Historical background The beginning of the Middle English period can be seen from a linguistic and an historical point of view. Linguistically various features began to become evident around the turn of the millennium such as the lengthening of vowels before clusters of a sonorant and a homorganic consonant. Sociolinguistic features also played a role here such as the demise of the Winchester standard (the West-Saxon koiné of the late Old English period). This did not happen suddenly but was an ongoing process as of the 11th century and which was carried to its conclusion with the Norman invasion. The mention of this last fact brings us to the main historical event which can be singled out as the onset of the Middle English period. The one indisputable fact of this early time is the invasion of England by the Normans in 1066.
Starting with Alfred the Great in the tenth century we can follow a direct male line up to Edward the Confessor whose ineffective heir Harold (not his natural son) had difficulties in establishing his claim to the English throne from the beginning. Harold was the son of Godwin, a powerful earl in the West Saxon kingdom. But he found himself confronted with a serious claimant to the throne. His main contestor was the Northern French duke William of Normandy. The Normans in France were more or less direct descendants of Vikings who had in the previous centuries travelled down the North Sea coast, landed and settled in present-day Normandy ("the land of the Northmen") much as they had done in Scotland and Ireland, not to speak of other areas such as the Baltic and the Western Mediterranean. This part of France was congenial to them, as were the river estuaries in Ireland and England, as it offered the possibility of penetrating inland and still having easy access to the sea should this be necessary.
William was the son of Robert the Devil who in turn was the great- great-grandson of Rollo of Denmark and who was made the first duke of Normandy with an agreement in 912 after having waged war against the French under Charles the Simple just like his Viking cousins had done against Alfred in England. With the assimilation typical of all Vikings, the Normans soon became French and learned the local dialect so that by the time of the invasion of England they were well and truly French-speakers just as the Viking settlers in Ireland became Irish-speakers.
There were certain not too tenuous ties between England and Normandy in the period preceding the invasion. Thus in 1002 Æthelred the Unready married a Norman princess and finally settled in Normandy. His son Edward the Confessor was brought up in France and had many Frenchmen in his retinue. Perhaps of this French connection, William of Normandy felt that his claim to the English throne was legitimate. Resolute as he was, William decided to invade England and enforce his claim by these direct means. After mustering an army of some considerable size, he landed in England at Pevensey in the south in September of 1066. In the beginning the invasion was uncontested. Harold was busy in the north of England with an invasion by the king of Norway (yet another claimant to the throne). When Harold had dealt with this menace from the north he was faced with that from the south. He moved south and tried to gather as many fighters as possible on the way. This was not very successful and Harold was forced to face the Normans with only a medium sized army. The engagement was between London and the approaching Norman army, near the town of Hastings, on a hill at Senlac.
The actual battle began in the morning and went well for the English well into the afternoon, given their advantageous position on the hill. Then the French feigned a retreat, thus luring the English out of their vantage point. They advanced then and succeeded in getting the upper hand not least because the leader of the English, Harold, was killed when a Norman arrow struck him in the eye. The English were routed and the French were victorious by nightfall. William in true medieval warfare fashion continued to pillage and plunder the south east of England until London capitulated and decided to accept him as king of England. He was crowned king of England on Christmas day 1066.
The battle of Hastings was the last invasion of England by foreigners (the previous ones having been, the Celtic invasion in the centuries before Christ, the Roman invasion of Caesar in 55 BC and later Roman invasions in the 1st century AD and the Germanic invasions which began in the mid 5th century). What this meant is that it resulted in the last direct influence of a foreign language on English. All later influences are due to written forms of language, Latin and Greek loanwords, later French words, etc. The aftermath of the battle of Hastings is almost as important as the battle itself. While it is true that it represents the turning point in the fortunes of the native English it is the activities of the following years which are of greatest importance for the development of England and the English language.
Immediately after his conquest over the English, William started with replacing the English aristocracy by Norman lords. Those who did not willingly submit to the new masters were killed. The language of the newcomers was Norman French; English was banished from court usage and declined into a patois (an unwritten dialect).
The consequences of this for the fate of the language were enormous. As everywhere in the Middle Ages, the native language was only written at court and in the monasteries. The latter were not spared the brutal re-structuring which William forced on the English as we know from the last entries of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle. Manuscript copying in English virtually ceased and at the court all legal texts were prepared in French.
This is the period of the oldest French loans, i.e. that of the strictly Norman loans. The degree to which the Norman language of the time fused with English is a matter of debate and the views on this range from a creole theory, which postulates that for a time the fusion was perfect and people spoke a true mixture (Anglo-Norman) as a mother language, to a two-tier view which maintains that English and Norman were fairly well kept apart due to the splitting of the two languages according to class. Later on an influence was still to be felt but it was not the direct influence of this early period but the written influence of central French.
The position of French in England was strengthened by the fact that the political connections with the continent were particularly strong. William himself married Eleanor of Aquitaine and thus remained tied to France. His successors, notably Henry I (1100-1135), Stephen (1135-1154) and Henry II (1154-1189) spent a large part of their lives abroad, i.e. in France. The aristocracy having being exchanged immediately after William’s arrival remained French in language, outlook and loyalty. However, the attitude to the English language was one of more or less indifference. William tried, as legend has it, to learn English in his forties but gave up the effort. Members of the court could sometimes speak English but did not particularly exert themselves in this respect. Literature at the court of London was largely French in the period up to around 1200. The real question which interests the linguist and which cannot unfortunately be answered with any great amount of clarity is to what extent French was spoken by the population at large. We can safely assume that there was a certain amount of knowledge of French from the 13th century onwards. Various items of evidence support this. For example from about the middle of the 13th century textbooks and grammars of French begin to appear. In literature reference is made to people speaking both English and French though this is usually by poets and writers whose audience would tend to be middle and upper class anyway.
When considering the question of the dissemination of French we can point to the traditional division of England into north and south. French was most readily spoken in the south and south east (as might be expected, given the geographical proximity to France).
The loss of Normandy
The king of England at the time, King John, married Isabel of Angoulème and attacked the family of her brother, the Lusignans. The latter summoned the king of France and demanded retribution. The then king of France, Philip, called on John to appear before him and account for his actions. This John promptly refused to do. A mock trial of John (in his absence) took place and as a result of this Philip invaded Normandy, making good use of the welcome opportunity to sever Normandy from the rebellious England. Resistance on the part of the continental Normans was slight and in 1204 the citizens of Rouen (the capital of Normandy) surrendered and the area became formally French.
From a linguistic point of view these developments were entirely beneficial. It meant that the way was paved for English to resurge again which it proceeded to do in the course of the 13th century. The loss of Normandy also meant that much of the nobility and higher clergy were forced to demonstrate their allegiance to England rather than France by adopting English more and more, notwithstanding the influx of French due to the marriages of various kings (starting with John) to French women.
The status of French
It should be stressed that although French was fashionable as a language from which to borrow words, the knowledge of French as a language of its own declined in the 13th and 14th centuries and English regained its position as the most important language of the country. Nonetheless the type of English which arose in the wake of the decline of French political influence was strongly marked by the centuries of contact, direct and indirect, with the neighbouring Romance language.
The Bayeux Tapestry