Monday, January 4, 2016

What Did I Just Say? : Adoption of English by the Norman Ruling Class

by Joyce DiPastena

Did you know that the origins of the beloved Christmas carol, "Angels We Have Heard on High" might go back to the year 129 AD, when Bishop Telesphorus of Rome ordered "In the Holy Night of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior, all shall solemnly sing the 'Angel's Hymn?'" Or it might stretch back only as far as the 16th century. Or the 17th. The only thing scholars seem absolutely agreed upon is that "Angels We Have Heard on High" was first published in French in 1855, and appeared in an English translation in 1862. It is highly suspected that the actual carol dates back at least to the 1700s, but no one can prove it, because there is no evidence that it was written down prior to 1855.

And so it is with the mystery of when the ruling Norman class of England began speaking English. No definitive date can be stated for the spoken word, only for the written word. Absent medieval recording devices, or short of being able to enter a time machine, scholars can only make educated guesses for when the Norman conquerors adopted English as their common language.

From the days of William the Conqueror in 1066, French had been the language of the ruling class of England. It was long assumed that French remained their dominant language until King John lost his dukedom of Normandy to France in 1204. Barons who had formerly held lands on both sides of the English Channel found themselves cut off from Normandy and forced to focus their energies on ruling solely their English lands. Severed thus from the continent, they increasingly lost interest in their Norman-French origins and began to absorb the language of the conquered English race.

The Normans came to England speaking Norman-French
Bayeux Tapestry

However, more recent scholars have begun to offer a different view. Jacquie Heys, a graduate student of the University of Toronto Canada, has compiled a compelling essay entitled, "French as the Mother-Tongue in Medieval England". In her essay, she quotes Roger Dahood, professor at the University of Arizona, as saying that, "by 1173, and for an indeterminate time before then, members of the baronage spoke English."

Among other evidence cited by Dahood is the observation of Richard FitzNigel (also known as Richard FitzNeal). Richard later became Bishop of London, but around 1158/1159 he was appointed royal treasurer by King Henry II of England. Richard held this post over the king's exchequer for nearly 40 years and became thoroughly acquainted with the workings of this administrative office. In 1177 Henry II asked Richard to compile a book about his work at the exchequer. The result was Dialogus de Scaccario (Dialogue Concerning the Exchequer), a richly detailed source of information on royal finances in the 12th century. Completed sometime between 1177-1180 (well before King John's loss of Normandy), Richard noted in the treatise that "Nowadays when English and Normans live close together and marry and give in marriage to each other, the nations are so mixed that it can scarcely be decided . . . who is of English birth and who is of Norman."

This would hardly be the case if the English and Normans continued to speak different languages.

By the Twelfth Century, Normans
and English were intermarrying
Codex Manesse

It is true that at the very highest levels of the ruling class, namely the king and his court, French continued to predominate, but these were men who continued to spend more time in their continental possessions than they did in England. And King Henry II of England (1133-1189) is said by his contemporaries to have understood English, although he never learned to speak it. As the kings increasingly employed mercenary soldiers to fight their wars, the common barons remained in England interacting with their English subjects and becoming increasingly English themselves. At a minimum, many, if not most, of the ruling class had most likely become bilingual by the 12th century.

The first English government document to be published in English, the Provisions of Oxford, was released in 1258 in the reign of King John's son, Henry III, but we cannot judge the date of the ascendency of the English language by the written language alone. The written word always lags behind the spoken vernacular, especially among populations that were largely illiterate, as was the case in the Middle Ages, and thus provides few records that reflect what may have been the common speech versus records of 'official' correspondence of various sorts.

So until someone invents that time machine, arguments will undoubtedly continue to be made on both sides of this question. Authors of historical fiction are therefore likely safe in assuming whichever conclusions best fit the individual needs of their stories.



Dahood, Roger. Hugh de Morville, William of Canterbury, and Anectodal Evidence for English Language History. Speculum 69 (1994): 54).

FitzNigel, Richard. Dialogus de Scaccario (Dialogue Concerning the Exchequer), Yale Law School, The Avalon Project:

Heys, Jacquie. French as the Mother-Tongue in Medieval England, (c 2001) (

Vising, Johan. Anglo-Norman Language and Literature. London: Oxford UP, 1923.


Joyce DiPastena is the author of eight medieval novels and novellas, including the critically acclaimed The Lady and the Minstrel, in which barons and serfs communicate freely in English during the reign of King John. The Historical Novel Society called The Lady and the Minstrel: " . . . a deeply-researched book that . . . bears comparison well with other great novels of the Middle Ages. I loved the book and highly recommend it."

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  1. Very we know where George Orwell in his book 1984 got his new speak idea and the development of the new speak dictionary. Thank you for posting it.

  2. Very informative. I like the idea that the rulers spoke both languages during the 12th century and it makes sense that the written word would lag behind the spoken word--that's true of etymology, as well.

  3. Thank you, very interesting. As a 17th Century devotee, I had assumed all formal and government writing was always done in the common language of the educated classes everywhere -- Latin. I wonder when that started?

  4. I'd say the key is the women the Francophones married. The more they picked up English brides the more that English entered the household. Certainly everyday business of shires and estates required English.


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