the language among the governing class and English language became the language of the lower class of people. But shortly after 1200 conditions changed. French gradually lost its influence and English language once again became the dominant language in England. England lost an important part of its possessions in France. A feeling of rivalry developed between the two countries, accompanied by an antiforeign movement in England and culminating in the Hundred Years’ War. In the fourteenth century English won its way back into universal use, and in the fifteenth century French all but disappeared. We must now examine in detail the steps by which this situation came about.
The Loss of Normandy
The first link in the chain binding England to the continent was broken in 1204 when King John lost Normandy. John, seeing the beautiful Isabel of Angouleme, fell violently in love with her and, no doubt having certain political advantages in mind, married her in great haste (1200), notwithstanding the fact that she was at the time formally betrothed to Hugh of Lusignan, the head of a powerful and ambitious family. The consequence of this marriage was that finally John lost his vast French possessions in Normandy. But this loss of Normandy was wholly advantageous. King and nobles were now forced to look upon England as their first concern. Although England still retained large continental possessions, they were in the south of France and had never been so intimately connected by ties of language, blood, and property interests as had Normandy. It gradually became apparent that the island kingdom had its own political and economic ends and that these were not the same as those of France. England was on the way to becoming not merely a geographical term but once more a nation.
Separation of the French and English Nobility
The loss of the Normandy raised a question of whether many of the nobility owed their allegiance to England or to France. After the Norman Conquest a large number held lands in both countries. A kind of interlocking aristocracy existed, so that it might be difficult for some of the English nobility to say whether they belonged more to England or to the continent. Some steps toward a separation of their interests had been taken from time to time. The example of the Conqueror, who left Normandy to his son Robert and England to William Rufus, was occasionally followed by his companions.
But in 1204 the process of separation was greatly accelerated, for by a decree of 1204–1205 the king of France announced that he had confiscated the lands of several great barons, including the earls of Warenne, Arundel, Leicester, and Clare, and of all those knights who had their abode in England. For the most part the families that had estates on both sides of the Channel were compelled to give up one or the other. Sometimes they divided into branches and made separate terms; in other cases great nobles preferred their larger holdings in England and gave up their Norman lands. John’s efforts at retaliation came to the same effect. It is true that the separation was by no means complete. In one way or another some nobles succeeded in retaining their positions in both countries. But double allegiance was generally felt to be awkward, and the voluntary division of estates went on. The result of this separation was that after 1250 there was no reason for the nobility of England to consider itself anything but English. The most valid reason for its use of French was gone from England.
The Hundred Years’ War
In the course of the centuries following the Norman Conquest the connection of England with the continent, as we have seen, had been broken. It was succeeded by a conflict of interests and a growing feeling of antagonism that culminated in a long period of open hostility with France (1337–1453) ,which is known as the Hundred years war. During this long period of time it was impossible to forget that French was the language of an enemy country, and the Hundred Years’ War is probably to be reckoned as one of the causes contributing to the disuse of French. So, following the 100 Years War, many people regarded French as the language of the enemy. The status of English rose.
The Black Death and The Rise of the Middle Class
The next event that helped English re-establish itself is the Black Death and the rise of the Middle Class. During the latter part of the Middle English period the condition of the laboring classes was rapidly improving. Among the rural population villeinage was dying out. Fixed money payments were gradually substituted for the days’ work due the lord of the manor, and the status of the villein more nearly resembled that of the free tenants. The latter class was itself increasing; there was more incentive to individual effort and more opportunity for a person to reap the rewards of enterprise. The process by which these changes were being brought about was greatly accelerated by an event that occurred in the year 1349.
In the summer of 1348 there appeared the plague the Black Death in the southwest of England. It spread rapidly over the rest of the country, reaching its height in 1349 but continuing in the north into the early months of 1350. Nearly one third of English people, most of whom were from the lower class, died.
The effects of so great a calamity were naturally serious, and in one direction at least are fully demonstrable. As in most epidemics, the rich suffered less than the poor. The poor could not shut themselves up in their castles or retreat to a secluded manor. The mortality was accordingly greatest among the lower social orders, and the result was a serious shortage of labor. This is evident in the immediate rise in wages, a rise which the Statute of Laborers was insufficient to control or prevent. Nor was this result merely temporary if we may judge from the thirteen reenactments of the statute in the course of the next hundred years. Villeins frequently made their escape, and many cotters left the land in search of the high wages commanded by independent workers. Those who were left behind felt more acutely the burden of their condition, and a general spirit of discontent arose, which culminated in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.
By and large, the effect of the Black Death was to increase the economic importance of the laboring class and with it the importance of the English language which they spoke.
Thus, the above mentioned factors helped English language got back its position during the Middle Ages and the later Middle Ages.
A History of the English Language. Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993.