Episode 120: The End of the World

In the mid-1300s, most of Europe was devastated by a massive plague known today as the Black Death. The disease killed about one-third of the population of England, and an even higher percentage of clerics and teachers who were trained in Latin and French. These disruptions permitted a younger generation who only spoke English to fill those positions. As a result, English replaced French in the grammar schools of England, and the stage was set for a revival of English learning and literature over the following decades.


37 thoughts on “Episode 120: The End of the World

  1. Happy New Year and thanks for another thought-provoking episode.

    I was very interested in your comments about the effect of the Black Death on the decline of Feudalism and the decline of the French/Latin domination. When I learned History at school in England in the 1960s it was taught in a very fragmented way so that we learned how the Black Death started, how it progressed and how it ended but not its ramifications and how it affected other events that were going on at the same time so it never occurred to us that the Hundred Years War was happening at the same time and the Peasants’ Revolt occurred a generation later when the English-speaking clerics, like John Ball and John Wyclif had come to maturity.

    Incidentally have you ever read “1066 and All That” by WC Sellar & RJ Yeatman. apart from being very amusing it gives an interesting insight into how English History was presented to English schoolchildren.

    • Thanks for the comments. One of the things I try to do in the podcast is to illustrate how seemingly unrelated events are actually connected. As I move forward, I will continue that approach – even though there will be a lot of balls to juggle when I get to the split within English with the creation of the British Empire. And I am familiar with the book you mentioned, but I haven’t read it.

  2. You said of the word “disease” that it was “borrowed from Latin via French”. But was this any different from other borrowings? I mean, most words that came into English from French had evolved from Vulgar Latin? I suppose there are exceptions, such as Germanic words that came to English via French, like belfry, bivouac, and boulevard (fr.wiktionary has a nice list). And I imagine there are Latin words that came into French in the middle ages directly, then hopped over to English like bubonic fleas, though I don’t know any examples off the top of my head. By the way “disease” is one of those words that has since disappeared from French, replaced by “maladie”.

    • There were quite a few Frankish words and even a few Celtic words that passed through French into English. But I didn’t really mean to imply anything special by saying that the word was “borrowed from Latin via French.” I am at the point where I am looking for new ways of expressing the same basic idea that a lot of words were borrowed from French and Latin.

  3. When my wife and I were dating I told her over text “…we don’t end our sentences in prepositions…”.

    She replied, “Okay, where you at, butthead?” (we’ll just go with ‘butthead’ here)

  4. Kevin, I happened to be on a cycle ride at Laxton (Nottinghamshire – England midlands)when I heard your comments about priest Etc dieing through the Black Death so stoppped at St Michael the Archangels Church. Inside the list of vicars relavent to your podcast, are December Adam W 1348 – August 1349 then someone at 1352 and gap till 1395. Would this co-incide with your thread of the priesthood being affected by the plague.

    • That was such a neat thing to do at the spur of the moment. It’s hard to say for certain, but it is possible that the Black Death caused vacancies in the position or perhaps the Church simply stopped having services in the aftermath of the plague. There were recurrences of the plague in the second half of the century, but none were as severe as that original outbreak from 1348-51.

  5. I keep hearing “this loan word was borrowed into English” from French. Let’s hope they don’t ask for them back!

    • Glad you’re enjoying the series. We’re definitely getting close to Chaucer. In fact, he’ll make a brief appearance in the next episode.

  6. I was having a lively discussion about the English language with my Swiss friends yesterday, when it dawned on me that I haven’t listened to your podcast in a long, long time. I thought I’d take a look at where you were up to in the series and to my amazement your latest episode is set in the 1300s, the time I’ve jsut read about in Ken Follett’s World Without End! Perhaps this is a sign I should pick up this podcast again.

    • The book sounds like a fascinating read. I’ll have to check it out when I have some time to read a good fiction book again (which will probably be when I am finished with the podcast).

  7. I am thoroughly enjoying this podcast, and this episode in particular has prompted several discussions with the teenager on topics ranging from hunting (ew, marmots?), to virulence and vaccines. Keep up the good work!

  8. While the impact of the Black Death is undoubtedly important, I’m sorry to say that I found this episode exceptionally repetitive (even allowing for your generally discursive style which tends to make episodes lengthy).

    An awful lot of time was also spent on details of the disease and how it spread that had no connection to language. But frustration really set in for me when the narrative looped over the same points about the particular effect on the clergy and on education, about half an hour after those points had been raised the first time, and often really making the same point in 2 or 3 different ways.

    I generally enjoy the podcast, but I suggest you could make faster progress through the story of English if you spent a bit more time organising your narrative before you record. Your original plan was 100 episodes, and while I don’t know if that was ever going to be achieved given all the things you want to say, there are definitely episodes along the way that could have fitted in a lot more content if you didn’t say the SAME thing a large number of times. This was one of those episodes.

    • Hi Trevor. Thanks for the feedback. I don’t mind a little constructive criticism. However, a few of your points relate to certain intentional choices I have made in presenting the material, so I wanted to take a moment to respond.

      First, I realize that the episodes may seem repetitive at times, but I can assure you that I spend a great deal of time organizing the structure of each episode. The material is never presented randomly. I like to introduce the episode with a general summary of the discussion that I am going to present, then I try to develop that material over the course of the episode, and then I often summarize the theme at the end. I like to use that approach because it makes the episode easier to follow, even if it may seem a little repetitive at times. At the end of an episode, I would rather have a listener feel that the episode was repetitive that have them feel lost and unclear what the point of the episode was.

