Place-names and the Norman Conquest

ENG - NormanBlog post written by David Trotter based on an article in the latest issue of English Today

Place-names are more than just names of places on a map or more often than not, in a satnav. Their history is the story of settlement and of human movement, of social organization and human beings’ implantation in a landscape. Just as cathedrals, churches, pubs, telephone boxes, straight Roman roads and winding English ones tell us who lived where and when, so too do place-names. English place-names show many layers of history: Celtic elements overlaid with Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, sometimes Latin components. All tell us something about who lived where. Yet in this linguistic mixture, one language is relatively – and surprisingly – absent: French, the language of the Norman Conquest, and of the elite of English society for a good part of the Middle Ages. William the Conqueror installed Frenchmen in leading positions in the church and in government; he issued laws in French, and Domesday Book (the land survey which found out who owned England and what the country produced) was compiled by Norman scribes. French became the language of law-courts, the royal court, literature, science (second to Latin), and remained for quite some time (at least 15o years after 1066) the language of the aristocracy, for whom in most cases Normandy was still their real home. Yet place-names remained intact as (mostly) Anglo-Saxon. In part, this is because places often do keep their names through thick and thin – all over Europe there are pre-Roman names, some of them traceable to Indo-European. Probably it was also easier just to carry on with the names already in use. At the same time, French is not as absent as has sometimes been concluded in the few studies published so far of this aspect of English place-names.

This study looked at the first volumes of a new compilation of all the place-names in England in alphabetical order, and at everything from two counties (Cumberland and Westmorland, most of modern Cumbria). Cumbria is not a region especially densely settled by the Normans yet there are quite a few place-names of obviously French origin there. Intriguingly, too, field-names are quite often French too. Fields are very “local” indeed (the name for a field cannot have had any significance at all outside the immediate locality) and it is quite a surprise to find that French is used for their names. Does this maybe mean that it was in wider spoken use than we usually think? That is hard to prove. What id does show is that the French of the Norman invaders was more widely known in the remoter parts of the English countryside than most people have so far allowed for. That may go some way to explaining why there are French elements in many English dialects; but that is another story.

Access the full article ‘Why are there so few French place-names in England?’ here 

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