top of page


David Cowles

Feb 21, 2023

“What was lost on the battlefield was won back in the taverns, classrooms and monasteries of medieval England. The turning point: Geoffrey Chaucer…who says art can’t change the world?”

I am sure our readers have a variety of views on the UK’s latest ‘Declaration of Independence’. Like the American Declaration of Independence, promulgated in 1776 but not recognized by treaty until 1782, the policy of ‘Brexit’ was settled by referendum in 2016 but was not fully implemented until January 31, 2020.

It is not our intent here to reenact the Battle of Brexit. Instead, we’re looking to situate Brexit in the context of Britain’s long struggle for independence – from the Romans, the Vikings, the Normans, the Spanish (armada), and most recently, the Nazis.

We begin with the Roman conquest, which brought Latin and, ultimately, Christianity to the island. The Romans ‘pulled out’ of Britain in 410 CE…just in time for ‘King Arthur’ in the late 5th century CE. Arthur notwithstanding, the Roman influence persisted until King Alfred the Great suggested that educators teach their classes in English (aka Old English or Anglo-Saxon) rather than the traditional Latin. While Britain was ‘liberated’ from Roman rule in the 5th century, it was not until the 9th century that its English identity was fully restored.

Restored only to be threatened again, first by the Danes, then by the Normans. In 1066 William defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Once again, Britain’s cultural identity was threatened. A dialect of Old French known as Anglo-Norman replaced Anglo-Saxon (Old English) as the language of record in government and commerce, the language of the nobility and the nascent merchant clash.

If the first estate was still dominated by ‘Church Latin’, the second and third estates were firmly Anglo-Norman. By the 13th century, much of the English elite could no longer speak, or even understand, English.

But the new lingua franca did not trickle down. The peasantry and the nascent proletariat continued to speak the language of Beowulf and kept it alive as it incorporated some Norman vocabulary and morphed into Middle English (Piers Ploughman, e.g.) on its way to becoming recognizably modern English.

In a triumph of cultural democracy, and contrary to all expectations, then and now, English won out! What was lost on the battlefield was won back in the taverns, classrooms and monasteries of medieval England. The turning point: Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400). To the chagrin of many an English schoolkid, the ability to read Chaucer was then and still is a sine qua non of English literacy.

In only a few decades, social classes that no longer spoke or even understood English, became native English speakers. Henry IV in 1399 was the first king since the Norman Conquest to include English in the coronation ceremony. His successor, Henry V (1413), was the first to conduct the coronation ceremony exclusively in English. 

Do not imagine that this was an easy transition. Anglo-Norman and Middle English have little in common. William the Conqueror, no slouch, tried to learn English…but failed.

Chaucer began work on his Canterbury Tales in 1387; 25 years later the language of Chaucer was the language of all England. There is scarcely a trace of Anglo-Norman influence (except in imported Romance vocabulary) in the United Kingdom today. The language is not even studied in school. It is a dead language, a linguistic cul-de-sac…all because of the work of some poet! Who says art can’t change the world?

Drool on, Karl Marx, drool on! I am aware of no better example of successful resistance to cultural imperialism than this and no better example of the utter triumph of the proletariat over the nobility and the bourgeoisie.

Today, the British Isles are frantically fighting to reclaim their ancient Celtic and Norse languages, including Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, and some Old Norse derivatives. The outcome is uncertain at best. My suggestion: take a page out of Chaucer’s book. Create a body of work so compelling that educated people will have to learn the language it’s written in. How are you as a Welsh poet?

Do you like what you just read and want to read more Thoughts? Subscribe today for free!

- the official blog of Aletheia Today Magazine. 

Have a thought to share about today's 'Thought'.png
bottom of page