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The Norman language came over to England with William the Conqueror. Following the Norman conquest, the Norman language became the language of England's nobility. During the whole of the 12th century the Anglo-Norman language (the variety of Norman used in England) shared with Latin the distinction of being the literary language of England, and it was in use at the court until the 14th century. It was not until the reign of Henry IV that English became the native tongue of the kings of England. The language had undergone certain changes which distinguished it from the Old Norman spoken in Normandy, as can be seen from graphical characteristics, from which certain rules of pronunciation are to be inferred. An Anglo-Norman variety of French continued to exist into the early 15th century, though it was in decline at least from the 1360s, when it was deemed insufficiently well known to be used for pleading in court. Great prestige continued to be enjoyed by the French language, however; in the late 14th century, the author of the Manière de language calls French:
The most flourishing period of Anglo-Norman literature was from the beginning of the 12th century to the end of the first quarter of the 13th. The end of this period is generally said to coincide with the loss of the French provinces to Philip Augustus, but literary and political history do not correspond quite so precisely, and the end of the first period would be more accurately denoted by the appearance of the history of William the Marshal in 1225 (published for the Société de l'histoire de France, by Paul Meyer, 3 vols., 1891-1901). It owes its brilliancy largely to the protection accorded by Henry II of England to the men of letters of his day.
Wace and Benoît de Sainte-More compiled their histories at his bidding, and it was in his reign that Marie de France composed her poems. An event with which he was closely connected, viz. the murder of Thomas Becket, gave rise to a whole series of writings, some of which are purely Anglo-Norman. In his time appeared the works of Béroul and Thomas of Britain respectively, as well as some of the most celebrated of the Anglo-Norman romans d'aventure. It is important to keep this fact in mind when studying the different works which Anglo-Norman literature has left us. We will examine these works briefly, grouping them into narrative, didactic, hagiographic, lyric, satiric and dramatic literature.
The French epic came over to England at an early date. It is believed that the Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland) was sung at the battle of Hastings, and some Anglo-Norman manuscripts of chansons de geste have survived to this day. The Pélérinage de Charlemagne (Eduard Koschwitz, Altfranzösische Bibliothek, 1883) for instance, is only preserved in an Anglo-Norman manuscript of the British Museum (now lost), although the author was certainly a Parisian. The oldest manuscript of the Chanson de Roland that we possess is also a manuscript written in England, and amongst the others of less importance we may mention La Chançun de Willame, the MS. of which has (June 1903) been published in facsimile at Chiswick.
Although the diffusion of epic poetry in England did not actually inspire any new chansons de geste, it developed the taste for this class of literature, and the epic style in which the tales of the Romance of Horn, of Bovon de Hampton, of Gui de Warewic, of Waldef, and of Fulk Fitz Warine are treated, is certainly partly due to this circumstance. Although the last of these works has come down to us only in a prose version, it contains unmistakable signs of a previous poetic form, and what we possess is really only a rendering into prose similar to the transformations undergone by many of the chansons de geste.
The interinfluence of French and English literature can be studied in the Breton romances and the romans d'aventure even better than in the epic poetry of the period. The Lay of Orpheus is known to us only through an English imitation, Sir Orfeo; the Lai du cor was composed by Robert Biket, an Anglo-Norman poet of the 12th century (Wulff, Lund, 1888). The Lais of Marie de France were written in England, and the greater number of the romances composing the matière de Bretagne seem to have passed from England to France through the medium of Anglo-Norman.
The legends of Merlin and Arthur, collected in the Historia Regum Britanniae by Geoffrey of Monmouth (died c. 1154), passed into French literature, bearing the character which the bishop of St Asaph had stamped upon them. Chrétien de Troyes's Perceval (c. 1175) is doubtless based on an Anglo-Norman poem. Robert de Boron (c. 1215) took the subject of his Merlin (published by G. Paris and J. Ulrich, 1886, 2 vols., Société des anciens textes français) from Geoffrey of Monmouth.
