The Middle Ages

Today I read about the Middle Ages (to ca. 1485) in the Norton Anthology of British Literature.

Points of note…

  • Roughly from the collapse of the Roman Empire until the Renaissance and Reformation
  • Period was one of enormous historical, social, and linguistic change
  • Old English, Early Middle English, later Middle English
  • Old English has strong kinship to Germanic languages; and its literature with Germanic literature
  • Norman conquest (1066) added vast number of French loan words to the English vocabulary
  • Awareness of and pride in uniquely English literature not exist before the late 14th c
  • Chaucer (c. 1400) decided to emulate French and Italian poetry in his own vernacular***
  • Caxton moveable type printing in 1476
  • Early 14th c commercial book-making enterprises came into being (particularly in London), and market widened to include wealthy urbanites
  • Period divided into 3 sections: Anglo-Saxon Lit, Anglo-Norman Lit, and Middle English Lit in the 14th and 15th c
  • 1st to 5th c Britannia after Celtic-speaking Britons (province of Roman Empire)
  • ca. 450 Anglo-Saxon conquest: 5th c Romans leave and Germanic tribes fight for occupation lasts a few decades
  • English derives from Germanic tribe Angles (also the Saxons and the Jutes)
  • Anglo-Saxons were pagans (Christianity only survived in remote regions)
  • 597: St. Augustine arrives in Kent; beginning of conversion to Christianity
  • No books before Christianity
  • Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completeted 731
  • by 800, English culture richly developed
  • 9th c invasion of Danes, inspires 10th c The Battle of Maldon, the last of the Old English heroic poems
  • Formal and dignified speech of Old English poetry was far from everyday language of Anglo-Saxons, so enormous changes in English language were concealed during this time

Old English Poetry

  • Anglo-Saxon tradition of oral poetry, but often elegiac
  • Bulk deals with religious subjects since literacy was mainly restricted to servants of the church
  • Most of Old English Poetry is contained in just four manuscripts
  • Germanic heroic poetry performed orally in alliterative verse (The Battle of Maldon)
  • World shares many characteristics with heroic world described by Homer
  • Remote from Christian world of Anglo-Saxon England
  • Beowulf poet looks back on that ancient world with admiration for the courage of which it was capable and at the same time with elegiac sympathy for its inevitable doom.***
  • Dream of the Rood, the Cross speaks of Christ as “the young hero, … strong and stouthearted”
  • Cædmon‘s Hymn the creation of heaven and earth is seen as a mighty deed
  • The Wanderer, The Wife’s Lament
  • Romantic love appears hardly at all
  • Synecdoche and metonymy are common figures of speech; kenning – when compound of two words is used in place of another (e.g., when sea becomes “whale-road”); poetic riddles
  • Frequent use of parallel and appositive expressions, known as variation, gives the verse a highly structured and musical quality, in order to show off the special vocab and compounds
  • Overall effect of the language is to formalize and elevate speech
  • Grim irony (e.g., “battle-play,” and litotes – ironic understatement); more than a figure of thought, irony is a mode of perception (e.g., Ubi sunt?)


  • Normans took possession of England after Battle of Hastings in 1066; descendants of Germanic tribes who had seized part of Northern France in 10th c and adopted French language of the land and Christian religion
  • Four languages coexisted in Anglo-Norman England:

> Latin (as it had been for Bede) remained international language of learning, and lingua franca

> French: ruling class/aristocracy

> English: daily life and commoners/servants

> Celtic language groups were spoken in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany

  • The Play of Adam – first medieval drama in vernacular; elaborate stage directions in Latin and realistic dialogue in the Anglo-Norman dialect of French produced in England in 12th c
  • Aristocracy attracted to oral Celtic legends and tales → Breton lays (e.g., Lanval by Marie de France)
  • Romance was principal narrative genre for late medieval readers (the word roman  was initially applied in French to a work written in the French vernacular)
  • Not all writing in Early Middle English depends on French sources or intermediaries (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – witness of language changes and Norman rule from English perspective)
  • Body of religious prose aimed at women (e.g., Holy Maidenhead – marriage from point of view of wife not husband)
  • By 1200 both poetry and prose were being written for sophisticated and well-educated readers whose primary language was English
  • By 1360s the linguistic, political, and cultural climate had been prepared for the flowing Middle English literature


