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Would Britain be great without the Normans?

Oct 05 2010 Published by under Anglo-Saxon,Great Britain,Norman Centuries

Monty asks if Great Britain would have become a great nation without the martial input of the Normans.

Of course we can’t know for sure what would have happened if the Normans hadn’t crossed the Channel, but to answer the question briefly I think the answer is ‘no’.  Without the Normans I doubt there would even be a Great Britain much less a British Empire.  The union of Scotland and England into a new entity called Great Britain came about with the Act of Union in 1707 (Ireland wasn’t officially added until 1801), but despite the late date it was the final act in a play that had begun with William the Conqueror.

The Anglo-Saxons were always more defensively minded than the Normans.  Harold and his predecessors had contacts with the neighboring kingdoms- Godwin’s family involved themselves with both Macbeth in Scotland and Diarmait mac Maíl na mBó in Ireland- but never on a large scale.  Where they did exert themselves (the Welsh border for example) they settled for a sort of ‘over-king’ recognition.  Scotland was more organized and therefore a more difficult conquest, and if one of Harold’s successors had the inclination and ability to pull off an invasion, they most likely would have tried to impose the same kind of recognition.  Ireland on the other hand, was probably too much of a stretch even for the most ambitious Anglo-Saxon king.  The Irish Sea was notoriously difficult and the English didn’t yet see the value of a fleet.  The real obstacle to an Old English empire was the Anglo-Saxon style of fighting.  They didn’t have professional armies, and shield walls (as the name implies) are better for fending off an attack than carrying out one.

The Normans by contrast, had both the organization and more importantly the desire to invade.  They cut a swath through medieval Europe dominating the stage for over a century and rarely losing a battle.  Their heavy cavalry raids were nearly unstoppable- there is no better example than at Cerami in Sicily where 500 Norman knights smashed an army 70 times their size.  It was this martial spirit that carried Norman arms into Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and triumphed at Crécy and Poitiers.  The Act of Union- and the British Empire- was the end result of that drive.

One final postscript: I think the Anglo-Saxons generally get short-changed by historians.  The heavy cavalry charge that saw the Normans to victory in nearly every battle dramatically failed in two cases.  The first was at Hastings- the shield wall/axe-wielding huscarls more than held their own against repeated charges.  The English lost because their discipline let them down- they abandoned the higher ground in scattered groups to chase fleeing knights and were butchered out in the open.  The second case was exactly fifteen years later near the Albanian city of Dürres.  The Varangian Guard- composed largely of Anglo-Saxon refugees met the Norman army of Robert Guiscard.  Once again the Norman charge failed and the Anglo-Saxon huscarls inflicted horrendous casualties on the attacking cavalry.  Unfortunately for the English, large segments of the imperial army chose that moment to desert and the Varangians were left exposed and surrounded.  The result was a second defeat, which effectively obscured what the English had accomplished.  They might never have become a great power with a defensive mindset, but the fighting abilities of the Anglo-Saxons stopped the foremost military machine of the 11th century in its tracks.  Twice.

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How would English be different if the Normans had lost?

Monty asks how English would be different if the Normans had lost at Hastings.

If you want a good idea of how different English was before the Normans, pick up a copy of Beowulf and try to read the original text.  It’s a Germanic language that bears little apparent resemblance to the words you’re reading here.  The temptation then is to say that it was the Norman Conquest which gave English its recognizable form.  But here is where it gets interesting.  Languages are living things and Anglo-Saxon was constantly evolving during the 7 centuries it was in use.  There were Celtic influences, Norse influences, and even a bit of Latin from the clerics who converted the population.  The Normans added a healthy mix of French but exactly how much is a matter of some debate.  Depending on the expert you consult, you’ll hear that the percentage of English derived from Latin or French is 15%, 29%, or 50%.

I asked a linguist how there could be such a huge discrepancy and she gave me an intriguing answer.  In the first place nobody knows exactly how many English words there are.  For example, are ‘run’, ‘running’, and ‘ran’ three different words or should they just count as one?  Secondly, it makes a big difference if you’re counting ‘textbook’ words or words that are commonly spoken.  It turns out that the vast majority of our common words come from Old English while the ‘textbook’ words are more likely to be derived from Latin or French.  So if you’re feeling blue and you describe yourself as ‘sad’, you’re using an Old English word, but if you say ‘I feel Lugubrious’ you’re using Latin.

So what effect did the Norman Conquest have on the English language?  Obviously it has had an impact over the last millennium- it would have been impossible not to.  But I think it had less effect than most of us assume, and as far as our spoken tongue, less still.  Those old Norman blue bloods are still perched at the upper crust of the language, but where most of us live in our day-to-day lives, we are surrounded mostly by Anglo-Saxons.  To paraphrase the great historian David Howarth, ‘in the end the English really did conquer their conquerors’.

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