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4 Key Works of Medieval English Literature

4 Key Works of Medieval English Literature

England’s medieval period is often viewed as a time of bloodshed, religious fervour, and relative barbarism; a somber ‘dark age’ awaiting the explosion of arts and culture that was the Renaissance.

Hundreds of years before Shakespeare arrived on the scene however, a rich culture of literary tradition had long been established in England, with epic deeds of heroism, romantic tales of chivalry and bawdy banter abound.

These 4 exceptional works of Medieval English literature not only enthralled their contemporary audiences, but have continued to do so up to the modern day, inspiring retellings from generation to generation.

1. Beowulf by Unknown (700-1000AD)

‘O flower of warriors, beware of that trap.

Choose, dear Béowulf, the better part,

eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride.

For a brief while your strength is in bloom

but it fades quickly;
***
Your piercing eye

will dim and darken; and death will arrive,

dear warrior, to sweep you away.’

Beowulf, written between 700 and 1,000 AD by an unknown author, is an Old English epic poem renowned as one of the most important pieces of its time.

The story centres on Beowulf, a hero of pagan Scandinavia in the 6th century. His is called upon by the Danish king Hrothgar to defeat a fiendish monster named Grendel, who relentlessly attacks his mead hall in Heorot.

Beowulf embarks on his quest to Heorot, encountering not one but two vicious monsters in the form of Grendel and his mother. Mustering courage befitting an epic hero, Beowulf triumphs over evil and returns to his native home of Geat, in time becoming king.

Following 50 years of glorious rule, Beowulf’s bravery is again tested when a terrifying dragon lays waste to his beloved kingdom. Despite now being an aged warrior, Beowulf again embarks on this deadly quest, eventually fighting the beast at the poem’s climactic end. He is slain in the service of his subjects, whilst also managing to deliver the ‘deadly wound’ that kills the dragon – a true hero’s demise.

The first few lines of Beowulf in the Cotton MS Vitellius A XV manuscript, mostly written in the West Saxon dialect of Old English (Image Credit: British Library / Public Domain)

Beowulf is a tale of bravery, honour and adventure, with thrilling depictions of the supernatural and otherworldly as man’s ultimate enemy. The interesting intertwining of paganism and Christianity also reflects the melting pot of Anglo-Saxon religion that was emerging in the medieval period, with ideas of both God and the Bible appearing alongside pagan ideas of fame, heroism, and glorious death.

2. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Unknown (Late 14th century)

‘Great wonder of the knight

Folk had in hall, I ween,

Full fierce he was to sight,

And over all bright green’

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a late-14th century text written by an unknown author, widely known as ‘The Gawain Poet’, or ‘The Pearl Poet’ owing to another work titled Pearl.

The romantic tale features Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, who embarks on a quest to find the mysterious Green Knight. The Green Knight had offered a challenge to Arthur’s court, that anyone may step forth and strike him on the condition that he would return in a year and a day to return the blow. If the assailant survived they would keep his prized axe.

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Sir Gawain steps forth to accept the challenge, cutting off the knight’s head with one swift slash. The mysterious figure does not die however, and from his deathly lips reminds Gawain of his promise, bidding he meet him in the Green Chapel.

As the months pass, the young knight sets off in search of the mystical Green Chapel, yet on the way finds himself at the raucous court of a local lord who issues him 3 secret tests of honour. When he eventually tracks down the Green Knight, he is revealed to be none other than the lord of the castle, bewitched by sorceress Morgane le Fay to teach Gawain a lesson on morality.

It is overall a tale of chivalry, medieval questing and magical undoings, with a lingering encouragement of honesty and bravery. Written in a North West Midland dialect, many have pondered the origins of the Gawain Poet and his inspiration, with locations in the Peak District drawing comparison to sites in his fabled version of England. The atmospheric Lud’s Church is one such, believed by many to be the inspiration for the Green Chapel.

3. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1387-1400)

‘And specially from every shire’s end

Of England they to Canterbury wend,

The holy blessed martyr there to seek

Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak’

Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is one of the most well-known pieces of English literature to date, and has provided a valuable – and highly charming – look into medieval life since its conception. Written between 1387 and 1400, it takes the form of 24 stories all linked through the tellers’ shared pilgrimage journey to Canterbury Cathedral, with characters from all walks of life speaking on their experiences.

We hear from the likes of a knight and a cook, a monk and a physician, a prioress and a squire, who among others tell hearty tales in the hope of winning the agreed prize – a free meal at the Tabard Inn at Southwark upon their return to London.

The speakers provide a rich variety of views and opinions on medieval society and particularly religion, refreshingly questioning and even ridiculing the establishments of the day. Instead of focusing on one overarching theme, as was common in medieval literature, the personalities and stories of the individual characters take precedence, with bawdy tales from all walks of life heard. Even their pilgrimage is not the focal point!

At the time of Chaucer’s death in 1400 it remained unfinished, yet its popularity helped promote further work written in the English vernacular. As such, Chaucer is often named the ‘father of English literature’.

4. Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory (1485)

‘Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.’

Le Morte d’Arthur or ‘The Death of Arthur’, is a 15th century reworking of the folkloric tale of King Arthur written by Thomas Malory in 1485.

It was the first ‘complete’ story of the legendary king to be written, as Malory collated the various fragments of English and French work into a finished and spectacular piece. While mentions of Arthur had been around from the 9th century, Malory’s work has become the key source of information on Arthur’s life.

Le Morte d’Arthur follows the legendary king’s birth, rise to glory, and eventual death, as well as the adventures of his contemporaries at Camelot. Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere feature, as well as the infamous quest for the Holy Grail.

