Last Saturday, our son Sam turned 18. Around this house that was reason enough for celebration. For those more globally minded, Saturday, October 14th, marked the 951st anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. On this date in 1066, the Norman army under William the Conqueror defeated the forces of King Harold II of England. Harold was killed—shot in the eye with an arrow, according to legend. Shortly thereafter, his troops capitulated. The reign of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England ended.
Harold may have been among the last casualties of the Battle of Hastings. Today, however, I should like to consider the first.
William’s army invaded England at Pevensey in East Sussex. No troops lined the shore to oppose him for Harold was in the north of England repelling invading Norwegian troops. From Pevensey, the Norman army marched on toward Hastings. Harold raced his soldiers down southward to confront this group of invaders. The Anglo Saxons seized the high ground at Senlac Hill and prepared to fight a defensive battle.
The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, presents the oldest source on the Battle of Hastings, written in 1067 or 1068. On the eve of battle, the Normans were dispirited. Not surprisingly, since they, clad in chain mail must charge the Saxons’ shield wall uphill. Harold’s infantry waited for them there, his lines braced for the attack by the invaders.
According to the epic, out from the mass of Norman soldiers rode a lone man, Ivo Taillefer, the storyteller to William. He positioned himself on horseback between the two opposing forces. There he began to juggle his sword, catching and throwing it into the air again and again, while singing the Song of Roland, a lyrical poem about a heroic French warrior who served under Charlemagne.
A man should suffer greatly for his lord,
Endure both biting cold and sweltering heat
And sacrifice for him both flesh and blood.
Stanza LXXXVIII, line 1117
Incensed by the bravado, a Saxon soldier rushed from the lines to kill the provocative Taillefer. Instead, however, Tailllefer snatched his sword in mid-air and struck down the man. Singlehandedly, the warrior storyteller then charged the English lines. Inspired, the Normans unleashed their arrows and the battle began.
We might pause the story to consider the warrior storyteller, the man or woman who finds battle and literature to be complimentary. The experience with death, valor, inhumanity and a community of individuals locked in a common cause lead some to contemplate the big questions of life. Those doubting the existence of a warrior storyteller need look no further than my esteemed fellow bloggers.
In his final moment, the warrior storyteller became a literary figure himself.
Taillefer, who sang right well,
Upon a swift horse
Sang before the Duke
Of Charlemagne and of Roland
And of Oliver and their vassals
That died at Roncesvalles.
Wace, Roman de Rou, lines 8013–8019
Taillefer also enriched the lives of storytellers to come. The Norman victory at Hastings was “an event which had a greater effect on the English language than any other in the course of its history,” according to H. R. Lyon.
William the Conqueror’s coronation at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066 was voiced in English and Latin. He, however, knew Norman French. From that day, three languages were spoken throughout Britain, gradually melding into one. It is estimated that the Norman conquest added 10-12,000 words to the English language.
A story from the times illustrates the new world in which the conquered English found themselves. In a miracle tale from the 12th Century, a traveling friar, Brother William, met a mute man. Falling to his knees, the infirmed man sought a blessing. Brother William laid hands upon the man who suddenly could speak both English and French. The local priest, Brichtric, witnessing the miracle, complained about the unfairness. Brichtric had served the church faithfully for many years, yet remained dumb before his French speaking Bishop, since Brichtric knew neither Latin nor French. This total stranger, however, could now speak to the entire country, knowing both languages. Brichtric, wailed at the injustice.
Before William’s coronation, Anglo Saxons had a single word, kingly, a simple and direct expression for the actions of a king. Following the conquest, three synonyms entered the language, royal, regal and sovereign. Writers gained the capacity to express shades of meaning with the tools of expanded word choice. Walter Mead illustrates the point citing a famous example from Time magazine, “Truman slunk from the room to huddle with his cronies,” while “Ike strode from the chamber to confer with his advisers.”
The use of legal doublets also entered the language. A legal doublet is a standardized phrase consisting of two or more words used frequently in Legal English. Such phrases couple terms which are synonyms. The origin of many doublings can trace to a French (or Latin) and English word paired to ensure that the reader understood the phrase’s significance. Aid and abet and null and void, represent examples of legal doublings.
Whether your goal is to clarify (or obfuscate) a legal document or to craft a story full of shading and nuance, the events of 951 years ago, expanded your toolbox like no other event before or since. Raise a glass to Taillefer, the warrior storyteller who started it all. Raise another for Sam whose birth, nativity, parturition and delivery came along 933 years later.