A Note on the Impact of the Norman Conquest on Middle English Literature

The Battle of Hastings of 1066 ended the power of the last Saxon king, Harold, and established the Norman rule in England. On Christmas Day, 1066, William II, Duke of Normandy, was crowned as the King William I of England. That Norman Conquest was a decisive event in the history of England in all spheres. Indeed, the Norman Conquest of 1066 provided a convenient landmark for the history of England and brought about radical
changes in all matters in English life and mind. It did not merely affect the political character of the country or brought about agrarian reforms. It also deeply influenced and shaped remarkably English literature as well as language.

The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 not only imposed a French-speaking ruling class on England but also changed greatly the whole gamut, the tone, and temper of Middle English literature. French literature permeated English literature so thoroughly that when English composition began again after a century we see English Literature based on French both in matter and form.

When in the Middle English period, literature was again revived after long neglect or despise of centuries, the forms and themes of the old Anglo-Saxon literature were altogether gone. Instead, French ideals passed on into English, mainly in the form of two species – Romance and Allegory. War was a favorite and stock theme of the contemporary French romances. “Chanson de Roland“. the acme of French romance deals with the war and defeat of the army of Charlemagne. But in the medieval atmosphere, the love interest was sure to invade the romance. Consequently, love and war became the staple of romance, with morals superadded.

As a literary form, allegory was nothing new in the period. But now the novelty about it is that it was taken over as the medium “of the new religion of courtly love”. The allegorical dream on love, “La Romaunt de la Rose“, on which Chaucer modeled his “The Romaunt of the Rose“, inspired many dreams in English. The rose is a symbol of love and the quest of the rose supplies the theme of the poem. Thus. we can see how Romance and Allegory, originating with the knightly ideas. passed on into English through French.

The revival of English Literature was first heard through religious works. The earliest of those religious works was ‘Poema Morale‘ or ‘Moral Ode‘, possibly written about 1170, ‘Ormulumn‘ written about 1200. The third important religious work was “Cursor Mundi‘, written about 1320. Another work ‘Pricke of Conscience‘ possibly written in 1340. Among those religious works, there was a fine prose piece, Ancrene Riwle. All those religious works had their inspiration in French religious poetry.

A sort of secular literature, however, soon sprang up by the side of religious literature.  It was mainly inspired by the literary ideals of France. ‘Havelok, the Dane,’ and King Horn‘ were the two popular romances of the time. Both of them owed their adventurous stories to the French works of romance and chivalry. The French influence broadened much the scope of medieval romances in England, and metrical romances became the most popular literary forms in the Middle Ages.

But the most remarkable secular work was ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’ written about 1220. Founded on the symbolic poetry of France, it was an allegory of youth and wisdom. It indicated another wing of literary development in England under the French influence. Other important secular works were ‘The Love Songs Alison,’ ‘Spring‘ and ‘The Song of Husbandman.’


Consequent to the Norman Conquest, English literature underwent great changes both in content and form. The clarity and freshness characterize the literature of the time. To turn from “Beowulf” to “Chanson de Roland” is to come out from darkness to light. This sense of light is everywhere in the subject, in manner, and in the spirit of poetry. The Anglo-Saxon poets evoked sinister landscapes and mournful scenes; but the French, born under a blue sky, delighted in the clear bright details of the spring. Henceforth, such scenes as flower-decked meadows and singing birds appear in poetry abundantly. The simplicity and accuracy of expression came with the introduction of French literature after the Norman Conquest.