Friday, 24 January 2014

Total Conquest

Some conquests are total while others are more like occupations .... the Turkish Conquest of the Byzantine Empire was total - they supplanted the Christian religion, and Romano/Greek culture of an entire civilisation, so that it disappeared almost completely, except in the residual Greek population of Constantinople, and where its records survived in Europe. The British 'conquest' of India was merely an 'occupation', which though leaving a legacy of language, law and politics, didn't ultimately change the basic culture of the subcontinent.

King Harold Also Had The Pope Against Him

Another invasion that can be classed as more like an 'occupation' was the 'Norman Conquest' of England in 1066. The Vikings of Northern France were more closely related to the Danish rulers of England, such as King Cnut (Canute), than to the Frankish 'French' who Hrolf Ragnvaldsson, or Rollo (aka Robert of Normandy), had evicted from the Normandy region. It was that fact that was partly what William the Bastards claim to the throne was based upon. So why do I suggest that it was only an 'occupation', when they had won such a stunning victory, and wiped out the existing ruling class in England, and later in southern Scotland.

Well, obviously one of the most obvious effects of 'the conquest' was the introduction of a northern dialect of Old French, later  known as Anglo-Norman, as the language of the ruling classes in England, and the displacement of 'Old English'. So as a result, many 'French' words, entered the English language, and perhaps unsurprisingly (and even to be expected, as aping ones betters has always been an English class trait), French became the language of the remains of the English speaking upper classes as well. A further sign of the conquest was the use of French first names instead of the Anglo-Saxon names. So gone were the Egbert's, Ethelred's and Harald's, and male names such as William, Robert and Richard soon became the norm. Strangely female names changed more slowly, but perhaps this was because to Norman male ears, English female names such as Merwenna were considered alluring.

It is not known how much 'Old English' the Norman aristocracy learned, nor how much, knowledge of the 'Norman French' language spread amongst the lower classes of the Saxons and Britons who they now ruled, but the demands of trade and basic communication probably meant that at least some of the 'Normans' and certainly many of the native 'English' were bilingual.

The Norman Conquest Wasn't The Total Defeat It First Looked.

But after this, the effects of the language change petered out quite quickly - for instance within 300 yrs, the aristocracy were speaking 'English', and in fact Geoffrey Chaucer wrote 'The Canterbury Tales' in 'English' for the Royal Court in the 1390's. Likewise, unlike during the Viking Invasions (or even the Saxon invasions), the Norman invasion had not such a big as impact on place-names. Offhand I can actually think of just a few  'Norman place names' e.g. Nottingham had been called ‘Snotingaham’ in the Saxon era (‘the settlement of Snot’ - yes really!). Similarly, Cambridge was called ‘Grantebrige’ before  the Normans arrived - A clue to Norman place names was that they frequently gave it a prefix of ‘Beau’ and ‘Bel’. e.g. Beachy Head, but you will still notice more Saxon and Viking (or even Roman - Chester, Manchester, Londonium etc), place names around than Norman.

By the time of Shakespeare, the assimilation of the now English aristocracy was so complete that none of the aristocracy thought themselves as 'French', but rather considered themselves to be thoroughly 'English' ..... sometimes 'conquest' works in reverse ... a fact that has worked rather nicely for some.


  1. The most obvious illustration of the frenchification of the English language from this time is where we use french words for the meat of the animal (beef [boeuf], pork [porc], mutton [mouton], etc.) because that is what the nobility ate, and retain English words for the animals themselves which the commoners looked-after. Bon appetit.

    1. Of course the Saxons gave us King, Ale, Chicken, Rat, Thirst ..... which sounds like a night out followed by a takeaway.

  2. Perhaps the best example of an 'occupation' was the Mongol Empire. Their empire was the biggest the world had then seen, but they left no language, legal or social footprint anywhere, not even in china where they formed a dynasty. They were like a storm, impressive when its active but soon forgotten when its stopped. Their Mughal cousins in Northern India had far more local impact than the mightier empire of Ghengis Khan.

    1. Good example .... I utterly forgot about them, the biggest of the lot. Thanks for the comment.


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