      With respect to the pace of the podcast, it is true that I have abandoned any notion of trying to tell the story in a fixed number of episodes. From the beginning, I have taken an unconventional approach to the history of English. I have elected to focus on historical events and explore how they impacted the English language. In one of the earliest episodes I explained that this was ultimately a history podcast, and that is why I have chosen to list the podcast as a ‘history’ podcast on most podcast directories. You will notice that it is never listed as a ‘language’ podcast. If you want a more conventional version of the history of English, I recommend “The Adventure of English,” by Melvyn Bragg. It is an excellent series that provides a more streamlined version of events. It is available as a book, audiobook, and a video series (which I think is available on YouTube). But if you want an exploration of the historical events that shaped the development of the language, then check back here from time to time for more episodes – for as long as it takes me to tell the story. 😉

      • Wow!

        Trevor M, I think your comment is in poor taste. You seem like the type of guy who would go to a free concert and then complain that you don’t like the rendition played by the musicians. If you felt the need to complain about the podcast, you could have sent an email.

        If you can’t tell that Kevin’s episodes are clearly the result of careful preparation, then I think you are clueless. I can give you a list of poorly organized, poorly written, and poorly delivered podcast, and History of English is at the extreme opposite of that list. Actually, I won’t give you that list as that would be in poor taste.

        Of the fifteen or twenty history podcasts that I either listen to or have tried, the History of English is in a select group of A+ podcasts.

        Kevin, I would have recommended that you not waste time or emotional energy on responding to Trevor’s tacky comments.

        Between Kevin, Mike Duncan, Robin Pierson, David Crowther (History of England), Peter Adamson (History of Philosophy), Doug Metzger (History and Literature), Garry Stevens (History in the Bible), and others, my understanding and appreciation of Western history and Western intellectual history have been improved immensely and my life more fulfilling. So to Kevin and his co-podcasters, thank you for your efforts!

        • Spencer, having listened to 120 episodes, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to say when I think one of them is not up to standard.

          • Im inclined to agree with Trevor. Yes it was interesting medical history but with little reference to the linguistics. I too thought it was more repetitive than usual. Surely we are entitled to express our opinions about this excellent podcast even when those opinions are critical?

          • Trevor and Spencer, perhaps I’m ‘splitting the baby’ but I see value in both viewpoints. I agree with Trevor that it’s reasonable to let Kevin know if you believe that an episode isn’t up to the high bar he set. However, I agree with Spencer that it’s inappropriate to complain publicly about a free podcast – if one has a constructive criticism, one should submit it privately.

            I thoroughly enjoyed the episode.

        • And the idea that if something is free then it must be immune from criticism is just silly. Do you really think money is the only driving force, that one has to pay for something before one can have an opinion about it?

          That’s a transactional view of the world that I simply reject. For one thing it leads to thinking that the opinion of rich people is more important, the kind of thinking that leads to horrible mess of politics in countries like the USA.

      • Regarding repetition, Aristotle said: “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”

        As for the pace, it’s perfect. If anything, I find the information delivery extremely dense. I listen to every episode at least twice, often in succession, because I miss things if I’m not 100% focused. Even walking can be too distracting 🙂

        As for it being a history podcast, vs. a language podcast … Kevin, rest assured that that message is getting out loud and clear from the podcast itself.

        If only history were taught this way in high school.

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  10. Thank you for another amazing episode. Really appreciate your holistic approach to history – these things can’t be studied or learned in isolation from one another.

    This episode was especially interesting, as I happen to be listening to this during COVID-19.

    • Hi Kelly. I’m glad you’re enjoying the podcast. I take a very broad approach to history. I would hope that there are listeners who enjoy the podcast even if they aren’t very interested in the language itself.

  11. Just wanted to add my comment that I didn’t find it repetitive at all. And it was especially interesting in the spring of 2020. I am enjoying the history as much as the linguistics.

    Some words are borrowed directly from Latin and others through French. An interesting pair is fragile and frail, the first directly from Latin I assume, and the second from French, although they are clearly cognate. What is interesting is that French has a similar pair fragile/frele, with similar meanings.

  12. Thank you for this podcast. I am very interested in the history and it’s impact on language. I have no knowledge of Linguistics but as a volunteer tutor of English for migrants learning English and your explanations of the more bizarre spelling and pronunciation of English have been both illuminating and very useful.
    Thank you for this wonderful series.

  13. Do I recall you mentioning the name of the first book used to teach foreigners English? I believe it was written by a non-native English teacher and was terrible – sort of set the standard for future such books.

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  15. I keep coming back to this episode in light of our current situation with the COVID-19 pandemic. I sure hope this spells the end of modern feudalism where so many are serfs to big corporations.

  16. For a fictional account of this period, with a lot of linguistic interest too, I recommend James Meek’s To Calais, In Ordinary Time – stunning book

    • My bad. I was starting to say that in the 1960s there was a very popular TV show called The Beverly Hillbillies. The cast of the TV show used the term “victuals” pronounced “vittles” a lot. I’m pretty sure that that is why the term “vittles” has died out.

      I take zoom classes on various topics (Shakespeare, Chaucer, Beowulf, etc.). Anyway, before one meeting two guys were pondering how to pronounce “victuals.” If I had had a chance to respond, I would have said to pronounce it “vittles.” But, I’m guessing they would have been reluctant to actually do so for fear of being viewed as “hicks.”

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