The 14th Century

  • 1348 first and most virulent epidemic of the bubonic plague  (Boccaccio introduces the Decameron with a description of its ravages)
  • Internal English upheaval but international trade and influence of merchant class grew
  • English Parliament became institution with major political force
  • The Crown (Edward III) involved in country’s economic affairs leads to administrators from a newly educated laity (not from the clergy; e.g., Chaucer)
  • A few poets and intellectuals achieved status and respect formerly accorded only to the ancients: Dante (1265-1321), Francis Petrarch (1304-1374), Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375)
  • Geoffrey Chaucer‘s Clerk’s Tale is based on Latin version Petrarch made from the last tale in Decameron (many additional examples of the above authors’ influence on Chaucer, who never attained their status during his lifetime)
  • William LanglandPiers Plowman – presents the most clear-sighted vision of social and religious issues of his day
  • “Alliterative Revival” – final flowering in late 14th c of verse form that goes back to Anglo-Saxon England (held out longest in west [where Langland was from] and north)
  • John Gower, wrote in French and Latin, but last work Confessio Amantis (1390) written in English octosyllabic couplets
  • Anonymous poet who wrote four poems, Cleanness and Patience (biblical narratives in alliterative verse), Pearl, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (finest of all English romances; )
> References in first and last stanzas to “Brutus books,” the foundation stories that trace the origins of Rome and Britain back to the destruction of Troy
> no fixed number or pattern of stresses like classical alliterative measure
> Each stanza closes with five short lines rhyming a b a b (a1-one stress long line bob, b1, a2, b2, a3 – all three-stress short lines wheel)
  • Julian of Norwich, first known woman writer in English vernacular, participates in Continental tradition of visionary writings, often by women

The 15th Century

  • 1399 Henry Bolingbroke (duke of Lancaster) deposes cousin Richard II to become Henry IV and passes crown on to Henry V
  • Battle of Agincourt (1415) last decisive victory over the French by Henry V
  • Henry V dies prematurely in 1422, leaving England exposed to civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses (red rose – emblem of house of Lancaster; white rose – house of York) that ended in 1485 when Henry Tudor defeated Richard III to become Henry VI
  • John Lydgate, The Fall of Princes – illustrates late medieval idea of tragedy (emperors, kings etc enjoy power and fortune only to be cast down in misery), imitator of Chaucer
  • Thomas Hoccleve
  • Greater surveillance of religious works under Lancastrian authorities  (1409 series of measures designed to survey and censor theology in English)
  • Margery Kempe (most remarkable of writers who produced religious works in the vernacular at this time), The Book of Margery Kempe
  • Mystery plays – sequence or “cycle” of plays based on the Bible and produced by the city guilds, the organizations representing the various trades and crafts
  • Morality plays – personified vices and virtues struggle for the soul of “Mankind” or “Everyman,” performed by professional players and precursors of the professional theater in the reign of Elizabeth I
  • Robert Henryson (best of Chaucer imitators), The Testament of Cresseid, a continuation of Troilus and Criseyde
  • Sir Thomas Malory (d. 1471) worked on Englishing series of Arthurian romances translated from French
  • Manuscript of Malory’s works fell into Caxton’s hands who divided the tales into chapters and books of a single long work and gave it the title Morte Darthur
  • Caxton also printed a number of Chaucer’s works, Confessio Amantis, etc.
  • The new technology of moveable type made the production of literature a business and books more easily accessible to a new class of readers and also made possible the bitter political and doctrinal disputes that, in the 16th c were waged in print as well as on the field of battle

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