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What they saved from 1066

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'Battle Abbey' stands on Senlac Hill where the Battle of Hastings took place. The original abbey was ruined in the Dissolution.

The English famously lost England to the Normans at the Battle of Hastings on October 14th, 1066, but there were two things, which they had created themselves and loved fiercely, that they refused to give up. They saved one of the two with a stroke of genius.

The first was their Common Law, which drew on the laws, ideas and legal precedents created by Britons, Celts, Anglo-Saxons and Danes over hundreds of years. Common Law was grounded in Judaeo-Christian ethics. It was organized by Alfred the Great into one Common Law - one law for all. In a move that might have been genuine, but was more likely a stroke of genius, the English protected Common Law from the Normans by declaring that their law and liberties had been given to them by Edward the Confessor, and could not be tampered with. Why Edward? Well, the Normans claimed that Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king, had made William the Conqueror his heir. The Normans could hardly claim Edward's throne and ignore his law.

Perhaps, as the chroniclers say, Edward did re-release a new edition of Common Law to be observed throughout England. After 1066, the English kept their law alive by carrying on carrying on and using their law in their local courts.

Property rights did not survive the invasion, but they were eventually recovered. Meanwhile another battle - spiritual, cultural and subterranean - was underway for the second thing the English refused to give up.

French and Latin were spoken by the Norman conquerors. At considerable sacrifice and personal cost, the English hung on to their language. They insisted on speaking it. They learned French and Latin, but they continued to speak English. For one hundred years books were not written in English, but the English spoke English.

The unusual and seductive trait that has made English a global language helped it to survive. In European languages the endings of words tell listeners how a word is being used in a sentence – for instance, as a subject, adjective or verb. In English those inflections had been dropped two thousand years earlier. This made English easier to learn and a language that welcomed foreign words.

Saving their language from conquest was the unsung achievement of the English people. They knew the essential things they had to save.


Comments (4)

I enjoy your blog. Especially this kind of thing.

jlh:

How different would the world--and the English language--be, if Harald Blue-Tooth had not beaten William to the punch. Is this one of those instances when a blend caused by the imposition of one culture on another causes a blend that is stronger than the original parts?

Cat:

An interesting thought. I sometimes wonder how different the cultures were. First the Normans were Norse in origin, perhaps not all that different from the Vikings who had already landed in England. Second they were Christian. They weren't always good Christians, but they were affected by Christ's teachings. William the Conqueror built Battle Abbey because the Pope was incensed he had killed so many fellow Christians in England. Normans who respected the Church's teachings would have respected Common Law which embodied them - murder is wrong, theft is wrong, you are an individual born with dignity, responsible for your actions, who must be treated fairly. . .

jlh:

There is also the question of language. A rich vocabulary: "pork" and "swine" side-by-side, determined by whether you are the peasant who raises it or the master who eats it.

And the adaptation of a circumlocutory approach to expression to a blunter way of stating fact. In the end creating a supple, simple and transparent grammar that has conquered the world, leaving the competing language of the erstwhile conquerors in the historical dust.

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