« AnteriorContinua »
lowed to rise above the rank of a merchant, or shopkeeper, which was then considered as a most degraded condition. The Norman-French language was spoken by all persons who aspired to the denomination of a noble or gentleman, and was made use of in all public records; while the Saxon was confined to the villeins in the country, and to the more opulent, but hardly less oppressed, burghers of the towns. As it was absolutely necessary, however, that some sort of medium of communication should exist between the higher and lower ranks, the lords and their tenants, the Normans and the Saxons, there arose, by degrees, a sort of jargon neither French nor Saxon, and becoming current first in the great towns, where the citizens had more opportunities of communicating with the nobles than their countrymen the villeins had, it gradually acquired more and more importance, till, from a concurrence of favourable circumstances, it became, from a mere lingua franca, a real language, and, rapidly driving from the scene of its exertions and success both its competitors, laid the foundation of
what is now the English tongue.
The first official document which recognized it as a language was promulgated by Edward the Third, since which time we find it making an astonishing progress, to which the increasing importance of the commons of the realm did not a little contribute.
While we are considering the English language during its progress to that comparative state of perfection which it has now attained, we cannot avoid being struck by a series of occurrences, almost to be called providential, which, taking place during its infancy and progress, have essentially contributed to its safe and rapid advancement.
The total separation of Normandy and England, which followed King John's atrocious murder of his nephew, was the first great obstacle to the emigration of the French romanciers, who had hitherto enjoyed the monopoly of poetry in our country, and thereby
c See Monsieur Thierry's Account of the Rise, &c. of the English language, in the fourth volume of the "Histoire de la Conquite de l'Angleterre par les Normands.
obliged the nobility of England to have recourse to the native poets and ballad-writers, rude and unpolished as at that time they were. The effect was almost instantaneous; their language became nationalized; and, though the French may have continued in use for some time longer among the politer classes of society, from this day forth may be dated its decline and fall. Already, in the middle of the fourteenth century, Mandeville had published a book of travels, written in an idiom intelligible to us moderns. He was quickly followed by an author of much greater note; by Wickliffe, a man who has conferred the most signal obligations on his country. He was the first to agitate in this island those important questions which eventually brought about the Reformation; and the popularity of his doctrines, which at that time had taken a deep hold upon the minds of the people, gave to the English language, in which his writings were composed, a currency and fashion which contributed to its rapid progress more than any improvements in style which he may have introduced. But
even Wickliffe must yield the palm, as far as literature is concerned, to his immediate successor, the immortal Chaucer, so justly called the Father of our language ;-Chaucer, whose works are styled by Dryden
"A well of English undefiled;"
Chaucer, warrior and traveller, courtier and bard; who knew how to unite the harmonious gaiety of the troubadour with the sterling worth of an English author, was the first to teach our gentles that it was not impossible for them to be delighted at their festivals by the works of a fellow-countryman; he was the first who really filled up the vacancy occasioned by the departure or extinction of the race of French romanciers. However, the genius of Chaucer had forestalled his age; and, though the language continued decidedly to improve after his death, a very long interval intervened between him and the next author of any note.
The revival of letters about the middle of the fifteenth century, occasioned, as might have
been expected, a great improvement, not only in the pursuits, but also in the languages of the nations of the west of Europe. It unfolded examples of the noblest kind to all who were disposed to profit by them; and, by the general excitement which it produced, gave a direction to the thoughts of the learned, more valuable, perhaps, than the mass of information which it discovered to them. But for an event of far greater importance to our own country, we are indebted to the reign of Henry the Eighth; which, though it gave birth to no writer in our language who can be read with pleasure at the present day, with the single exception of the accomplished Earl of Surrey, will, nevertheless, stand preeminent in the literary as well as the political annals of these realms, as having produced the Reformation in England; that gigantic revolution, for revolution it may justly be called, which conferred such incalculable benefits upon science and literature, by emancipating education from the
The principal writings of Sir Thomas More are in the Latin language.