The History of English

Linguistics/English 395, Spring 2009

Prof. Suzanne Kemmer
Rice University
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The Transition to Early Modern English

Background: Culture, Society, Religion, Literacy

Part I: Forces for change and the spread of literacy, 1300-1400

As the medieval world entered its late phase in the 1300 and 1400s, English society (and indeed, the society of all Europe) began to undergo a rapid transformation.

After England began to recover from the worst bouts of the Black Death, the economy improved along with general health and a middle class began to emerge, especially in the towns. Literacy was spreading among the top economic half of the populace and as life improved many people began to have a little more leisure time for reading and writing, especially personal documents such as letters.

English became the language of the law courts in 1362 for the first time since the Conquest, and a clerk class had to be educated in written English for purposes of administering the business of the courts. The royal court and its legal administration were based in London and London duly became the hub of a newly developing Standard English, both spoken and written.

The development of legal and administrative English further encouraged the spread of literacy in English. At the same time public readings of poetry and stories became popular, at first especially in French, but written stories and poems in English also began to appear in the 1300s. Geoffrey Chaucer, a well-connected courtier and civil servant, began writing in English in the 1380s, starting a new trend for creative literature in English instead of French.

The Hundred Years' war began in 1337 and with it the start of English nationalist feelings. People throughout the country felt part of a national state that was opposed to Normandy and other dukedoms across the channel, and especially opposed to the growing power of the kingdom of France based around Paris. Royal proclamations by this time were in English, and English was the native language of the monarchs.

During the 1300s and 1400s the old religious and social certainties began to give way. A strong pressure toward church reform began to develop and the church and the state (whose nucleus was the royal court) came to be at odds. The royal court also came into conflict with the rest of the aristocracy, i.e. the nobility, and there was a good deal of jockeying for power between them. The English parliament emerged in an attempt by nobles to limit royal prerogatives, particularly regarding their property. Serfdom was on its way out as peasants were in a better bargaining position with landowners because of the labor shortage created by the plague.

As part of a grassroots movement for church reform, during the late 1300s calls for the translation of the Bible into English began to gather force, most notably in connection with an underground cult whose members were called Lollards. Lollards wanted greater accessibility of religious texts and ideas, and also wanted to make the church hierarchy more responsive to their congregations. (Ultimately, they wanted to do away with the ecclesiastical power structure altogether.) Lollards also wanted a greater measure of political freedom and democracy. For these reasons they were considered highly subversive to both church and state and were jailed or killed when exposed. A famous popular rebellion called The Peasant's Revolt or Wat Tyler's Rebellion occurred in 1381, led, it turned out, by Lollards. The revolt was brutally suppressed.

During the Old English period there had been various translations of the Bible into the vernacular for practical rather than ideological reasons (e.g. it was easier to train priests in English than in Latin). But by the 1300s the question of language became an ideological one. The forms of liturgy and prayer had become fossilized and religious doctrine, with its centuries of interpretation and codification to determine which ideas would count as true doctrine and which as heresy, had become a straightjacket for thought. The church hierarchy preferred scripture, liturgical services, and theological literature to be all in Latin, directly interpretable only by a priesthood under centralized ecclesiastical control. Limitation to an ecclesiastical language known only to the church elite enabled the systematic control of theological ideas by church authorities. The church became increasingly wealthy, as it collected money and property from the wealthy in exchange for spiritual benefits it could confer. The wealth and power of the institution was increasingly resented, above all because it was widely seen as corrupt and self-serving, as well as ungodly. Church officials lost respect as they no longer even tried to keep up the appearance of following the rules of their holy orders.

John Wycliffe, one of the most prominent of the religious reformers, translated the Bible into English in 1382. Hand-written copies were widely disseminated among Lollards, although the text itself was banned in England.

The church reform movement did not succeed at the time, as the trend toward reform was stamped out with the Peasants' Revolt. The rebellion horrified many people, especially those with even a little property, and made them associate reform with political destabilization and anarchy. Nevertheless, many of the reformers' ideas came back in later eras and ultimately, in fact, prevailed.

The idea of accessibility of scripture to the common people that led to English Bible translations was one of many at first heretical ideas that later became part of the normal fabric of life in England. The increasing desire for and expectation of accessibility of religious texts was another important motivation for people to become literate.

Law, literature and religion were therefore all developing domains for the spread of literacy in the late medieval period. Once printing was introduced to Britain in 1476, literacy really began to take off. Books, no longer being completely hand-made artifacts but instead reproducible items, came down rapidly in price and could be owned by others besides the very rich.

Most of the earlier printed books were still religious in nature as were manuscripts of the era before printing. But once printing took hold, other genres began to develop: poetry, travel tales, plays, histories, legal treatises, and scientific texts all began to appear and the market for written work in English grew quickly.

