Later Medieval English Prose

Later Medieval English Prose

Later Medieval English Prose

Later Medieval English Prose

Excerpt

Apart from Owl and Nightingale, Layamon Brut, and a small group of religious pieces-Ancrene Riwle, Sawles Warde, and some others-there is little in English literature between the end of the eleventh century and the beginning of the fourteenth to spark any critic's enthusiasm. Indeed, from all that long stretch of time, there is not much English writing at all, good or bad.

The reason is simple enough. It is not merely that English was the language of a subject people whose rulers spoke French. English was also a provincial tongue that offered no advantage-except for local purposes-to writers who belonged to the international coterie of learned men. That native imagination, learning, wit, and skill in composition had not fled the island is clear from the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Matthew Paris, Walter Map, Alexander of Hales, Nigel Wireker, John of Salisbury, Grosseteste, Thomas of Kent, Roger Bacon, Gerald of Wales, William of Ockham, Duns Scotus, to name only names still well known. But such writers, most of them aiming at a wider intellectual public than England afforded, preferred to use Latin, the lingua franca of medieval scholarship and art, or on occasion the one modern language, French, that had acquired something of the same status. Rather than a relapse from the practice of Anglo-Saxon years, this procedure was in fact normal.

It is rather the abundance of English prose before the Norman Conquest that needs special explanation. And that explanation is not far to seek. King Alfred, personally responsible for most of the earliest English prose, explains that translation was the readiest way to repair the breakdown of Latin education wrought by the Viking invasions. Begun from necessity, continued mostly for the convenience of the "Latinless," Anglo-Saxon prose was, for all its achievement, largely a stop-gap. The post-Conquest re-estab-

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