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The now infamous sword in the stone ‘Excalibur’ plays a role in the tale, alongside Merlin, the Lady of the Lake, and the Round Table, as readers are taken through the mythologised Britain long-aligned with Arthurian legend.

Interestingly, three motifs also run through the work – the affair of Lancelot and Guinevere, the familial blood feud of King Lot and King Pellinore, and the quest to find the Holy Grail. These have been suggested as the three pillars of Arthur’s downfall through ‘the failures in love, in loyalty, in religion’, inviting contemplation on both medieval beliefs and society and our own modern-day trials and tribulations.

Written in Middle English prose, Le Morte d’Arthur was reportedly penned during another of England’s turbulent eras – the Wars of the Roses. Malory was at the time in Newgate Prison, after changing his allegiance from York to Lancaster and attempting to overthrow Edward IV. So much for Arthurian honour and chivalry!


Most scholars associate the beginning of the medieval period with the collapse of the Roman empire, which occurred in 476. Scholars disagree about when the period ends, however. Some place it at the start of the 15th century (with the rise of the Renaissance Period), in 1453 (when Turkish forces captured Constantinople), or in 1492 (Christopher Columbus' first voyage to the Americas).

The majority of books from the middle ages were written in what is known as Middle English, though French and Latin were also used for law and the church, respectively. Spelling and grammar were inconsistent in these early writings, which can make them hard to read it wasn't until the invention of the printing press in 1410 that spelling began to be standardized.

The literate people of the time were likely in either government or the church. Books (and the parchment itself) were often made by monks, and it was a time- and labor-intensive process. Everything was done by hand, making books very expensive to produce. So, even if a medieval London merchant could read, a personal library of handmade books would have been out of his price range. However, as the middle class grew and literacy expanded in the later middle ages, people might have owned a book of hours (prayer book) produced by professional artisans and copiers.


Periods: Medieval

H ere you will find a general overview of the Medieval Period. Other Medieval pages cover Major Authors and style and prosody.

Reference Works:

    , 12 vols. (PR255 .M3)
  • Haskins, Charles Homer. The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century
  • Tuchman, Barbara. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century
  • Harris, Stephen and Bryon Grigsby. Misconceptions about the Middle Ages (UMass only)

Editions:

Medieval Literature (c. 350 – c. 1475)

The Medieval period runs from the end of Late Antiquity in the fourth century to the English Renaissance of the late fifteenth century.

The early portion of the Medieval period in England is dominated by Anglo-Saxons, whose language is incomprehensible to today's speakers of English. That early portion is known as the Old English period. (It is covered in a separate section of this website.) The Old English period came to an end with the Norman Invasion of 1066. Normans spoke a dialect of French later called Anglo-Norman.

Alongside Anglo-Norman, Old English developed into Middle English. Middle English is a distinct variety of English, influenced in large part by Anglo-Norman French. For example, Old English speakers did not distinguish between /f/ and /v/. Just like speakers of Modern German, OE speakers would use both sounds ([f] and [v]) for the letter <f>. "Aefre" was pronounced [ever]. But French speakers do distinguish these two sounds. (Vouz means "you" and fou means "crazy.") After the Conquest, English people had to distinguish between, for example, veal and feel. So, new sounds, new words, new syntax—all contribute to a significant change in the English language. And to a new literature.

The Invasion put French-speaking people at the highest levels of society. Families that ruled England also ruled and held land in France. William the Conquerer was also Duke of Normandy, and the English King continued to hold that office and its lands until the thirteenth century. Only a handful of Anglo-Saxon families remained in any postions of power. In England, French was the language of education and literature. It was not an obvious choice for Chaucer to write his Canterbury Tales in English. Consequently, the High Middle Ages in England were characterized culturally by their close relation to French and Italian arts. This will change in the late thirteenth century as England and France come to loggerheads.

Literary selections from various centuries will give you a very rough idea of the wide variety of literature circulating in Medieval England.

In the twelfth century,perhaps the most accomplished vernacular writer was an English woman named Marie de France. She wrote in Anglo-Norman. (We will read her in an English translation.) Marie was one of the main forces behind the stories of King Arthur and the Round Table. In France, Chretien de Troyes was writing Arthurian romances for Marie of Champagne. Other Anglo-Norman writers are described in our authors page.

The works of Aristotle and other Greeks became widely available in the twelfth century. Translated into Latin for the first time, they fueled a renaissance. Universities in Bologna, Padua, Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge took up the teaching of logic and science. Most reading was done by cloistered clerics or by French aristocracy. There was almost no social cachet in being an author or in owning books.

The thirteenth century marks the flowering of Latin literature in England. The reign of King John (1167–1216) is characterized in part by an increasingly deep cultural separation between France and England. Anti-papal attitudes (Oxford professor Robert Grosseteste called Pope Innocent IV the Antichrist) and a growing sense of nationalism helped to fuel native literary talent. English literature comes into its own. Still, very little survives, and most of it is in Latin.

The "preaching orders" of monks came into existence: the Dominicans and the Franciscans. Scholar A.G. Rigg says, "They formed a new kind of intellectual elite. Their evangelical fervour and commitment to academic training contributed to the rise of the English universities." Their squabbling and venal excesses do not become objects of widespread literary satire until the fourteenth century. In this century, they help to increase literacy and the stock of books in England.

During the fourteenth century English literature comes into its own. This is the century of John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, and William Langland. We also have a number of surviving vernacular romances such as Sir Orfeo, as well as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (We will read these in the original Middle English.)

The Battle of Bannockburn (1314) and the defeat of the English by the Glorious Scots is only one of many upheavals and revolutions during this tumultuous century. Other calamitous events include the Black Death (or Plague) in the middle of the century the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and the Hundred Years' War.

