From the Norman conquest to the end of the 12th century


From the Norman conquest to the end of the 12th century

The period after the Norman Conquest was a period of great social change and of intellectual and literary productivity in Britain. Latin continued to be used as a lingua franca as people communicated and travelled beyond the boundaries of Britain, after William, Duke of Normandy had taken control as King William I, bringing people over from Normandy to take up positions of power in ecclesiastical and secular administration.

This change in cultural leadership led to an increase in production of administrative documents, mostly involving possessions, the rights of the king, and legal matters. The Norman administrators inherited certain forms of document, such as the charter, examples of which survive in both Latin and Old English from before 1066, but new forms were introduced too. This period sees the start of the collection of Pipe rolls (named from the pipe-like shape of the tightly-rolled sets of membranes or sheets fastened together at the top), a series of financial records produced by the Treasury which survives almost unbroken until 1833! Another major source for the Latin of this period is the Domesday book, produced in 1086, as a survey of what each community possessed at that time and what taxes had existed there before the Conquest.

Alongside such charters and accounts surviving from this period, most of them now preserved in the National Archives after having been stored in rather a casual way for many centuries in the Tower of London or in the Treasury at Westminster, we have many literary works in Latin from this period, particularly from the twelfth century when government and language had both grown in confidence.

It is hardly surprising that what were perhaps the two most dramatic events in the British history of the period, namely the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170 should have given rise to numerous texts in the years following these events. The earlier event engendered such works as the epic poem on the Battle of Hastings by Guy of Amiens (ob. 1075) and the Deeds of William of Normandy by William of Poitiers (ob. after 1087), and the Deeds of the Dukes of Normandy by William of Jumieges, while the latter led to the writing of popular poems and hymns in praise of Becket, homilies on his martyrdom (by Gervase of Canterbury), biographies (as for example those by John of Salisbury and Edward Grim), accounts of miracles associated with him (e.g. the account by William of Canterbury), and letters from John of Salisbury who had worked for and corresponded with Becket during his lifetime.

The dispute between Thomas Becket and King Henry II was not the first such clash between king and archbishop (or church) in this period: at the end of the 11th century St. Anselm had already come up against King William Rufus regarding the question of the relative power of ecclesiastical and secular, of papal and national authority, but Anselm emerged bruised but not murdered. Anselm’s correspondence is of great interest not only in matters of ecclesiastical politics but also of spirituality, and his theological and philosophical works (in which he followed in the footsteps of his mentor and predecessor as Archbishop, Lanfranc of Bec) such as the Cur Deus Homo and the Proslogion are well worth reading too! 

Anselm’s spiritual works led the way in an extraordinary series of varied texts of the 12th century, composed by such great writers as Anselm’s pupil and biographer, Eadmer, Isaac of Stella and Ailred of Rievaulx. The interest in spiritual matters at this time is also exemplified by the continuing production of biographies of (largely British) saints, some of whom, like Anselm and Thomas Becket, were not only men of high spiritual standing but also great writers in their own right.

Another series of peaks of literary achievement is formed by the histories that were written, many of them within a few years of each other in the second quarter of the 12th century. William of Malmesbury produced a History of the English Kings from the time of the Saxon invasion of Britain to the reign of Henry I, as well as an account of the deeds of a long series of bishops: he is clearly aware of previous British Latin historians such as Bede, Æthelweard and Eadmer. Orderic Vitalis seems to have been familiar, from his work as a monastic copyist, of the work of Bede and William of Jumieges before he composed his own Ecclesiastical history. Henry of Huntingdon draws on Bede, on the Historia Brittonum, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as the lives of various saints, when he wrote his History of the English. Another of Henry’s sources for part of his work was the famous History of the Kings of Britain by his close contemporary Geoffrey of Monmouth who chose to write his history not of recent events but of the origins of British society in a mythical past, tracing the rise of the kingdom of Britain, the period under King Arthur, and its decline under Cadwallo in the 7th century.