페이지 이미지

III. that is to say, in 1258. It has been often printed, particularly by Lord Lyttelton and Dr Henry, both of whom have thought it necessary to add an English translation. On the other hand, we possess some English specimens, which, in the opinion of all our antiquaries, cannot be referred to a later period than 1250 : it follows therefore that, during several years after the establishment of our present mixed language, the Saxon continued to be the only form of speech known to a large portion of the inhabitants of this country.

Now, if we consider that the Saxon, however it might have degenerated from its former elegance, still retained the advantage of a regular and established grammar, while the construction of the Anglo-Norman, or English, was extremely fluctuating and barbarous; it will, probably, be thought that the latter could only have acquired the superiority over its parent language by means of the predominant wealth and influence of that part of the community by whom it was exclusively cultivated. This, I presume, may have been promoted by a succession of fortunate events.

The system devised by the Conqueror, for the purpose of protecting his army against the insurrection of the natives, gave a security to the citizens against the fears of foreign invasion, or domestic oppression, which they had not hitherto enjoyed, and in which the villagers could not equally participate. The increased trade resulting from the foreign dominions of our sovereigns, and the wealth derived from that trade, was confined almost exclusively to the towns. Lastly, the successive immunities which they purchased from our sovereigns, or from their principal barons, and which led to the general establishment of free municipal governments, must have tended, in concurrence with the preceding causes, considerably to augment the proportion which the inhabitants of the cities had formerly borne to the rest of their countrymen, in point of numbers, wealth, and influence.

As the same happy improvement of their government was likely to obliterate the sources of national hatred between the Norman and English inhabitants ; to create an union of interests ; to promote the adoption of a common language ; and to hasten the improvement of that languageby furnishing new and frequent subjects for discussions, at once complicated and interesting; it seems natural that we should assign the complete formation of our present language to the commencement of the thirteenth century, and perhaps to the establishment of Magna Charta. Every inference, that can be drawn from the inspection of such specimens of very early English as I have had an opportunity of examining, appears to point nearly to the same period.

From this time to the reign of Edward III. our infant language was enriched, or perhaps over. loaded, by a constant accession of French words. This, indeed, might be expected. Wealth, when accompanied by freedom, generally gives birth to magnificence, but it does not of necessity and immediately become the parent of taste and invention. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, even our kings and nobles were in the habit of expending their whole stock of gaiety, as well as their treasure, on the four great festivals of the year; and the intervening times of leisure were employed in devising modes of amusement, and providing a disposition to be amused. But as the commercial part of the nation had something else to do, they seem to have contented themselves with copying, as nearly as they could, the pleasures of their superiors. Their festivities were conducted with the same minute attention to ceremonial, and diversified with the same or nearly similar sports and representations. Their tables exhibited the same specimens of complicated cookery. The recitation of tales of chivalry was necessary to the solemnity of these festivals; and as the French minstrels had, long since, pre-occupied the fabulous era of every known history, their English successors were reduced to the necessity of translating. In executing this task, under the constraint of

finding a constant succession of rhymes, in a language which was hitherto rude and untractable, they might often be led to borrow the words and phrases of the original. At least it was their interest to adopt and give a currency to every new term which had acquired the authority of colloquial usage ; so that the compositions of our early writers are become nearly unintelligible to those who are not familiarly acquainted with the Norman vocabulary

It is very possible that our language may not have received much real improvement from this indiscriminate adoption of foreign idioms; but perhaps it was in some measure indebted to them for its reception at court, where it-supplanted the Norman-French, which had exclusively prevailed there from the time of the Conquest. This alteration, which ensured to our national literature all the advantages that patronage can bestow, seems to have taken place in the reign of Edward III. whose policy led him to excite a hatred of France among his subjects, and who proscribed the exclusive use of French in our laws, and in the elements of education. Gower, as we have seen, commenced his literary career by aspiring to the character of a French poet, and only began his English work in his old age, during the reign and by the command of Richard II. The fashionable dialect, therefore, had probably changed during the interval, and it may be presumed that this change also procured us the advantage of Chaucer's talents, which, from the circumstances of his birth and education, would naturally have been employed, had he written a few years sooner, in cultivating a foreign rather than his native language.

During the whole of this period, the Scotish dialect seems to have been nearly identical with that of England; but its history is, unfortunately, still more obscure than our own. We do not possess a single specimen of the original language spoken in Scotland during the eleventh century; and the only compositions in the Anglo-Norman dialect anterior to the life of Bruce are, the song written about 1285, on the death of Alexander III. which is to be seen in the first volume of this work, and a romance attributed to Thomas of Ercildoun, which, I believe, was first discovered by Mr Ritson in the Advocates' Library at Edinburgh.

This very curious poem is, apparently, coeval with Adam Davie's romance of Alexander, * which it resembles in some degree, by the shortness and

* I am happy in being able to add that our stock of ancient English literature is likely to be soon enriched with accurate editions of both these very interesting works. The former will be published by Mr Walter Scott, the latter by Mr Park.

« 이전계속 »