them was that William TRIED to be humane, and did NOT immediately and harshly put down any native rebellions. No, he killed off rebels more slowly, only as it became clear that they utterly refused to give up their rebellion. In the end the native English nobility ended up much more decimated than it had under Canute– whose harsh-up-front tactics had sent a much more effective message about rebellion not being tolerated. Morris also argues that the purpose of the Domesday book was to cement the loyalties of the French nobility he had eventually replaced the English with. (Also, William was the one who put a firm stop to slavery in England at this particular time period, so despite the hundreds of thousands of people he starved out during his rebellion-quenching activities in the North, he wasn’t all bad.)

    The Carolignian stuff I did not know, though! Cool!

    1. I love this! Thank you for sharing!

      I like to think that William’s heart was in the right place (if that’s possible for someone who crosses into a foreign land to claim a throne by force), so it’s interesting to consider that his attempts at benevolence actually did more damage than a quick and crushing retribution might have accomplished.

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