Perhaps the single most important development for our purposes is the wholesale replacement of the French language in government and law by the English language. Anti-French attitudes (due to the war, among other things) helped displace French from polite society and from literature. John Gower, Chaucer's friend, wrote one of his major poems in Latin, another in French, and a third in English.

1422 marks the death of Henry IV and a subtle shift from medieval to humanistic themes in literature. For our purposes, one of the interesting developments concerns the Mystery Plays. (Mysteries were unions or guilds.) These plays were performed in a number of towns and involved much of the working population. They retell the story of the Bible, sometimes humorously.

Another remarkable literary phenomena of the early fifteenth century is Scottish interest in Chaucer. Like today's "fan fiction," Scots authors copied Chaucer's style so well that for centuries some of their stories were thought to be Chaucer's own.

At the end of the century, a German silversmith named Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type. The printing revolution made books cheaper and more widely accessible. The first successful printer in England was William Caxton. He printed self-help books and romances, including the tales of King Arthur. He also printed a book on chess.


Major Developments

  • Shorter octasyllabic verse narratives, based on folklores, dealing with supernatural things.
  • Best known author of Lias is Marie de France who dedicated his poems to King Henry II.
  • Breton Lay- Anglicized term applied to a group of 14th-century poems written on the model of Lias. e.g. Sir Orfeo, the Lay of Launful and Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale.
  • In the 19th century, lay was used as a synonym for songs. e.g. Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) by Sir Walter Scott.

Medieval Romance

Jaen Bodel (in the 20th century) divides subject matter of medieval romance into three categories:

Matter of France

  • Deals with the activities of Charlemagne (768-814) one of the kings of the Franks.
  • Its tone is nearly that of heroic poems.
  • Chanson de Roland tells a story of a courageous fight against hopeless odds ending with the hero’s death.

Matter of Britain

  • Concerned with Arthurian stories.
  • Derived from French Arthurian legends.
  • Three important surviving romances in this category are Morte Arthure, Le Morte Arthure, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Matter of Rome the Great

It includes a miscellaneous collection of stories like the lives of Alexander, the siege of Troy, destruction of Jerusalem, Chaucer, Knight’s Tale.

Religious Literature

  • Devotional Works:Katherine Group-it includes lives of three virgin saints-Katherine, Margaret, and Juliana.
  • John Wyclif, along with his followers wrote the first complete translation of the Bible in English.

Verse Debate

The Owl and the Nightingale written around 1200 is the first example in English of verse debate. It is written in Octosyllable couplet. Later on, this technique is used by John Donne into His Coy Mistress.


10 Works of Anglo-Saxon Literature Everyone Should Read

What are the finest works of Anglo-Saxon literature? We’ve restricted our choices to works of literature written in Anglo-Saxon or Old English, so that rules out Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, which, as the title suggests, was written in Latin. But there’s a wealth of great literature written in Old English, as the following pick of ten of the best testifies (we hope).

For a good anthology of Anglo-Saxon literature in modern translation, we recommend The Anglo-Saxon World An Anthology (Oxford World’s Classics).

Here’s a riddle for you: what hangs down by the thigh of a man, under his cloak, yet is stiff and hard? When the man pulls up his robe, he puts the head of this hanging thing into that familiar hole of matching length which he has filled many times before. Got it? A key, of course! This is one of a number of riddles found in the Exeter Book, one of the jewels in the crown of Anglo-Saxon literature.

We discuss some more Anglo-Saxon riddles – and challenge you to solve them – in a separate post.

At just 53 lines, this is one of the shortest works of Anglo-Saxon literature included in this list. It’s a cry of despair and grief, told from the perspective of a wife whose husband has been exiled. The poem also features the rather useful Anglo-Saxon word uhtceare, which has been translated as ‘lying awake in the morning worrying’.

As we’ve discussed in our detailed summary of Beowulf, this poem is part of a rich literary narrative tradition that encompasses Tolkien’s The Hobbit, the story of St George and the dragon, and even Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’. It chronicles the hero’s exploits, notably his slaying of the monster Grendel – actually only the first of three monsters Beowulf has to vanquish.

Although it is celebrated nowadays as an important work of Anglo-Saxon – indeed, ‘English’ – literature, Beowulf was virtually unknown and forgotten about, amazingly, for nearly a thousand years. It was only rescued from obscurity in 1815, when an Icelandic-Danish scholar named Thorkelin printed an edition of the poem.

And although it is seen as the starting-point of great English literature – at many universities, it is still the earliest literary text studied as part of the literary canon – it is very different from other medieval poetry, such as that by Chaucer or Langland, who were writing many centuries later. It is set in Denmark, has a Swedish hero, and – when read in the original Anglo-Saxon – seems almost more German than ‘English’.

Perfect fireside reading, and an archetypal work of English literature, composed when the notion of ‘England’ itself was only just beginning to emerge.

4. Anonymous, ‘The Seafarer’.

This 124-line poem is often considered an elegy, since it appears to be spoken by an old sailor looking back on his life and preparing for death. He discusses the solitariness of a life on the waves, the cold, the danger, and the hardships. As such, the poem captures the bewitching fascination the sea holds for us, but also its darker, more unpredictable side. Variously viewed as a moral poem about how to face up to your own fate, a wholly religious poem, and as a great secular poem, ‘The Seafarer’ is a fine and accessible example of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Ezra Pound produced a loose translation of the poem in the early twentieth century, but we’ve linked to a parallel text version above, with the original Anglo-Saxon included on the left and a modern English translation on the right.

