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barous heathen, we find in a remote part of the island a native Saxon, Bede, devoting his life to literary pursuits. At the same time Caedmon, the greatest of the Anglo-Saxon poets, appeared, who deserves notice from the marked influence he exerted on Saxon literature till the time of the Norman Conquest. So wonderful did it seem that an unlearned peasant could sing of the mysteries of creation, the wondrous miracles of the Old and New Testament, that many deemed him inspired. Through his songs the history of the people of God, and the whole Christian scheme, were brought in their native tongue to the Anglo-Saxons. “Caedmon's poetry," says Milman, “was their Bible, no doubt far more effective in awakening and changing the popular mind than a literal translation of the Scriptures could have been."*
As early as the eighth century the Anglo-Saxons not only founded several public libraries at home, but sent books to the Continent.
In the monasteries they worked zealously, copying and ornamenting large and costly works. Boniface, while traveling on the Continent, sent over frequent requests for books. On one occasion he asks the Abbess Eadburga to cause a copy of the Gospels to be written in letters of gold and sent to him in Germany.
In the time of Theodore and Adrian, the principal seats of learning were in Kent. But the school founded by Wilfried and Egbert at York was the most celebrated. Here Latin, Greek, and Hebrew were taught; and the library collected by Egbert and his predecessor furnished great facilities to scholars. Alcuin, who was one of Egbert's scholars, often speaks in his letters of his old master and his early studies.
Few modern nations have so abundant an early literature as the English. To Alfred much credit is due for his love of letters, and his fostering care of literature. During his reign his kingdom was often invaded by the Danes, who burned the churches and monasteries where the most valuablc books were kept. Yet through his efforts provision was made not only for the education of the clergy, but also for the common people. Alfred declared it to be his wish “that all the free-born youth of his people might persevere in learning, so long as they have no other affairs to prosecute, until they can perfectly read the English Scriptures." Alfred translated or caused to be translated many of the Latin authors. William of Malmesbury, speaking of his literary labors says: “A very great part of Roman literature he gave to English ears, conveying a rich booty of foreign wares for the use of his countrymen.” Another distinguished name in Anglo-Saxon literature is “ Aelfric,” Archbishop of Canterbury, who died 1006. He wrote in the purest style, avoiding the use of obscure words, that he might be understood, as he tells us, by unlettered people.
* Milman's Latin Christianity, vol. ii.
The Danish invasions of England did not to any great extent affect the purity of the language, as they used a cognate dialect. They left, however, some traces of their language, especially in the northern counties.
A little before the Norman Conquest, which was 1066, cominenced those changes which would have greatly modified the language even if England had never fallen under the dominion of the Norman French. It is now generally conceded that too much importance has been ascribed to the influence of the Conquest on our language. It is true that after the Conquest, for two or three centuries, Norman French was spoken by the higher classes. The Normans held the throne, and the highest offices in the courts of law and in the Church. Norman nobles in their halls, surrounded by armed retainers, looked with contempt on their Saxon vassals, and despised what they deemed an ignoble tongue. The enmity between the two races was like that between the master and his bondman. A form of indignant reply on the part of the Norman gentleman was, “Do you take me for an Englishman?” One of the ministers of Henry III. tauntingly asked, “ Am I an Englishman, that I should know these Saxon charters and these laws ?”
William the Conqueror seems to have tried to learn the Anglo-Saxon, but having exhausted his patience in the attempt, he was determined to suppress the language if possible. On his return from Normandy, after several months' absence from England, he adopted stringent measures for rooting out the langnage, and destroying the nationality of his conquered subjects. He required that French should be used in the courts and the schools.
It is impossible to mark any precise time when the Anglo
Saxon became English, the change was brought about so gradually. Hallam says, when we compare the earliest English of the thirteenth century with the Anglo-Saxon of the twelfth, it seems hard to pronounce why it should pass for a separate language rather than for a modification of the other.
For the sake of definiteness we may date the decline of the Anglo-Saxon at 1150, and the commencement of the English at 1250. For centuries the Norman and the Saxon were living side by side, the one spoken in the court and in the baron’s hall, the other in the home of the poor, in the every-day talk of the common people. Yet slowly the tongue of the conquered race worked its way up through all ranks of society, and became, with some slight changes, our noble English speech. The changes took place in the grammar rather than in the vocabulary of the language. Many of the inflections, both of nouns and verbs, were dispensed with, though some of the forms were reluctantly abandoned. “The persons plural," says Ben Jonson, in his grammar,“ keep the termination of the first person singular. In former times they were wont to be formed by en, thus : loven, sayen.”