Finally, the most celebrated love-legend of the Middle Ages, and one of the most beautiful inventions of world-literature, the story of Tristan and Iseult, tempted two authors, Béroul and Thomas, the first of whom is probably, and the second certainly, Anglo-Norman (see Arthurian legend; Holy Grail; Tristan). One Folie Tristan was composed in England in the last years of the 12th century. (For all these questions see Soc. des Anc. Textes, Ernest Muret's ed. 1903; Joseph Bédier's ed. 1902-1905).
Less fascinating than the story of Tristan and Iseult, but nevertheless of considerable interest, are the two romans d'aventure of Hugh of Rutland, Ipomedon (published by Eugen Kölbing and Koschwitz, Breslau, 1889) and Protheselaus (published by Kluckow, Göttingen, 1924) written about 1185. The first relates the adventures of a knight who married the young duchess of Calabria, niece of King Meleager of Sicily, but was loved by Medea, the king's wife.
The second poem is the sequel to Ipomedon, and deals with the wars and subsequent reconciliation between Ipomedon's sons, Daunus, the elder, lord of Apulia, and Protesilaus, the younger, lord of Calabria. Protesilaus defeats Daunus, who had expelled him from Calabria. He saves his brother's life, is reinvested with the dukedom of Calabria, and, after the death of Daunus, succeeds to Apulia. He subsequently marries Medea, King Meleager's widow, who had helped him to seize Apulia, having transferred her affection for Ipomedon to his younger son (cf. Ward, Cat. of Rom., i. 728).
To these two romances by an Anglo-Norman author, Amadas et Idoine, of which we only possess a continental version, is to be added. Gaston Paris has proved indeed that the original was composed in England in the 12th century (An English Miscellany presented to Dr. Furnivall in Honour of his Seventy-fifth Birthday, Oxford, 1901, 386-394).
The Anglo-Norman poem on the Life of Richard Coeur de Lion is lost, and an English version only has been preserved. About 1250 Eustace of Kent introduced into England the roman d'Alexandre in his Roman de toute chevalerie, many passages of which have been imitated in one of the oldest English poems on Alexander, namely, King Alisaunder (P. Meyer, Alexandre le grand, Paris, 1886, ii. 273, and Weber, Metrical Romances, Edinburgh).
As to fables, one of the most popular collections in the Middle Ages was that written by Marie de France, which she claimed to have translated from King Alfred. In the Contes moralisés, written by Nicole Bozon shortly before 1320 (Soc. Anc. Textes, 1889), a few fables bear a strong resemblance to those of Marie de France.
The religious tales deal mostly with the Mary Legends, and have been handed down to us in three collections:
Another set of religious and moralizing tales is to be found in Chardri's Set dormans and Josaphat, c. 1216 (Koch, Altfr. Bibl., 1880; G. Paris, Poèmes et légendes du moyen âge).
Of far greater importance, however, are the works which constitute Anglo-Norman historiography. The first Anglo-Norman historiographer is Geoffrey Gaimar, who wrote his Estorie des Angles (between 1147 and 1151) for Dame Constance, wife of Ralph FitzGilbert (The Anglo-Norman Metrical Chronicle, Hardy and Martin, i. ii., London, 1888). This history comprised a first part (now lost), which was merely a translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, preceded by a history of the Trojan War, and a second part which carries us as far as the death of William Rufus. For this second part he has consulted historical documents, but he stops at the year 1087, just when he has reached the period about which he might have been able to give us some first-hand information. Similarly, Wace in his Roman de Rou (ed. Anthony Holden, Paris, 1970-1973), written 1160-1174, stops at the battle of Tinchebray in 1106 just before the period for which he would have been so useful. His Brut or Geste des Bretons (Le Roux de Lincy, 1836-1838, 2 vols.), written in 1155, is merely a translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth.