5. Anonymous, ‘The Wanderer’.

Like the riddles above, this poem was preserved thanks to the Exeter Book. It’s 115 lines long and written in alliterative verse, and like ‘The Seafarer’ is about a solitary man looking back on his past. In the poem, the man is referred to as eardstapa, an Anglo-Saxon word meaning literally ‘earth-stepper’, hence the title usually appended to the poem.

Perhaps the oldest poem written in English, Caedmon’s Hymn was composed in the 7 th century by a goatherd and takes the form of a short hymn in praise of God. It was Bede, or ‘the Venerable Bede’ as he is often known, who ensured the survival of Caedmon’s Hymn, when he jotted it down in Latin translation in one of his books. An anonymous scribe then added the Anglo-Saxon form of the hymn in the margins of Bede’s book.

As well as rescuing Caedmon’s Hymn from oblivion, Bede also wrote this very short poem on his deathbed – at least, reportedly. Whether he was actually the author of ‘Bede’s Death Song’ is difficult to say for certain, but this five-line lyric, about facing death and looking back on a life well lived, is a marvellous short example of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

One of the most important manuscripts in English history, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was created in the late 9 th century during the time of Alfred the Great, almost certainly at his command (the manuscript is thought to have been written in Wessex, where Alfred ruled). Actually, the Chronicle survives in several different manuscripts, a result of its having been distributed to various monasteries and then added to. Among other things, the Chronicle contains accounts of the two battles of 1066, Stamford Bridge and Hastings.

Another early work of Anglo-Saxon literature, ‘The Dream of the Rood’ is an early work of English Christian verse and an example of the dream poem, which would later become a staple of medieval verse thanks to the Pearl poet and William Langland. ‘Rood’ means ‘cross’ or ‘crucifix’, and part of this poem was inscribed on the 8 th -century Ruthwell Cross in Scotland it’s been speculated that the cross, and the poem, were used to convert people to Christianity.

The history of the poem is almost as fascinating as the poem itself. The first record of it is an 18-feet-high cross in the church at Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire, Scotland. A century or so later, in 884, Pope Marinus sent Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, a piece of the True Cross, and an expanded version of ‘The Dream of the Rood’ was made in response.

And then, soon after this, Aethelmaer made a reliquary to house Alfred’s piece of the True Cross, and lines from ‘The Dream of the Rood’ were inscribed upon this silver container, known as the Brussels Cross because of where it is now kept. As Michael Alexander has pointed out, it’s a fine tribute to the unity of Christendom that these three very different artefacts, each of which contains lines from this iconic early English poem, should all be housed in different countries, none of which is England itself. ‘The Dream of the Rood’ is an English poem that made its way abroad, and is perhaps, therefore, the first successful English literary export.

We discuss this fascinating poem in more detail in a separate post.

This poem is unusual in that it commemorates not a glorious victory but a crushing defeat: in 991 the Anglo-Saxon army failed to ward off the Vikings near the town of Maldon in Essex. It’s also not exactly out-and-out propaganda for the English (even though it’s an example of history being written by the victims rather than victors): several members of the English army are described fleeing the battlefield, for instance.

And although only the middle section of the poem has survived, this poem remains a fine piece of Anglo-Saxon poetry and gives an insight into how hard life was for early settlers defending – or trying to defend – their homes against invaders. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote a sequel to the poem, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, which takes the form of a dialogue between two characters at the end of the battle.

If this selection of classic Anglo-Saxon texts has whetted your appetite for more, we recommend The Anglo-Saxon World An Anthology (Oxford World’s Classics).

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.


4 Key Works of Medieval English Literature - History

Writers from the Middle English period

Anonymous Many of the works of literature from the Middle English period are anonymous and obviously the authors are not listed here. There are anthologies of Middle English literature (see below) in which the works in question &ndash or extracts of these &ndash are to be found, e.g The Owl and the Nightingale , The Fox and the Wolf (both poems in the popular &lsquodebate&rsquo genre, from the late 12th century and early 13th century respectively), The Bestiary (a set of animnal descriptions in verse which survives in an East Midland manuscript) and the Poema Morale (an early Middle English work). Verse romances are also found in the Middle English period, e.g. King Horn (mid 13th century) and The Lay of Havelock the Dane (late 13th century), both tales of adventure with sub-plots concerning love. Other works one might mention are The South English Legendary (a collection of saints lives and events in verse form), the Acrene Wisse (a guide for closed-order nuns, cf. modern English anchorite, anchoress &lsquoreclusive monk or nun&rsquo), Cursor Mundi (a history of the world), see La⤪mon and Trevisa below for other examples of this genre.

Bacon, Roger (1214?-1294) English philosopher and scientist. Bacon is one of the most prominent figures in 13th century scholastic philosophy. He was born in Somerset and educated at Oxford and Paris. On his return from Paris he became a Franciscan and carried out much experimental research in natural science and in his Opus majus &lsquoMajor work&rsquo he expounded on all branches of knowledge accessible at the time including grammar and logic along with mathematics and moral philosophy.

Caxton, William (c.1422-1491) [Early Modern Period] A merchant and later a writer who set up the first printing press in England in 1476. A few years earlier Caxton had visited Cologne where he acquired his knowledge in the technique of printing and returned to England via Belgium to apply this new art. He established his base at Westminster and during his career as publisher produced more than 90 editions of well-known and lesser known authors. Among the former are Chaucer ( Canterbury tales ), Gower ( Confessio amantis ), Malory ( Morte d&rsquoArthur ). Caxton himself prepared some translations of works in Latin and French. He is also famous for the prefaces which he wrote to his editions and which are revealing documents of literary attitudes in late 15th century England.

