Period Introduction Overview

The Middle Ages

  • The Middle Ages is a vast literary time period. It stretches from the collapse of the Roman Empire in Britain (ca. 450) to the beginning of the Renaissance (ca. 1485).
  • The period is subdivided into three parts: Anglo-Saxon literature, Anglo-Norman literature, and Middle English literature.
  • The word "medieval" comes from the Latin medium(middle) and aevum(age).
  • There are two trends in scholarship concerning the Middle Ages: some scholars view the Middle Ages as the beginning of ideas that continued developing well into the sixteenth century; others feel the Middle Ages were "created" by sixteenth-century writers who wanted to emphasize the originality of their contributions to literary culture.
  • Old English was spoken by the Germanic invaders of Britain; Old French or Anglo-Norman was spoken in Britain after the Norman Conquest of 1066; and Middle English, which appeared in the twelfth century, displaced French as Britain's official language by the end of the fourteenth century.
  • Monasteries and other religious houses were the major producers of books until they were dissolved by King Henry VIII in the 1530s (at which point the king assured the nobility's loyalty to himself by giving them much of the former monastic houses' lands and assets); commercial book-making enterprises began around the fourteenth century.
  • Religious houses were the major consumers of books during the Middle Ages. Nobles began purchasing and commissioning books during the Anglo-Norman period; later, in the fourteenth century, wealthy urbanites also entered the book market.

Anglo-Saxon Literature

  • The Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes were the three related Germanic tribes who invaded the Roman province Britannia (England) around the year 450, after the Romans withdrew.
  • The name "English" derives from the Angles.
  • As the Germanic tribes invaded,  native Britons withdrew from England to Wales, where the modern-day version of their language is still spoken.
  • The widespread adoption of Christianity in the seventh century had an effect on literacy, as laws, histories, and ecclesiastic writings were propagated by the church.
  • The Anglo-Saxons were invaded in turn by the Danes in the ninth century.
  • Anglo-Saxons had a tradition of oral poetry, but only circumstantial evidence of this tradition remains in manuscripts―most remaining Old English poetry is contained in just four manuscripts.
  • Admiration for and performance of Germanic heroic poetry continued into the Christian era.
  • Values of Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry include: 1) kinship relations rather than geography form the idea of a nation; 2) generosity is expected on the part of the lord (from Old English words meaning ‘protector' and ‘loaf'), who leads men in war and rewards them with a share of the booty; 3) on the part of the lord's men, what is valued is loyalty until the lord's death, and revenge killing (or eternal shame if vengeance is not pursued) after it.
  • Old English poetry is often elegaic. It often combines Christian texts with Germanic heroic values.
  • Old English poetry uses a special, formal poetic vocabulary, including devices like synecdoche, metonymy, and kenning (a two-word compound in place of a more straightforward noun; e.g., "life-house" for "body"), and frequently employs irony.

Anglo-Norman Literature

  • The Normans (a contraction of "Norsemen") took possession of England in 1066. The ruling class in England during this period spoke Old French.
  • Four main languages circulated in England during the Anglo-Norman period: Old French or Anglo-Norman; Latin (the language of clerics and the learned); Old English; and different branches of the Celtic language group.
  • Anglo-Norman aristocrats loved the old Celtic oral tales sung by Breton storytellers. These tales were called Breton "lays."
  • Breton lays were developed by writers like Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes into the form known as "romance." Romance was the main narrative genre for late medieval readers.
  • A chivalric romance (from the word "roman" meaning a work in the French vernacular tongue) focuses on knightly adventures (including ethical and spiritual quests), knightly love for and courtesy toward ladies, and the display of martial prowess against powerful, sometimes supernatural foes.
  • The most famous example of knightly chivalry was the legendary court of King Arthur.
  • Romances, in which a knight must prove his worthiness through bravery and noble deeds, can reflect the social aspirations of members of the lower nobility to rise socially.
  • French sources and writers were influential; however, works like theAnglo-Saxon Chronicleand Early Middle English religious prose texts for women such asAncrene Wisseshow the continued development of the English language during this period.

Middle English Literature in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries

  • English gained ground gradually as Britain's main language. By 1200, poetry and prose were being written in English (not just French) for educated readers, and many readers were French-English bilingual. By the end of the thirteenth century, merchant-class and noble children learned French as their second language.
  • In 1348, the bubonic plague, or Black Death, destroyed one-quarter to one-third of the population of Europe.
  • The scarcity of laborers following the plague gave laborers some power and possibility of social mobility. The Lollards (from "lollers," a slang word for unemployed transients), were one such group; they were the followers of social reformer John Wycliffe.
  • William Langland's poemPiers Plowmaninvestigates the social potential of this moment. Langland's poem is part of the "Alliterative Revival," a fourteenth-century style of poetry-writing that uses earlier Anglo-Saxon versification practices.
  • The fourteenth century saw the expansion of the merchant class and international trade, trends visible in Geoffrey Chaucer's career as a civil servant and in his portrait of the Merchant inThe Canterbury Tales.
  • A new canon of literary giants comparable to the ancients in status emerged in the fourteenth century: these included Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch.
  • While Chaucer and Langland's works exist in several copies, the work of the poet who wroteSir Gawain and the Green Knight(an Arthurian romance) and three other poems, exists only in a single copy.
  • Christian visionary writings, such as Julian of Norwich's "Showings," formed another important literary trend in the fourteenth century.
  • The fifteenth century saw the production of mystery plays, or cycles of plays that dramatized Bible stories, by city guilds, which were organizations representing trades.
  • The morality play, in which personified virtues and vices struggle for man's soul, was also popular in the fifteenth century. Productions of morality plays by professional players served as the forerunner of early modern professional theater of Elizabeth I.
  • Sir Thomas Malory's fifteenth-century English translation and retelling of thirteenth-century French romances about King Arthur,Morte Darthur, renewed the popularity of tales of the knights of the Round Table and their quest for the Holy Grail.
  • In 1476, William Caxton introduced moveable type to England, thereby drastically increasing the speed at which books could be made in multiple copy and dispersed to readers, as well as decreasing their cost of production. One of Caxton's first successes was a print edition of Malory'sMorte Darthur.

Medieval English

  • Old English, which has an almost entirely Germanic vocabulary, is a heavily inflected language. Its words change form to indicate changes in function, such as person, number, tense, case, mood, and so forth.
  • The introduction in the anthology gives detailed rules for pronouncing Middle English: in general, sound aloud all consonants except h; sound aloud the final "e"; sound double vowels as long; and pronounce short vowels as in modern English and long vowels as in modern European languages other than English.

Old and Middle English Prosody

  • The verse form of all Old English poetry is the same: the verse unit is the single line. Rhyme is not often used to link lines in Old English.
  • Alliteration, or beginning several words with the same sound, is the organizing principle of Old English poetry.
  • A consonant alliterates with its match or with another consonant that makes the same sound; a vowel alliterates with any other vowel.
  • An Old English alliterative line contains four principal stresses, and is divided by a caesura (a pause) into two half-lines, each containing two stresses. At least one (and sometimes both) of the stressed words in the first half-line begins with the same sound as the first stressed word of the second half-line. The last stressed word often is non-alliterative.
  • Middle English verse can be alliterative (as above, though sometimes increasing the number of alliterative or stressed words); or, influenced by Old French, it can be in the form of alternately stressed rhyming verse lines.
  • Chaucer's Canterbury Talesare mainly in rhymed couplets, with five-stress lines.