Bayeaux Tapestry

Yes in the Grade 7 classroom it is ‘1066 and all that’…I want to add- ‘and all that’ this implied for the English language! Over the past two days we have returned to words of Old English origin.

We watched Part 2 Conquest from Simon Schama’s A History of Britain. Our investigation into this aspect of the conquest of England is based around considerations of power and control. In succinct, vivid imagery, Schama invites viewers to picture themselves in this battle and this is what students were asked to imagine. For 10 minutes they wrote retelling the scene from the perspective of an Anglo Saxon huscarl, thane / thegn, or  fyrd, to develop a one paragraph piece of narrative writing around this battle. We wrote for 8-10 minutes and shared the writing.  Students were then asked to revise ensuring that every word used was of OE roots!! Panic!

One aspect I wanted students to experience was the language change that occurred after the Norman conquest. I wanted students to understand that the users of Old English were linguistically creative, new words being formed through compounding and derivation and that words of Old English are at the heart of our everyday speech. Students already have a slight feel for words of OE from earlier exercises( see post April 2: 1066 Of Winds War and Words). Listen to their struggles to find words of OE roots to replace Latinate words in their texts:


So why do this?

Apart from the direct link to our history unit, it is  an interesting exercise that forces a nimbleness of mind. Sudents have to think around the words and phrasing, switch ways of stating something, consider options and select the words that best express their intention. Some students claimed they had loved their original choice- somewhat doubtful as they had only written for 8 minutes. It’s hard to become so wedded to a particular phrasing in that time! More likely that they were not in love with the idea of pushing themselves to consider and reconsider every word! This exercise encouraged revision with a focus on word choice. The paragraphs were not so lengthy as to make this task daunting but complex enough for them to sift through roots and to develop a feel for the directness and sturdiness of Old English. I want students to experience the differences between using a word or a phrase expressed in words rooted in OE as opposed to Latinate words.

Before sharing their writing we read and then viewed a short video clip (thanks Old Grouch) of Anglo Saxon re- enactors led by our trusty guide Ælsige, who in the OE equivalent of a level 1 basal reader, welcomed us, the viewers, to his house, wife, brother; showed us the door, the floor, then the trees, sky and sun!  Amusing but students noted the different letters and were able to identify some words in the OE text before viewing and ultimately comprehending what was said.

Students tightened their writing.They gave suggestions when others became blocked and could not avoid a Latinate word. They discovered many function words are Old English but not ‘them, their and they’- some interesting dodges around this here! They discovered that just because a word has Old English roots does not necessarily mean that the current meaning was the same in the past. We saw this when Luciana used ‘blades’ to refer to swords.  In Old English it only referred to blades of grass and did not acquire the sense of being applied to swords until the 14th century! Pretty too needed to be changed in Oluwadara’s writing. In Old English prættig  meant ‘cunning’, ‘skillful,’’ artful’,’ wily’,’ astute ‘ later shifting to’ fine’ and ‘beautiful’ but in a diminished, more superficial way. However,by the late 1500s it had become ‘considerable’ and used as a qualifier of adjectives and adverbs since 156os!

Watch this group sum up their challenges:



This is a simple exercise but with so much potential for exploring clarity of speech, revision, development of a poetic tone through compounding, a splash of kennings ( not overdone!) and a lot of experience in hunting down the roots of words  and discovering meaning shifts- pejoration, narrowing or broadening.

Listen to Luciana reading her writing using words of OE roots. The moment before the battle:

Here is her version 1:

‘As I looked down the hill upon the enormous army of Normans, I almost shook with fear. I heard the sharpening of their blades, and it seemed as if their intent faces were narrowing in on me. I was already exhausted, from walking down across our noble country from the north, away from our victory at the battle of Stamford bridge. I was feeling a little confidence though, as I had already fought, and I had not lost my life, but that small amount was draining very quickly out of my body each time I glanced at the normans. I saw their horses, stamping with anxiety, and remembered, the horse at my farm and my mother. I remember her weeping as I walked off down the path, along with the men of my village, going off to war. I had comforted her, saying that everything would be fine, and that I would be back before she knew it. Now I wasn’t so sure.’

Listen to version two:

As I look down the hill on the mighty crowd of the Normans I almost shake with fear. I hear the sharpening of the Norman’s life-slayers, gleaming in the sun of the morn, and it looks as though those watchful eyes are narrowing in on me. I am worn from the walk along our great kingdom from the north, away from our win at the bloodbath of Stamford Bridge. I have fought before, and have not lost my life, so a small crumb of boldness is shining through, but that is draining quickly from body, each time I look at the Normans. I see the horses, restlessly holding back, and think of my horse at home, our house and my mother. I think of her weeping whilst I had walked off along the path, with the men of my small town, going towards the war, not knowing what was to come. I had told her that everything would be all right, and that I would be back before she knew it. Now I do not know I believe that.

I enjoyed Luciana’s use of ‘crumb’. Read when the ‘b’ appeared here at the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Last night , as I read Henry Htching’s (2008)  The Secret Life of Words, I stumbled upon this sentence which expresses the essence of what I hope students experience when investigating words: ‘Studying language enables an archeology of human experience: words contain the fossils of past dreams and traumas’ and again a paragraph on:’Words are witnesses. To quote George Steiner,”When using a word we wake into resonance … it’s entire previous history.'(10)

The title of this blog comes from the classic parody on history text books,the classic Sellar and Yeatman’s (1930) ‘1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates’ . Read excerpts here.