Chaucer, Geoffrey (c.1340-1400) [literary writing] The major poet of England in the late Middle Ages and the most significant writer before Shakespeare. Born and educated in London, Chaucer served in the court and the army and went abroad on diplomatic missions. His oeuvre can be divided into three periods, an early one based on French models, such as the Roman de la rose , and which contains the allegorical Book of the duchess (1369). The second period lasted to about 1387 and is characterised by his use of Italian models above all Dante and Boccaccio. The main works of this period are The house of fame , which concerns the adventures of Aeneas after the fall of Troy, The parliament of fowls , a story about the mating of birds on St. Valentine&rsquos Day, The legend of good women (an unfinished work on classical heroines and Troilus and Criseyde , for which he drew on Boccaccio.

The third period is that of greatest maturity and contains his masterpiece, The Canterbury tales , an unfinished work of approximately 17,000 lines. It tells the story of a group of pilgrims travelling to their patron saint and who pass the time of day by telling each other stories. A number of literary genres are represented such as the light-hearted fabliau or the more serious homily. Chaucer also offers much insight into medieval social attitudes to love, marriage and religion. The linguistic importance of Chaucer is that he established the dialect of London (south-east midlands) as the input form for the standard in the late Middle English period. Later modifications of this language took place with the introduction of printing in the 15th century.

Coverdale, Miles (c. 1488-1569) [religious writing] One of the main translators of the Bible in the 16th century. He was born in Yorkshire and studied in Cambridge and became bishop of Exeter in his latter years. For much of his life he lived and worked in Germany, producing the first complete Bible to be printed in English (1535) and worked with others on the Great Bible of 1539.

Gloucester, Robert (late 13th century) The author of a chronicle which can be dated to about 1300 and was written in the southern dialect. The chronicle consists of about 12,000 rhyming couplets and is noted for comments on the political and linguistic state of England at the time, with special refernece to the behaviour of the Normans in the country.

Gower, John (c. 1330-1408) An English poet of courtly love who is remembered as the author of the Confessio Amantis , a collection of exemplary tales (from both classical and medieval sources) about courtly and Christian love. To judge by the language of this work, Gower was from Kent.

Kempe, Margery (c. 1373- c.1439) An East Anglian women who is known to posterity from The Boke of Margery Kempe . This is a text dictated by Kempe which recounts her religious experiences, including visions and pilgrimages. Kempe had withdrawn from society and married life to became a religious recluse and dictated this work &ndash essentially her autobiography, the first in the English language &ndash towards the end of her life, probably in the 1420s. She knew Julian of Norwich and had travelled to meet her.

La⤪mon A late 12th century author from Worcestershire who is known as the author of the Brut , a history of Britain from the earliest times to his day. It contains information on early kings such as King Arthur and King Lear. The language is that of the West Midlands and the poem is written in alliterative verse.

Langland, William The supposed 14th century author of Piers Plowman, an allegorical poem on a variety of religious themes written in simple language which could be understood by the laiety at its time. The poem can the figure of the Dreamer who Langland is sometimes regarded as a veiled portrait of Langland himself. The identification of William Langland as author rests on a reference to him in a manuscript of the poem held in the library of Trinity College Dublin. Langland was probably from the West Midlands and the language of the poem reflects West Midland usage in the Middle English period. Traditionally three versions &ndash A, B and C &ndash are assumed and version B is often used as a reference version.

Mallory, Sir Thomas (c. 1405-1471) The author or at least compiler of Le Morte d&rdquoArthur . Little definitive information is known about him, though he was twice voted into Parliament and apparently was involved in criminal behaviour during his life, something for which he was imprisoned a number of times he is also known to have been explicitly excluded from a number of pardons by Edward IV. Mallory wrote the Morte at the end of his life. Le Morte d&rsquoArthur is an account in prose of legendary Celtic King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (based on previous French romances), a topic which had captured the imagination of many writers then and since. The work was printed by William Caxton in 1485.

Sir Galahad and Knights of the Round Table

Mandeville, Sir John (mid 14th century) The Travels of Sir John Mandeville was an immensely popular book of the 14th century which has survived in a couple of hundred manuscripts. The name &lsquoSir John Mandeville&rsquo was probably adopted by a doctor form Liège called Jehan de Bourgogne who would have written in French. Hence the English version is a translation though it is not known who prepared it. The travels described in the book are entirely fictitious though they may be based on genuine travel descriptions by other writers.

Manning, Robert (c. 1298-1338) An English poet who is remembered for his didactic work Handling Sin , itself an adaptation of a French-language original Manuel des péchés by William of Wadington.

Norwich, Julian of (c. 1342- c. 1416) An English mystic of the 14th century. A near-death illness at the age of 30 led to a series of visions which formed the basis for The Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love or simply The Revelations of Divine Love , a devotional work which she wrote some 20 years later. The language is that of the East Midlands. Julian (whose name is of uncertain origin) was the first woman in England to have a book published.

Occam, William of (c.1285-1349) English philosopher and scholasticist. He was original in his teachings and writings and represented a new turn in medieval philosophy. Occam was an adherent of nominalism &mdash as opposed to realism, supported by Thomas Aquinas &mdash which maintained that universals do not exist in nature but only in the mind and in language. The term Occam's Razor , which states that one should not assume more than is absolutely necessary, derives from him. Occam denied the use of reason in matters of faith and was a precursor of later philosophers who separated theology from philosophy.

Orrm An English writer who flourished around 1200 and who wrote a religious work, known after him as the Orrmulum . This is of interest to linguists as it shows the use of double consonants to indicate short vowels, a practice which was an innovation at the time.

