The existence of two words for the larger farm animals in modern English is a result of the class divisions established by the Norman conquest. There are the words for the living animals (e.g. cow, pig, sheep), which have their origins in Anglo-Saxon, and the words for the meat from the animals (e.g. beef, pork, mutton.), which have their origins in the French language that the Normans brought to England. Only the Normans normally ate meat; the poor Anglo-Saxon peasants did not!
The strong system of government which the Normans introduced meant that the Anglo-Norman kingdom was easily the most powerful political force in British Isles. Not surprisingly therefore, the authority of the English monarch gradually extended to other parts of these islands in the next 250 years. But the end of the thirteenth century, a large part of eastern Ireland was controlled by Anglo-Norman lords in the name of the English king and the while of Wales was under his direct rule (at which time the custom of naming the monarch's eldest son the "Prince of Wales" began). Scotland managed to remain politically independent in the medieval period, but was obliged to fight occasional wars to do so.
II. Middle English. (1100-1500)
The English which was used from about 1100 to about 1500 is called Middle English. The cultural story of this period is different. Two hundred and fifty years after the Norman Conquest, it was a Germanic language (Middle English) and not the Norman (French) language which had become the dominant one in all classes of society of England. Furthermore, it was the Anglo-Saxon concept of common law, and not Roman law, which formed the basis of the legal system.
Despite English rule, northern and central Wales was never settled in great numbers by Saxon or Norman. As a result the (Celtic) Welsh language and culture remained strong. Eisteddfods, national festivals of Welsh song and poetry, continued throughout the medieval period and still take place today. The Anglo-Norman lords of eastern Ireland remained loyal to the English king but, despite laws to the contrary, mostly adopted the Gaelic language and customs.
The political independence of Scotland did not prevent a gradual switch to the English language and customs in the lowland (southern) part of the country. First, the Anglo-Saxon element here was strengthened by the arrival of many Saxon aristocrats fleeing the Norman conquest of England. Second, the Celtic kings saw that the adoption of an Anglo-Norman style of government would strengthen royal power. By the end of this period a cultural split had developed between the lowlands, where the way of life and language was similar to that in England, and the highlands, where (Celtic) Gaelic culture and language prevailed – and where, because of the mountainous landscape, the authority of the king was hard to enforce.
It was in this period that Parliament began its gradual evolution into the democratic body which is it today. The word "parliament", which comes from the French word parler (to speak), was first used in England in the thirteenth century to describe an assembly of nobles called together by the king. In 1295, the Model Parliament set the pattern for the future by including elected representatives from urban and rural areas.
Many food names in English are French borrowings. After the Norman Conquest under William the Conqueror (1066) French words began to enter the English language increasing in number for more than tree centuries. Among them were different names of dishes. The Norman barons brought to Britain their professional cooks who showed to English their skill.
Learners of the English language notice that there is one name for a live beast grazing in the field and another for the same beast when it is killed and coked. The matter is that English peasants preserved Anglo-Saxon names for the animals they used to bring to Norman castles to sell. But the dishes made of the meat got French names. That is why now we have native English names of animals: ox, cow, calf, sheep, swine, and French names of meals from whose meat they are cooked: beef, veal, mutton, pork. (By the way "lamb" is an exception, it is a native Anglo-Saxon word). A historian writes that an English peasant who had spent a hard day tending his oxen, calves, sheep and swine probably saw little enough of the beef, veal, mutton and pork, which were gobbled at night by his Norman masters.
The French enriched English vocabulary with such food words as bacon, sausage, gravy; then: toast, biscuit, cream, sugar. They taught the English to have for dessert such fruits as: fig, grape, orange, lemon, pomegranate, peach and the names of these fruits became known to the English due the French. The English learned from them how to make pastry, tart, jelly, treacle. From the French the English came to know about mustard and vinegard. The English borrowed from the French verbs to describe various culinary processes: to boil, to roast, to stew, to fry.
One famous English linguist exclaimed: "It is melancholy to think what the English dinner would have been like, had there been no Norman Conquest!"
The period of Middle English is the time of the fast development of English literature. The greatest poet of the 14th century was Geoffrey Chaucer. He is often called the father of English poetry, although, as we know, there were many English poets before him. As we should expect, the language had changed a great deal in the seven hundred years since the time Beowulf and it is much easier to read Chaucer than to read anything written in Old English. Here are the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales (about 1387), his greatest work:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures swote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roteWhen April with his sweet showers has stuck to the roots the
dryness of March...
There are five main beats in each line, and the reader will notice that rhyme has taken the place of Old English alliteration. Chaucer was a well-educated man who read Latin, and studied French and Italian poetry; but he was not interested only in books. He traveled and made good use of his eyes; and the people whom he describes are just like living people.
The Canterbury Tales total altogether about 17,000 lines – about half of Chaucer's literary production. A party of pilgrims agree to tell stories to pass the time on their journey from London to Canterbury with its great church and the grave of Thomas a Becket. There are more than twenty of these stories, mostly in verse, and in the stories we get to know the pilgrims themselves. Most of them, like the merchant, the lawyer, the cook, the sailor, the ploughman, and the miller, are ordinary people, but each of them can be recognized as a real person with his or her own character. One of the most enjoyable characters, for example, is the Wife of Bath. By the time she tells her story we know her as a woman of very strong opinions who believes firmly in marriage (she has had five husbands, one after the other) and equally firmly in the need to manage husbands strictly. In her story one of King Arthur's knights must give within a year the correct answer to the question "What do women love most?" in order to save his life. An ugly old which knows the answer ("to rule") and agrees to tell him if he marries her. At last he agrees, and at the marriage she becomes young again and beautiful.
A good deal of Middle English prose is religious. The Ancren Riwle teaches proper rules of life for anchoresses (religious women) how they ought to dress, what work they may do, when they ought not to speak, and so on. It was probably written in the thirteenth century. Another work, The Form of Perfect Living, was written by richard rolle with the same sort of aim. His prose style has been highly praised, and his work is important in the history of our prose.
john wycliffe, a priest, attacked many of the religious ideas of his time. He was at Oxford, but had to leave because his attacks on the Church could no longer be borne. One of his beliefs was that anyone who wanted to read the Bible ought to be allowed to do so;
but how could this be done by uneducated people when the Bible was in Latin? Some parts had indeed been put into Old English long ago, but Wycliffe arranged the production of the whole Bible in English. He himself translated part of it. There were two translations ! 1382 and 1388), of which the second is the better.