The History of the Dukes of Normandy by Benoît de Sainte-More is based on the work of Wace. It was composed at the request of Henry II. about 1170, and takes us as far as the year 1135 (ed. by Francisque Michel, 1836-1844, Collection de documents inédits, 3 vols.). The 43,000 lines which it contains are of but little interest to the historian; they are too evidently the work of a romancier courtois, who takes pleasure in recounting love-adventures such as those he has described in his romance of Troy. Other works, however, give us more trustworthy information, for example, the anonymous poem on Henry II.'s Conquest of Ireland in 1172 (ed. Francisque Michel, London, 1837), which, together with the Expugnatio hibernica of Giraud de Barri, constitutes our chief authority on this subject. The Conquest of Ireland was republished in 1892 by Goddard Henry Orpen, under the title of The Song of Dermot and the Earl (Oxford, Clarendon Press). Similarly, Jourdain Fantosme, who was in the north of England in 1174, wrote an account of the wars between Henry II., his sons, William the Lion of Scotland and Louis VII., in 1173 and 1174 (Chronicle of the reigns of Stephen ... III., ed. by Joseph Stevenson and Fr. Michel, London, 1886, pp. 202-307). Not one of these histories, however, is to be compared in value with The History of William the Marshal, Count of Striguil and Pembroke, regent of England from 1216-1219, which was found and subsequently edited by Paul Meyer (Société de l'histoire de France, 3 vols., 1891-1901). This masterpiece of historiography was composed in 1225 or 1226 by a professional poet of talent at the request of William, son of the marshal. It was compiled from the notes of the marshal's squire, John d'Early (d. 1230 or 1231), who shared all the vicissitudes of his master's life and was one of the executors of his will. This work is of great value for the history of the period 1186-1219, as the information furnished by John d'Early is either personal or obtained at first hand. In the part which deals with the period before 1186, it is true, there are various mistakes, due to the author's ignorance of contemporary history, but these slight blemishes are amply atoned for by the literary value of the work. The style is concise, the anecdotes are well told, the descriptions short and picturesque; the whole constitutes one of the most living pictures of medieval society. Very pale by the side of this work appear the Chronique of Peter of Langtoft, written between 1311 and 1320, and mainly of interest for the period 1294-1307 (ed. by T. Wright, London, 1866-1868); the Chronique of Nicholas Trevet (1258?-1328?), dedicated to Princess Mary, daughter of Edward I. (Duffus Hardy, Descr. Catal. III., 349-350); the Scala Chronica compiled by Thomas Gray of Heaton (+ c. 1369), which carries us to the year 1362-1363 (ed. by J. Stevenson, Maitland Club, Edinburgh, 1836); the Black Prince, a poem by the poet Chandos Herald, composed about 1386, and relating the life of the Black Prince from 1346-1376 (re-edited by Francisque Michel, London and Paris, 1883); and, lastly, the different versions of the Brutes, the form and historical importance of which have been indicated by Paul Meyer (Bulletin de la Société des anciens textes français, 1878, pp. 104-145), and by F. W. D. Brie (Geschichte und Quellen der mittelenglischen Prosachronik, The Brute of England or The Chronicles of England, Marburg, 1905).
Finally we may mention, as ancient history, the translation of Eutropius and Dares, by Geoffrey of Waterford (13th century), who gave also the Secret des Secrets, a translation from a work wrongly attributed to Aristotle, which belongs to the next division (Rom. xxiii. 314).
Didactic literature is the most considerable, if not the most interesting, branch of Anglo-Norman literature: it comprises a large number of works written chiefly with the object of giving both religious and profane instruction to Anglo-Norman lords and ladies. The following list gives the most important productions arranged in chronological order:
In the 14th century we find:
We have also a few handbooks on the teaching of French. Gautier de Biblesworth wrote such a treatise à Madame Dyonise de Mountechensi pur aprise de langage (T. Wright, A Volume of Vocabularies; P. Meyer, Rec. d'anc. textes, p. 360 and Romania xxxii, 22); Orthographia gallica (J. Stürzinger (editor), Altfranzösische Bibliothek herausgegeben von Dr. Wendelin Foerster. Achter Band. Orthographia Gallica. Ältester Traktat über französische Aussprache und Orthographie. Nach vier Handschriften zum ersten Mal herausgegeben, Heilbronn, 1884, and R.C. Johnston, ANTS. Plain Texts 1987); La manière de language, written in 1396 (P. Meyer, Rev. crit. d'hist. et de litt. vii(2). 378). In 1884, Meyer noted no fewer than fourteen manuscripts containing this treatise;Un petit livre pour enseigner les enfants de leur entreparler comun françois, c. 1399 (Stengel, Z. für n.f. Spr. u. Litt. i. 11).
