Middle English literature(c. 1066–1500)

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the written form of the Anglo-Saxon language became less common. Under the influence of the new aristocracy, French became the standard language of courts, parliament, and polite society. As the invaders integrated, their language and literature mingled with that of the natives, and the Norman dialects of the ruling classes became Anglo-Norman. From then until the 12th century Anglo-Saxon underwent a gradual transition into Middle English. Political power was no longer in English hands so that the West Saxon literary language had no more influence than any other dialect and Middle English literature was written in the many dialects that corresponded to the region, history, culture, and background of individual writers.

In this period, religious literature continued to enjoy popularity and Hagiographies were written, adapted and translated: for example, The Life of Saint Audrey. At the end of the 12th century, Layamon in Brut adapted the Norman-French of Wace to produce the first English-language work to present the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It was also the first historiography written in English since the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Middle English Bible translations, notably Wycliffe’s Bible, helped to establish English as a literary language. Wycliffe’s Bible is the name now given to a group of Bible translations into Middle English, that were made under the direction of, or at the instigation of, John Wycliffe. They appeared between about 1382 and 1395. These Bible translations were the chief inspiration and cause of the Lollard movement, a pre-Reformation movement that rejected many of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

Another literary genre, that of Romances, appears in English from the 13th century, with King Horn and Havelock the Dane, based on Anglo-Norman originals such as the “Romance of Horn” (c. 1170), but it was in the 14th century that major writers in English first appeared. These were William Langland, Geoffrey Chaucer and the so-called Pearl Poet, whose most famous work is “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”.Langland’s “Piers Plowman” (c. 1360–87) or “Visio Willelmi de Petro Plowman” (William’s Vision of Piers Plowman) is a Middle English allegorical narrative poem, written in unrhymed alliterative verse.

“Sir Gawain” and the “Green Knight” is a late 14th-century Middle English alliterative romance. It is one of the better-known Arthurian stories of an established type known as the “beheading game”. Developing from Welsh, Irish and English tradition, “Sir Gawain” highlights the importance of honor and chivalry. Preserved in the same manuscript with “Sir Gawayne” were three other poems, now generally accepted as the work of the same author, including an intricate elegiac poem, “Pearl”. The English dialect of these poems from the Midlands is markedly different from that of the London-based Chaucer and, though influenced by French in the scenes at court in Sir Gawain, there are in the poems also many dialect words, often of Scandinavian origin, that belonged to northwest England.

Middle English lasted until the 1470s, when the Chancery Standard, a London-based form of English, became widespread and the printing press started to standardize the language. Chaucer is best known today for The Canterbury Tales. This is a collection of stories written in Middle English (mostly in verse although some are in prose), that are presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together from Southwark to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. Chaucer is a significant figure in the development of the legitimacy of the vernacular, Middle English, at a time when the dominant literary languages in England were still French and Latin.

At this time, literature in England was being written in various languages, including Latin, Norman-French, and English: the multilingual nature of the audience for literature in the 14th century is illustrated by the example of John Gower (c. 1330 – 1408). A contemporary of William Langland and a personal friend of Chaucer, Gower is remembered primarily for three major works: the Mirroir de L’OmmeVox Clamantis, and Confessio Amantis, three long poems written in Anglo-Norman, Latin and Middle English respectively, which are united by common moral and political themes.

Significant religious works were also created in the 14th century, including those of Julian of Norwich (c. 1342–1416) and Richard Rolle. Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love (about 1393) is believed to be the first published book written by a woman in the English language.A major work from the 15th century is “Le Morte d’Arthur” by Sir Thomas Malory, which was printed by Caxton in 1485.This is a compilation of some French and English Arthurian romances and was among the earliest books printed in England. It was popular and influential in the later revival of interest in the Arthurian legends.

Medieval Theatre

In the Middle Ages, drama in the vernacular languages of Europe may have emerged from enactments of the liturgy. Mystery plays were presented in the porches of cathedrals or by strolling players on feast days. Miracle and mystery plays, along with morality plays (or “interludes”), later evolved into more elaborate forms of drama, such as was seen on the Elizabethan stages. Another form of medieval theatre was the mummers’ plays, a form of early street theatre associated with the Morris dance, concentrating on themes such as Saint George and the Dragon and Robin Hood. These were folk tales re-telling old stories, and the actors traveled from town to town performing these for their audiences in return for money and hospitality.

Mystery plays and miracle plays are among the earliest formally developed plays in medieval Europe. Medieval mystery plays focused on the representation of Bible stories in churches as tableaux with accompanying the antiphonal song. They developed from the 10th to the 16th century, reaching the height of their popularity in the 15th century before being rendered obsolete by the rise of professional theatre.

There are four complete or nearly complete extant English biblical collections of plays from the late medieval period. The complete one is the York cycle of 48 pageants. They were performed in the city of York, from the middle of the 14th century until 1569. Besides the Middle English drama, there are three surviving plays in Cornish known as the Ordinalia.

Having grown out of the religiously based mystery plays of the Middle Ages, the morality play is a genre of medieval and early Tudor theatrical entertainment, which represented a shift towards a more secular base for European theatre. Morality plays are a type of allegory in which the protagonist is met by personifications of various moral attributes who try to prompt him to choose a godly life over one of evil. The plays were most popular in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries.The Somonyng of Everyman (The Summoning of Everyman) (c. 1509 – 1519), usually referred to simply as Everyman, is a late 15th-century English morality play. Like John Bunyan’s allegory Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), Everyman examines the question of Christian salvation through the use of allegorical characters.

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