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18 September 2014
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The Norman Yoke: Symbol or Reality?

By Michael Wood
Norman legacy

Image of nave at Ely Cathedral
The stunning Norman nave at Ely Cathedral  ©
So what did the Normans ever do for us? Maybe it's like the Greeks and the Romans. Like the Romans, the Normans were great organisers, great builders, great patrons, and they internationalised British civilisation. But like the Greeks in relation to the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons were part of an older civilisation than that of the Normans.

The Greeks were conquered militarily by the Romans, but their civilisation came to dominate that of the Romans because their culture was so rich, deep and versatile. I think that's the case with the Anglo-Saxons, too.

The truth is that not only did the Anglo-Saxons create England, but they also had a wonderful culture with very distinctive thought, poetry, literature, art, music, metalwork and needlework. Uniquely, in Europe, the vernacular was widely used in administration and literature, and shreds of wonderful Anglo-Saxon literature have come down to us, despite the destruction of so much by the Normans and by Henry VIII.

'Shakespeare - the best legacy of the Conquest? Now there's a thought.'

One Old English poem, Beowulf, only recently topped the best-seller lists in Seamus Heaney's marvellous translation. Another, the Dream of the Rood, is in many eyes one of the greatest of all poems in English. The Anglo-Saxons also produced the first English vernacular translation of the Gospels - long before Wycliffe and Tyndale, let alone King James. Many of its phrases have been part of English speech and thought ever since - 'you are the salt of the earth', 'seek and you shall find' and 'the gate is wide' to name but three.

Although English was driven underground as an official and literary language in the Norman period, it resurfaced, and by the 13th century was coming back to prominence with a sense of the Englishness of the English nation. In the 14th century, in the hands of great poets like Langland and Chaucer (and now mingled with French words), the English vernacular was a superb instrument of culture and civilisation.

By the 16th century, English vernacular was at the centre of what one might almost call a cultural big bang. This began its progress towards becoming one of the most influential languages of the world - and it is still, in the 21st century, a language that shows its pre-history of Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Danish, Norman-French and so on. It's all there in Shakespeare, of course, with his vocabulary of 30,000 words drawing upon all those traditions.

Shakespeare - the best legacy of the Conquest? Now there's a thought.

About the author

Michael Wood is the writer and presenter of many critically acclaimed television series, including In the Footsteps of...series. Born and educated in Manchester, Michael did postgraduate research on Anglo-Saxon history at Oxford. Since then he has made over 60 documentary films and written several best selling books. His films have centred on history, but have also included travel, politics and cultural history.

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