Part II: Religious and political developments in England post-1500 and consequences for the monarchy

Religious developments picked up speed in the 16th century. In the 1530s Henry VIII broke from the church of Rome and founded the Church of England with himself as the supreme head. He still considered himself a good Catholic and tried to ban Protestant reforms that were coming from the European continent where Lutheranism was taking hold. His son Edward was raised secretly as a Protestant and when he came to the throne as Edward VI in 1547 he began to try to turn England to Protestantism. But he died in 1553 at the age of only 15, unable to carry out his plans.

Edward's elder sister Mary I came to the throne in 1553 and tried to undo all of the religious moves away from Rome that had taken place during her father's and brother's reigns. She wanted to return England to the Church of Rome; in the process, she burned Protestants and forced her subjects to worship according to the old Catholic rites and liturgy.

Mary died in 1558 after 5 short but terrible years for Protestants. She was unable to turn back the forces of Protestantism, by then equated with church reform, partly because her own brutal suppression of Protests and burning of holy men for heresy created a public backlash; but also because increased trade and contacts with Europe brought new religious ideas that were sweeping the populace.

The most powerful of these ideas was that people did not need priests to relate to God; they could pray in a personal way without such a religious intermediary controlling their access to forgiveness and salvation. Secondly, the idea of accessibility of scripture to the common people popularized by the Lollards continued to gain force. If scripture and theological ideas in general should be directly understood by the people, they needed access in their own language. It became obvious and accepted that what was needed were translations not only of the the Bible but also of all religious services and writings into the common language, and the continued development of a religious literature in English. Thirdly, the idea that "the church" should really refer to the congregation of worshippers rather than the ecclesiastical power structure of priests and bishops was a major tenet of the new view taking hold. And finally, the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation of the Eucharist during mass -- the idea of the literal turning of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ -- was rejected by Protestant theologians.

At this point (1558) a third child of Henry came to the throne, namely Elizabeth I. Elizabeth had largely Protestant sympathies but she recognized a large conservative strain in the population who did not want to accept all the tenets of Protestantism, and she also recognized a large contingent of Catholics who preferred to continue to worship through the Latin mass and Latin prayers.

Elizabeth worked to provide a religious settlement that balanced the interests of the Catholicism, radical Protestantism (Puritanism, which advocated total church reform from the ground up), and all variations in between. Her policies tended to the middle of the spectrum, with neither extreme of puritanism nor catholicism favored.

Elizabeth ruled for 45 years and during her long and eventful reign England became a firmly Protestant country. The English Church under Elizabeth as Supreme Head continued its progression toward Protestantism and re-formation of the liturgy. Prayers were newly codified in the Book of Common Prayer and other religious texts in English incorporating formerly heretical ideas were composed.

Scotland, the north of England, and Cornwall had many more Catholics than the politically dominant and heavily Protestant part of Britain (southeastern England). But before long Scotland itself became home to a variety of Protestantism called Calvinism.

James I, the first Stewart monarch, took the throne after Elizabeth's death. Like her he was Protestant, and he consolidated the Church of England in essentially its modern form. James commissioned the famous King James Bible or King James Version (KJV) in 1611. Translation of the Bible into English was no longer a controversial idea.

However, the conflict between Catholic and Protestant doctrine sharpened, and interacted with nationalism: there were Protestant vs. Catholic countries, and alliances and wars among them began to follow religious lines. This conflict also interacted with the status of the monarchy, as the religion of the monarch motivated people to fight for or against that monarch.

James I's successor monarchs in the male line, Charles I, Charles II and James II, it turned out, were either secretly Catholic, publicly Catholic, or too sympathetic to Catholicism for the populace, leading to a huge political conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism. The latter was espoused by the growing majority of the populace and thus there was increasing support for a Protestant monarch and resistance to potential heirs who were or were perceived as Catholic. The Catholic/Protestant tensions were also bound up with the struggle between royal authority and parliamentary authority and the growing insistence of the propertied classes on having a say in government. What followed was civil war, regicide, and restoration of the monarchy with somewhat diminished powers.

The Catholic/Protestant and royalist/parliamentarian conflicts led ultimately, in the last part of the century, to the deposing of the reigning Catholic monarch James II in favor of his Protestant daughter and her Dutch husband. This so-called "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 brought Mary II and her husband William of Orange (Orange was part of Holland) to the English throne. Mary's father James II was deposed and her Catholic brother, James' heir (also called James) rejected as king. The conflict continued as long as Catholic descendents of James II lived, since those descendents formed the focus of plots to return England to Catholicism.

The English throne next passed to Mary's Protestant sister Anne in 1702 (again excluding Mary's and Anne's Catholic brother). The Scottish throne, until then separate, was incorporated into a new United Kingdom of Great Britain under Anne in 1707. Anne was the last Stuart monarch; after her death without an heir in 1714 the succession passed to the Protestant House of Hanover.

© 2009 Suzanne Kemmer
Last modified 16 March 2009