Much credit belongs to the Church for keeping the AngloSaxon in its purity so long, and for making it the chief element of our language. The English clergy, partly from the characteristics of the Saxon race, and partly from their insular position, were always more independent than the clergy of the continent. They used the Anglo-Saxon in the services of the Church, and they had more versions of the Scriptures than any other nation of that time. Even after the Conquest the clergy sympathized with the conquered race and still used the despised tongue. Though Norman French was the language of the schools, teachers of Anglo-Saxon remained in some of the monasteries which had been endowed by Saxon princes. During the period when the Normans ruled with a despotic hand, many young Saxons entered the Church to escape serfdom, for whoever took holy orders became free. These became the best educated of the land, and their piety, as well as their learning, gave them influence with the common people.
It was not until the close of the 14th century that the English can be said to have become the language of literature. The transition period of a language seems unfavorable for either the developinent or expression of thought. The specimens of the literature of this early age of the English are interesting, only because they mark the changes in structure and vocabulary. And yet at this time we may consider our language as fully formed. Its grammatical structure and its general features were what they are now. Changes have been made, and others will take place, for a living tongue cannot become stereotyped in its forms. Caxton, the first English printer, who lived in the latter part of the fifteenth century, thus speaks of the changes that were made in his day: “Our language, as now used, varyeth far from that which was spoken when I was born. For we Englishmen be born under the domination of the moon, which is never steadfast, but ever wavering; waxing one season, it waneth and decreaseth another season ; and common English that is spoken in one shire varyeth in another."
The good effect of the study of classical literature is seen in many of the English writers before the age of Elizabeth. Some of the most cultivated scholars, instead of affecting foreign idioms, were almost purists in style. Sir John Cheke, Greek professor at Cambridge, proposed to strike out of the vocabulary all words not Saxon.
The reign of Elizabeth is a marked epoch in the history of the language. The best scholars and writers labored to preserve the strength and vigor of the native tongue. The time for the critical cultivation of the language had come. Roger Ascham, the tutor of Elizabeth, recommends to him who would write well in any tongue, the counsel of Aristotle, “ to think as the wise man, to speak as the common people.” He had the true idea of the chief element of a nation's language; it must be the speech of the common people. The language of the writers of the age of Elizabeth was much the same as the English of the present day. Dr. Johnson does not exaggerate when he says: “From the authors who rose in the time of Elizabeth, a speech might be formed adequate to all the purposes of use and elegance. If the language of theology were extracted from Hooker and the translators of the Bible, the terms of natural knowledge from Bacon, the phrases of war, policy, and navigation from Raleigh, the dialect of poetry from Spenser and Sidney, and the diction of common life from Shakspeare, few
elegance and the tascon, the phrasof poetry th Shakspear
ideas would be lost to mankind for want of English words to express them.”
For a while after the age of Elizabeth we find an increasing tendency to use Latin derivatives and idioms. This is not to be ascribed to an increased attention to the study of the classics, but mainly, perhaps, to the fact that Latin became the language of intercourse for scholars, and many learned men used it in their correspondence, so that it, insensibly perhaps, affected their style. This, as Coleridge says, “ gives a stately march, and sometimes a majestic, organlike harmony to their diction.” To such an excess was this tendency carried, that passages from some of these writers could be selected that would be scarcely understood by the ordinary English reader. Thus Sir Thomas Browne in the following passage hardly uses a Saxon word if he can find or coin a Latin equivalent: “Who were the proprietaries of these bones, or what bodies these ashes made up, were a question above antiquarianism, not to be resolved by man, nor easily perhaps by spirits, except we consult the provincial guardians or tutelary observators. Had they made as good provision for their names as they have done for their relics, they had not so grossly erred in the art of perpetuation. But to subsist in bones, and be but pyramidally extant, is a fallacy in duration. ... Pyramids, arches, obelisks, were but the irregularities of vain-glory and wild enormities of ancient magnanimity. But the most magnanimous resolution rests in the Christian religion, which trampleth upon pride, and sits upon the neck of ambition, humbly pursuing that infallible perpetuity unto which all others must diminish their diameters, and be poorly seen in the angles of contingency. To subsist in lasting monuments, to live in their productions, to exist in the names and predicament of chimeras, was large satisfaction unto old expectations, and made one part of their elysiums. But all this is nothing in the metaphysics of true belief.”
Dr. Johnson at a later period complained of these innovations, and yet to some extent imitated them : not so much in introducing new Latin derivatives, as in profusely employing such as he found in use.
Had there not been a reaction soon after the period of which we have been speaking, we should have lost much of the simplicity and manly vigor of our tongue. In this reaction the