Trevisa, John of (c. 1350 1402) A writer from Cornwall known for his translation of the Polychronicon by Ranulf Higden &ndash a history of the world &ndash from the Latin original. He also translated De Proprietatibus Rerum an encylopedia of science by Bartholomew de Glanville. Both translations were widely known in the 15th century and were later printed.

Tyndale, William (c.1492-1536) English scholar and clergyman, an early translator of the Bible into English. Tyndale was born in Gloucestershire and studied in Oxford. He was one of the early converts to Protestantism, moving from London to Worms, Germany where his translation of the New Testament was printed (1524-5). While in Antwerp he was betrayed to Catholic officials and was subsequently put to death. In keeping with his attitudes, his style of translation was simple and direct and this won his work much popularity.

Wycliffe, John (?-1384) Wycliffe is known as an early reformer in the Catholic church, one of the pre-Reformation figures who foreshadowed the reforms instigated by Luther in the early 16th century. Between 1380 and 1384 Wycliffe, together with his followers, was responsible for producing a translation of the Bible (deriving from the Latin version of St.Jerome). Wycliffe&rsquos style is close to the original and the version contains a large number of Latin loans.

Burrow, J. A. and T. Turville-Petre 1996. A book of Middle English . 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Dunn, Charles W. and Edward T. Byrnes 1973. Middle English literature . New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Freeborn, Dennis 2006. From Old English to Standard English . 3rd edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Burnley, David 2000. The history of the English language. A sourcebook . 2nd edition. London: Longman.


Courtly Love in Middle English Literature

Courtly love is another important feature of Middle English Literature. Gaston Paris was the first person who popularized the phrase courtly love in 1883. Courtly Love is a code of behaviour that defined the relationship between aristocratic lovers in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. There were some requirements for courtly love in the Middle Ages. These requirements were elaborated in Ars Amatoria, The Art of Loving, by Ovid, the Roman poet. According to the conventions mentioned in the The Art of Loving, a knight, who was in love with a married woman of high rank or high birth, was required to prove his heroic deeds as well as presenting love letters to his beloved without disclosing his identity. Courtly love was a secret affair between the lovers. It was tantamount to adultery.


English Literature in the Middle Ages

When the fourteenth century arrived, England was ceasing to be bilingual. If Norman-French was the language of the court, English modified by Norman-French had nevertheless become the common language of the gentry and of the common people. Moreover, the intellectual revival of Italy had just blossomed into sudden glory with Dante, and Dante was succeeded by Petrarch and Boccaccio.

A wave of culture flowed over Europe, and the last half of the fourteenth century saw the creation of a true English Literature by William Langland, John Wiclif, and Geoffrey Chaucer in England, and Bishop Barbour in Scotland &mdash for English is the only name which can properly be applied to the literary language of Scotland as well as of England.

Wiclif's rendering of the New Testament was the foundation of all subsequent English versions of the Scriptures. In William Langland the people of England first found a spokesman, though in the Vision of Piers Plowman his moral scourge spared the peasant no more than the upper ranks of society.

Bishop Barbour was no great poet, yet there is often a fine spirit in the verse wherein he recorded the story of the liberation of Scotland, and the high deeds of his hero the Bruce. But in the literary hierarchy, none is on the same plane with Geoffrey Chaucer, the first master "maker" in the English tongue, who for nearly two hundred years remained without a peer.

Chaucer
Langland, Wiclif, and Barbour all wrote in dialect Chaucer set the standard of English as a literary language. For generations to come he was the master, and all men who attempted to write poetry were his disciples, however far behind him they might lag. But Chaucer is not merely a craftsman in words, a magician in language not merely a consummate story-teller not merely a poet "as fresh as is the month of May," like his own "squyer," clean and sweet, overflowing with joyous vitality, with broad human sympathy, tender and humorous.

Chaucer has painted for us the men and women of his day, the typical gathering which assembled for the Canterbury Pilgrimage, in such wise that they are as living and real as if we had met them, touched them, seen them with our own eyes, heard them talk with our own ears. They are alive now every one of them somewhat differently clothed of course, modified by some-what different conventions and. by differences in the material circumstances of life.

The eternal human types belong to the twentieth century no less than to the fourteenth. But when the types are presented to us in medieval array, as they lived and moved five hundred years ago, the Middle Ages become as living and real as the twentieth century. Those familiar faces and figures make their surroundings real and actual. We are no longer guessing what sort of person a knight might have been or was likely to be what manner of a man was a parish priest, a rural squire, a merchant-what a prioress was like or a bourgeoise dame of independent means. We know them all, and knowing them we see also that, after all, it is merely the superficial accidents of life that have changed, not its fundamental conditions.

Sir John Mandeviile
There is another author of the fourteenth century who should not be passed by, the ingenious traveller, Sir John Mandeviile, who indeed really led the way in the writing of English prose. For although he originally wrote the story of his travels, of what he had seen, and of what other travellers told him of what they had seen, in Latin, yet he employed the leisure of his later years in translating his work first into French and then into English.

The work is not without its value, as a record of Sir John's personal experiences, but still more so as a demonstration of the unbounded credulity of the age. Marvels which would have awakened the genial scepticism of Herodotus were cheerfully accepted without question by the English traveller.

The Kingis Quair
English literature burst into full blossom with Chaucer, but after Chaucer there came in England for a century and a half none but the most pedestrian of poets. Worthier successors than Lydgate and Gower were born in the northern kingdom, and chief among them the royal poet James I. His claim to the authorship of the Kingis Quair has been challenged, but is not to be surrendered without more conclusive proofs than have yet been produced.

