The Norman Conquest and Anglo-Saxon literacy

The Norman Conquest and Anglo-Saxon literacy

By Michael Clanchy

Past and Future: Magazine of the Institute of Historical Research, Issue 3 (2008)

Introduction: I begin my book From Memory to Written Record (first published in 1979) with the Norman Conquest, when King William ‘decided to bring the conquered people under the rule of written law’. This implies that before 1066 the Anglo-Saxons had no developed literate culture. Certainly this became official orthodoxy in the 12th century. The lawbook from the 1180s ascribed to the Justiciar Ranulf Glanvill begins by declaring that English laws are not written down. The first chapter of From Memory to Written Record broadly accepts this Norman viewpoint. Domesday Book demonstrates in unprecedented detail how the Normans imposed their form of written record on the conquered people village by village. But I now think that I was as beguiled in 1979 by Norman rhetoric as many historians before me. It was not any lack of literacy in England which caused the Normans to make Domesday Book. Rather, it was the fact that many Anglo-Saxon administrative documents were routinely written in English, whereas the normal language of record in the west was Latin because this is what the Roman Empire and the Roman Church had established.

Old English literature has always been valued and studied, whereas it is only in the last 30 years or so that the administrative achievements of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom – from King Alfred onwards – have come to be appreciated in all their variety. Alfred had asked: ‘Consider now, if your lord’s letter and his seal came to you, whether you could say that you could not recognize him by this means’. James Campbell, Susan Kelly, Simon Keynes, Kathryn Lowe, Patrick Wormald and many other scholars have argued that the evidence, fragmentary and awkward as it often is, points to a wide use of documents in the vernacular before 1066, not only at the exalted level of royal writs but locally across the country. At first the Normans accepted what they found and William the Conqueror issued writs in English like his predecessors. According to the chronicler Orderic Vitalis he even attempted to learn English himself. But when Lanfranc arrived as archbishop of Canterbury in 1070, the written language of admininstration soon changed from English to Latin. He was a lawyer and reformer in the Roman mould, who did not conceal his distrust of vernacular culture. However, the Normans could not make the English switch languages overnight. The conquerors therefore found themselves in an awkward position in establishing titles to property, as legal testimony continued to be given in English. How could the new landlords know whether it was reliable?

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