Posted by: suekenney | August 6, 2011

The Disaster that Helped Save the English Language`

Image of Harold Godwinson from the Bayeux Tape...

Image via Wikipedia

(Another Snippet from The Adventure of English)

When William of Normandy defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and became the king of England, he ushered in a very trying and dangerous time for the English language, as well as for the English people.  William and all his court, all his nobles and officials, spoke French; the legal courts were conducted in French; trade was conducted in French.  The English language was forced underground, even as the English people were put under the Norman heel.

For a time, it was not at all certain that English as a language – at this point, still in its Old English or Anglo-Saxon form – would survive the unrelenting onslaught of Norman French in almost every sphere of life.

By the time the mid-1300’s rolled around, some 300 years after the Norman Conquest, English had survived, and was even a bit stronger, but was by no means a dominant language:  French ruled in most of secular society, while Latin dominated the Church.  English, thanks in large part to the enormous influx of French words, had by this time morphed into what we call Middle English.  It was still primarily a language of the peasantry, although it had also become the one common language for cross-cultural communications.

Plague victims blessed by a priest

Then, in 1348, infected rats on a ship from the European mainland brought the bubonic plague to England.  Pasturella (or Yersinia) pestis.  The Great Pestilence.  The Black Death.  The results were staggering.  Some estimate that up to a third of England’s population – well over a million, out of a population of four million – died from the plague, and many more were permanently weakened.  Some communities lost all their inhabitants.  According to one chronicler of the time, “only the dregs of the people live to tell the tale.”

And therein lay a great boon for the English language.  Those so-called “dregs” were primarily the peasantry – the speakers of the English language.  Because a great amount of the Latin-speaking clergy had died in the plague (generally from living in close proximity to each other, as in the monasteries, or from tending to their gravely ill parishioners), they had to be replaced – often by laymen who could only speak English.  Thus English came back into the Church.

On another front, because of the great number of deaths throughout England, there was a severe shortage of labor.  The survivors – those sturdy peasants who spoke primarily English – were suddenly able to make demands for better wording conditions and higher wages.  They gained more power in the society.  And their language gained power with them.

Despite the horrible sufferings of the Black Death, people survived – eventually, many even thrived.  Life had forever changed in England.  And thanks to those changes, English once again was able to surge into the forefront of society; its toehold became a foothold of ever increasing stability.

(Just as a sidenote:  Just discovered that The Adventure of English had been made into a TV miniseries in England a few years ago, and some of the episodes are available on youtube.  Looking forward to delving into those!)


  1. Wow. What you study about the plague translates into a much better story than what I learned about it in my medical microbiology class. Trust me on that…

    • I will trust you. I don’t think I want to know all the gory details. And I don’t mean to downplay just how horrendous the plague really was, in terms of human suffering and lives lost. It’s just that it opened up a new window for the language.

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