King James learnt in the school of Chaucer it is enough to say that he was a pupil of whom Chaucer himself would have been proud. The name of Robert Henryson also stands high above that of any contemporary English poet.

But although poetry languished, and although the Morte Arthur of Sir Thomas Mallory is the one great English prose work of the fifteenth century, the impulse to literary expression was at work. Men began to say in English what a century before they would assuredly have written in Latin if at all. The dispersion of Greek scholarship with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 had something of the effect of an intellectual revelation.

The advent of printing
And yet, after all, the enormous impulse to the literary production of the centuries which followed was hardly so much the intellectual as the mechanical one. About the year 1440, Guthenberg in Germany invented the printing-press with movable types, which made possible the multiplica­tion of books, and by its development created a supply of which was begotten an ever-increasing demand.

Books were brought within the reach of the many instead of being procurable only by the very few. The last quarter of the fifteenth century saw the introduction of the great invention into England, when, under the patronage of Edward IV, William Caxton set up his printing-press in Westminster Abbey.

A History of Britain

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.


Famous Medieval People

When looking at famous medieval people there really is a lot of ground to cover. The medieval period is roughly the thousand years between the 5th and 15th centuries and that is a lot of people. I have taken some of the more famous ones here and they include Kings and Queens, Knights, Writers and Religious figures. I guess you could say this is a look at the most famous medieval people because you have probably heard of most of them if not all of them.

A note from Will. You know as I was researching and writing this article I was awestruck by the people. It is quite a remarkable collection of famous people who were made famous for very different reasons. These include exploring, inventing, artistry, combat, leadership, writing and even shooting an apple with a crossbow. This is part of a remarkable history of humanity and the whole medieval period was really something. The really difficult task I had in creating this article and list is trying to figure who to leave out! There were so many remarkable figures.

King Arthur (5th-6th Century?)

There is a lot of debate as to whether King Arthur actually existed. Some evidence says yes. If he truly existed it was believed to be somewhere in the 5th or early 6th century. Some evidence points to him being a soldier while other evidence points to him being a King. The first viable written evidence of his existence showed up in the 9th century in a book called "Historia Brittonum" (History Of The Britons (Historia Brittonum) ) where he was purported to have won 12 military battles. The legend of King Arthur peaked and waned over the centuries and made another strong appearance in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur which was first published in 1485. This book has been reprinted many times over the centuries but a strong and lasting fascination with Arthur took hold with another reprinting of Le Morte d'Arthur in 1816. This was part of a very strong Gothic revival. Since then the legend has firmly taken hold and only grown. Whether or not King Arthur really existed is still up for debate but his legend does live on. He is one of the most famous medieval person ever to have lived (or not!).

Charlemagne (742-814)

He was an Emperor and King who brought most of Western and Central Europe under his reign by a variety of means including military conquest. But he is not famous for just this. He was also a main force in something called the Carolingian Renaissance which changed much of Europe by bringing about a new monetary system, educational reform and a renaissance of the arts including military arts and the art of siege. He is often considered to be the father of what is now modern Europe.

Leif Ericson ( 970-1020?)

He was a Norse adventurer and explorer who is generally creditied as being the first European to discover North america. And this was a full 500 years before Columbus. He was the son of another famous Norse. (Eric the Red).

William the Conqueror (1028-1087)

His Normans were the last foreign force to conquer what is now Great Britain. He was King (William I) He began this conquest with the famous battle of Hastings in 1066 and in subsequent battles mostly to repress revolts and uprisings. His reign and influence had much impact on England. He brought about a lot of reform including adoption and English as the official language and adoptions of church reform. He instituted a wide plan for building castles and fortressess all over England to fortify his military strength and to control revolts and rebellions. The most famous of these buildings is the Tower of London.

An added note by a web visitor

Hi There. I love your site. -- about William the Conqueror. He was a Norman and the Normans, were descendants of Vikings. The Vikings were attacking Paris and areas in "Normandy" constantly. The "French" grew tired of this and made a deal with these invaders. They gave then land in return for the Normans not to attack anymore and to protect the region from new invaders. After many years thru trade and just by nearness to the French, the Normans adopted the French Language. William did not bring English to England, he brought over French! For the next three hundred years anyone who was important in England spoke French.

Eleanor of Aquitane (1122-1204)

She was the mother of Richard the Lionheart and King John. She was also a wealthy and powerful figure in the european High Middle ages. She was also Queen of the Franks through her first Marriage to Louis VII and Queen of the English through her second marriage to Henry II. She was an important figure in the culture of the High Middle Ages and she was instrumental in the defining and changing of values such as chivalry and romance. She also spent 16 years imprisoned for her alleged part in an attempt by her son to overthrow her husband Henry II. She led a remarkable yet tumultous life which included participation in the second crusades.

Richard the Lionheart (1157-1195)

He was the favored son of Eleanor of Aquitane and a central figure in the thrid crusades. He was the Duke and Lord of many various lands such as Normandy and eventually became King of England. The military battles of the third crusades are his largest claim to fame yet he never achieved his goal of recapturing Jerusalem. He is also well known for some other things including the fact that he became to be known as the first King who was also a knight. And he spent much time and resources building fortresses and castles throughout his lands.

William Wallace (Died 1305)

He is the figure now made very famous by the movie Braveheart. He was a Scottish knight and landowner who was a leading figure in the Scottish Wars for Independence. There are three notable occurrences in his life which are remembered. The first of which is that he was eventually captured and executed in a very brutal manner. He is also remembered for his famous victory in the battle of Stirling Bridge at which his forces were vastly outnumbered. And he is also remembered for his loss a year later at the Battle of Falkirk.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)

He was a poet, writer and philospher of England. Who has not read "The Canterbury Tales" in high school? He is often considered to be the father of English literature and he brought a legitimacy to the English language when literature was considered to be either only in French or Latin.

