Friday, October 14, 2011

Today is the Anniversary of the Battle of Hastings

Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry
What could a battle in AD 1066 possibly have to do with you?
It was 945 years ago today that William the Bastard, the duke of Normandy, led his troops to victory over Harold II, the king of England.  At first blush, this may not seem relevant to you, but if you speak English, you are still experiencing the effects of this event.

William the Bastard was a Norman duke.  That is to say, he was from Normandy region of France, a product of the mix of Viking conquerers and the French natives whom they conquered.  He was an ambitious man who had his eyes on the English throne, and was hoping to be named successor to Edward the Confessor.  However, when Edward died and Harold II was crowned king in his stead, he decided he must invade.

William waited for months for the right moment, and in October he knew he had it.  The Saxon army had been called to Northumbria to settle some unfinished military business there, and would have to rush back to the shore to defend their country when William invaded.  That is exactly what happened.  The Norman army defeated the weary Saxons, Harold II was killed (according to the legend, he was struck through the eye with an arrow), and William marched to London victorious.  On Christmas Day of that year, he was crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey.

Under William's rule, England changed in many fundamental ways.  He killed off many of the English nobility and installed French Normans in their place.  Thus, the French gained control of the English court and the aristocracy, and French became the language of the nobles.


William traded in his moniker of "the Bastard" for a new name--"The Conquerer."  (As we shall see, , the word "conquer" comes from the Old French.)  In 1085, he  wanted to know exactly who owned what in this kingdom he'd conquered, so he ordered the compilation of The Domesday Book, a vast survey of England's land.  Anyone who has studied Medieval Europe has encountered the Domesday Book, whose detailed records of the villages, towns, buildings, people, and animals of England paint a wonderfully vibrant picture of life in 1085.


Soon after William's invasion, the language began to change.  English was still the tongue of the people, but  now the people were under the rule of French speakers.  The peasantry and landowners were divided by language.  The lower class began to borrow words, syntax, and grammar from the French, forever changing the English that you and I speak.

Take, for instance, the peculiar way English treats what we call the meat that ends up on our dinner table.  The word swine comes from old English, which makes sense as the people who took care of pigs were English peasants.  However, when this swine was cooked and served to the Normans, it became pork, a word from French.  What the English called a cow, the French called beef; the English calf was French veal.

The vocabulary of the court--judge, jury, bailiff--similarly came from the French-speaking aristocracy, as did other words such as date, escape, and money.


This blend of Norman French and Anglo Saxon eventually became Middle English, which was crystalized in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer.  And Chaucer's English is the English that catches on, which leads to the English of that other great poet, Shakespeare, which leads on to the English I am writing on this blog.





Wikipedia-free research!

Sources Cited:

"Battle of Hastings (historical account), October 14, 1066." DISCovering World History. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Student Resources in Context. Web. 12 Oct. 2011


The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories.   Springfield, Massachusetts, 1991. 


"William the Conqueror." U*X*L Biographies. Detroit: U*X*L, 2003. Student Resources in Context. Web. 12 Oct. 2011.

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