The important Mirour de l'omme, by John Gower, contains about 30,000 lines written in very good French at the end of the 14th century (Macaulay, The Complete Works of John Gower, i., Oxford, 1899).
In this category we may add the life of Hugh of Lincoln, 13th century (Hist. Lit. xxiii. 436; Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1888, p. v; Wolter, Bibl. Anglo-Norm., ii. 115). Other lives of saints were recognized to be Anglo-Norman by Paul Meyer when examining the MSS. of the Welbeck library (Rom. xxxii. 637 and Hist. Lit. xxxiii. 338-378).
The only extant songs of any importance are the seventy-one Ballads of Gower (Stengel, Gower's Minnesang, 1886). The remaining songs are mostly of a religious character. Most of them have been discovered and published by Paul Meyer (Bulletin de la Soc. Anc. Textes, 1889; Not. et Extr. xxxiv; Rom. xiii. 518, t. xiv. 370; xv. p. 254, &c.). Although so few have come down to us such songs must have been numerous at one time, owing to the constant intercourse between English, French and Provençals of all classes. An interesting passage in Piers Plowman furnishes us with a proof of the extent to which these songs penetrated into England. We read of:
- ... dykers and deluers that doth here dedes ille,
- And dryuen forth the longe day with 'Deu, vous saue,
- Dame Emme! (Prologue, 223 f.)
One of the finest productions of Anglo-Norman lyric poetry written in the end of the 13th century, is the Plainte d'amour (Vising, Göteborg, 1905; Romania xiii. 507, xv. 292 and xxix. 4), and we may mention, merely as literary curiosities, various works of a lyrical character written in two languages, Latin and French, or English and French, or even in three languages, Latin, English and French. In Early English Lyrics (Oxford, 1907) we have a poem in which a lover sends to his mistress a love-greeting composed in three languages, and his learned friend replies in the same style (De amico ad amicam, Responcio, viii and ix).
The popularity enjoyed by the Roman de Renart and the Anglo-Norman version of the Riote du Monde (Z. f. rom. Phil. viii. 275-289) in England is proof enough that the French spirit of satire was keenly appreciated. The clergy and the fair sex presented the most attractive target for the shots of the satirists. However, an Englishman raised his voice in favour of the ladies in a poem entitled La Bonté des dames (Meyer, Rom. xv. 315-339), and Nicole Bozon, after having represented "Pride" as a feminine being whom he supposes to be the daughter of Lucifer, and after having fiercely attacked the women of his day in the Char d'Orgueil (Rom. xiii. 516), also composed a Bounté des femmes (P. Meyer, op. cit. 33) in which he covers them with praise, commending their courtesy, their humility, their openness and the care with which they bring up their children. A few pieces of political satire show us French and English exchanging amenities on their mutual shortcomings. The Roman des Français, by André de Coutances, was written on the continent, and cannot be quoted as Anglo-Norman although it was composed before 1204 (cf. Gaston Paris: Trois versions rimées de l'évangile de Nicodème, Soc. Anc. Textes, 1885), it is a very spirited reply to French authors who had attacked the English.
This must have had a considerable influence on the development of the sacred drama in England, but none of the French plays acted in England in the 12th and 13th centuries has been preserved. Adam, which is generally considered to be an Anglo-Norman mystery of the 12th century, was probably written in France at the beginning of the 13th century (Romania xxxii. 637), and the so-called Anglo-Norman Resurrection belongs also to continental French. It is necessary to state that the earliest English moralities seem to have been imitations of the French ones.