Home  »  Volume II: English THE END OF THE MIDDLE AGES  »  § 1. Early English Prose

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

III. The Beginnings of English Prose

§ 1. Early English Prose

EARLY English prose had, of necessity, a practical character. To those who understood neither Latin nor French all proclamations and instructions, laws and sermons, had to be issued in English, while, for a long time, the official Latin of the accountant and the law clerk had been very English in kind, even to the insertion of native words with a case-ending appended. With the increasing importance of the commons in the fourteenth century, the proceedings of parliament itself began to descend to the vulgar tongue, which obtained a signal recognition when three successive parliaments (1362–4) were opened by English speeches from the chancellor. Furthermore, a statute, in 1362, ordered the pleadings in the law courts to be conducted in English, though the cases were to be recorded in Latin, on the ground that French was no longer sufficiently understood. Political sentiment may have inspired this declaration, which was as much overstated as the plea of two of Henry IV’s envoys that French was, to their ignorant understandings, as bad as Hebrew; for the yearbooks continued to be recorded in French, and in French not only diplomatic letters but reports to Henry IV himself were written. The use of that tongue, so long the medium of polite intercourse, did not vanish suddenly, but a definite movement which ensured its doom took place in the grammar schools, after the Black Death, when English instead of French was adopted as the medium of instruction. John Trevisa, writing in 1385, tells us that this reform was the work of John Cornwall and his disciple Richard Pencrich, and that, “in alle pe gramere scoles of Engelond children leve[char] Frensche and construe[char] and lerne[char] an Englische,” with the result that they learned their grammar more quickly than children were wont to do, but with the disadvantage that they “conne[char] na more frensche than can hir lift heele”—and “[char]at is harme for hem and [char]ey schulle passe [char]e see and travaille in straunge landes.” Even noblemen had left off teaching their children French.