Johann Gutenberg (1398-1468)

He invented the printing press and the concept of movable type which revolutionized the book making process. Up until his time books were copied by hand. His invention is considered to be among the most important of the modern period. Books became much easier to make and much more affordable. And most importantly this changed the availability and flow of information throughout the world. His inventions quickly spread across the whole known world.

A Note from Will: There is an official Gutenberg Museum in Mainz Germany. I have visited it. It is small but interesting. If I remember correctly they didn't have his original movable type printing press but they did have the second version he made. Wow, now I really wish I took pictures.

William Tell (Early 14th century?)

He is a figure of swiss legend and a folk hero. According to legend he was famous for several different acts the top of which was his ability with the crossbow. He is told to have assassinated a tyrannical Austrian reeve (Gessler) with a difficult crossbow shot through a narrow pass. And of course he is most famous for having being forced to shoot an apple off his own son's head. He was forced to do this at threat of death to both he and his son.

Joan of Arc (1412-1431)

She was captured and executed by burning at the stake at the age of 19. She is also a national heroine in France and has been canonized a saint.

She asserted that she had visions from God directing her to free her homeland from the English. And she started out as a missionary but quickly became a military leader who lead French troops in decisive and aggressive military battles the first of which was the lifting of the siege of Orleans in only 9 days.

Vlad the Impaler (1431-1476)

He was born in Sighi?oara , Transylvania which at the time was part of Hungary. And he is commonly known as yes. Count Dracula! The legend has changed dramatically over the centuries but it is known that he was a central figure in the resistance of the dominance of the Ottoman Empire. And that he was particularly cruel in the handling of his enemies. He used many forms of torture against them including impalation on spikes. But as far as vampirism goes there isn't any evidence to link Vlad with it other than the creation of the Bram Stoker Dracula book.

Leonardo DaVinci (1452-1519)

He lived during the overlapping time between when the Medieval Period ends and the Renaissance begins. And he is considered to possibly be the archetype of what a Renassance man is and possibly the most diversely skilled human being to have ever lived. He was an architect, designer, inventor, painter, botanist, writer . well, you name it and he excelled at it. He realistically and symbolically represents humanities transformation from the medieval period into the rebirth or "renaissance".


English literature: The Eighteenth Century

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 firmly established a Protestant monarchy together with effective rule by Parliament. The new science of the time, Newtonian physics, reinforced the belief that everything, including human conduct, is guided by a rational order. Moderation and common sense became intellectual values as well as standards of behavior.

These values achieved their highest literary expression in the poetry of Alexander Pope. Pope—neoclassicist, wit, and master of the heroic couplet—was critical of human foibles but generally confident that order and happiness in human affairs were attainable if excesses were eschewed and rational dictates heeded. The brilliant prose satirist Jonathan Swift was not so sanguine. His savage indignation resulted in devastating attacks on his age in A Tale of a Tub (1704), Gulliver's Travels (1726), and A Modest Proposal (1729).

Middle-class tastes were reflected in the growth of periodicals and newspapers, the best of which were the Tatler and the Spectator produced by Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele. The novels of Daniel Defoe, the first modern novels in English, owe much to the techniques of journalism. They also illustrate the virtues of merchant adventure vital to the rising middle class. Indeed, the novel was to become the literary form most responsive to middle-class needs and interests.

The 18th cent. was the age of town life with its coffeehouses and clubs. One of the most famous of the latter was the Scriblerus Club, whose members included Pope, Swift, and John Gay (author of The Beggar's Opera). Its purpose was to defend and uphold high literary standards against the rising tide of middle-class values and tastes. Letters were a popular form of polite literature. Pope, Swift, Horace Walpole, and Thomas Gray were masters of the form, and letters make up the chief literary output of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Lord Chesterfield. The novels of Samuel Richardson, including the influential Clarissa (1747), were written in epistolary form. With the work of Richardson, Fanny Burney, Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and Laurence Sterne the English novel flourished.

Probably the most celebrated literary circle in history was the one dominated by Samuel Johnson. It included Joshua Reynolds, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, and James Boswell, whose biography of Johnson is a classic of the genre. Other great master prose writers of the period were the historian Edward Gibbon and the philosopher David Hume. Dr. Johnson, who carried the arts of criticism and conversation to new heights, both typified and helped to form mid-18th-century views of life, literature, and conduct. The drama of the 18th cent. failed to match that of the Restoration. But Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan rose above the prevalent weeping comedy —whose sentimentalism infected every literary genre of the period—to achieve polished comedy in the Restoration tradition.

Among the prominent poets of the 18th cent. were James Thomson, who wrote in The Seasons (1726) of nature as it reflected the Newtonian concept of order and beauty, and Edward Young, whose Night Thoughts (1742) combined melancholy and Christian apologetics. Anticipations of romanticism can be seen in the odes of William Collins, the poems of Thomas Gray, and the Scots lyrics of Robert Burns. The work of William Blake, the first great romantic poet, began late in the 18th cent. Blake is unique: poet, artist, artisan, revolutionist, and visionary prophet.

In prose fiction, departures from social realism are evident in the Gothic romances of Horace Walpole, Anne Radcliffe, Monk Lewis, Charles Maturin, and others. These works catered to a growing interest in medievalism, northern antiquities, ballads, folklore, chivalry, and romance, also exploited in two masterpieces of forgery—the Ossian poems of James Macpherson and the medieval Rowley poems of Thomas Chatterton.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: English Literature, 20th cent. to the Present