The Early Middle English Period
The Norman Conquest worked no immediate transformation on either the language or the literature of the English. Older poetry continued to be copied during the last half of the 11th century; two poems of the early 12th century—“Durham,” which praises that city’s cathedral and its relics, and “Instructions for Christians,” a didactic piece—show that correct alliterative verse could be composed well after 1066. But even before the conquest, rhyme had begun to supplant rather than supplement alliteration in some poems, which continued to use the older four-stress line, although their rhythms varied from the set types used in classical Old English verse. A postconquest example is “The Grave,” which contains several rhyming lines; a poem from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on the death of William the Conqueror, lamenting his cruelty and greed, has more rhyme than alliteration.
Influence of French poetry
By the end of the 12th century, English poetry had been so heavily influenced by French models that such a work as the long epic Brut (c. 1200) by Lawamon, a Worcestershire priest, seems archaic for mixing alliterative lines with rhyming couplets while generally eschewing French vocabulary. The Brut draws mainly upon Wace’s Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut (1155; based in turn upon Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae [History of the Kings of Britain]), but in Lawamon’s hands the Arthurian story takes on a Germanic and heroic flavour largely missing in Wace. The Brut exists in two manuscripts, one written shortly after 1200 and the other some 50 years later. That the later version has been extensively modernized and somewhat abridged suggests the speed with which English language and literary tastes were changing in this period. The Proverbs of Alfred was written somewhat earlier, in the late 12th century; these proverbs deliver conventional wisdom in a mixture of rhymed couplets and alliterative lines, and it is hardly likely that any of the material they contain actually originated with the king whose wisdom they celebrate. The early 13th-century Bestiary mixes alliterative lines, three- and four-stress couplets, and septenary (heptameter) lines, but the logic behind this mix is more obvious than in the Brut and the Proverbs, for the poet was imitating the varied metres of his Latin source. More regular in form than these poems is the anonymous Poema morale in septenary couplets, in which an old man delivers a dose of moral advice to his presumably younger audience.
By far the most brilliant poem of this period is The Owl and the Nightingale (written after 1189), an example of the popular debate genre. The two birds argue topics ranging from their hygienic habits, looks, and songs to marriage, prognostication, and the proper modes of worship. The nightingale stands for the joyous aspects of life, the owl for the sombre; there is no clear winner, but the debate ends as the birds go off to state their cases to one Nicholas of Guildford, a wise man. The poem is learned in the clerical tradition but wears its learning lightly as the disputants speak in colloquial and sometimes earthy language. Like the Poema morale, The Owl and the Nightingale is metrically regular (octosyllabic couplets), but it uses the French metre with an assurance unusual in so early a poem.
The 13th century saw a rise in the popularity of long didactic poems presenting biblical narrative, saints’ lives, or moral instruction for those untutored in Latin or French. The most idiosyncratic of these is the Ormulum by Orm, an Augustinian canon in the north of England. Written in some 20,000 lines arranged in unrhymed but metrically rigid couplets, the work is interesting mainly in that the manuscript that preserves it is Orm’s autograph and shows his somewhat fussy efforts to reform and regularize English spelling. Other biblical paraphrases are Genesis and Exodus, Jacob and Joseph, and the vast Cursor mundi, whose subject, as its title suggests, is the history of the world. An especially popular work was the South English Legendary, which began as a miscellaneous collection of saints’ lives but was expanded by later redactors and rearranged in the order of the church calendar. The didactic tradition continued into the 14th century with Robert Mannyng’s Handling Sin, a confessional manual whose expected dryness is relieved by the insertion of lively narratives, and the Prick of Conscience, a popular summary of theology sometimes attributed to the mystic Richard Rolle.
The earliest examples of verse romance, a genre that would remain popular through the Middle Ages, appeared in the 13th century. King Horn and Floris and Blauncheflour both are preserved in a manuscript of about 1250. King Horn, oddly written in short two- and three-stress lines, is a vigorous tale of a kingdom lost and regained, with a subplot concerning Horn’s love for Princess Rymenhild. Floris and Blauncheflour is more exotic, being the tale of a pair of royal lovers who become separated and, after various adventures in eastern lands, reunited. Not much later than these is The Lay of Havelok the Dane, a tale of princely love and adventure similar to King Horn but more competently executed. Many more such romances were produced in the 14th century. Popular subgenres were “the matter of Britain” (Arthurian romances such as Of Arthour and of Merlin and Ywain and Gawain), “the matter of Troy” (tales of antiquity such as The Siege of Troy and King Alisaunder), and the English Breton lays (stories of otherworldly magic, such as Lai le Freine and Sir Orfeo, modeled after those of professional Breton storytellers). These relatively unsophisticated works were written for a bourgeois audience, and the manuscripts that preserve them are early examples of commercial book production. The humorous beast epic makes its first appearance in Britain in the 13th century with The Fox and the Wolf, taken indirectly from the Old French Roman de Renart. In the same manuscript with this work is Dame Sirith, the earliest English fabliau. Another sort of humour is found in The Land of Cockaygne, which depicts a utopia better than heaven, where rivers run with milk, honey, and wine, geese fly about already roasted, and monks hunt with hawks and dance with nuns.
The lyric was virtually unknown to Old English poets. Poems such as “Deor” and “Wulf and Eadwacer,” which have been called lyrics, are thematically different from those that began to circulate orally in the 12th century and to be written down in great numbers in the 13th; these Old English poems also have a stronger narrative component than the later productions. The most frequent topics in the Middle English secular lyric are springtime and romantic love; many rework such themes tediously, but some, such as “Foweles in the frith” (13th century) and “Ich am of Irlaunde” (14th century), convey strong emotions in a few lines. Two lyrics of the early 13th century, “Mirie it is while sumer ilast” and “Sumer is icumen in,” are preserved with musical settings, and probably most of the others were meant to be sung. The dominant mood of the religious lyrics is passionate: the poets sorrow for Christ on the cross and for the Virgin Mary, celebrate the “five joys” of Mary, and import language from love poetry to express religious devotion. Excellent early examples are “Nou goth sonne under wod” and “Stond wel, moder, ounder rode.” Many of the lyrics are preserved in manuscript anthologies, of which the best is British Library manuscript Harley 2253 from the early 14th century. In this collection, known as the Harley Lyrics, the love poems, such as “Alysoun” and “Blow, Northern Wind,” take after the poems of the Provençal troubadours but are less formal, less abstract, and more lively. The religious lyrics also are of high quality; but the most remarkable of the Harley Lyrics, “The Man in the Moon,” far from being about love or religion, imagines the man in the Moon as a simple peasant, sympathizes with his hard life, and offers him some useful advice on how to best the village hayward (a local officer in charge of a town’s common herd of cattle).
A poem such as “The Man in the Moon” serves as a reminder that, although the poetry of the early Middle English period was increasingly influenced by the Anglo-Norman literature produced for the courts, it is seldom “courtly.” Most English poets, whether writing about kings or peasants, looked at life from a bourgeois perspective. If their work sometimes lacks sophistication, it nevertheless has a vitality that comes from preoccupation with daily affairs.
Old English prose texts were copied for more than a century after the Norman Conquest; the homilies of Aelfric were especially popular, and King Alfred’s translations of Boethius and Augustine survive only in 12th-century manuscripts. In the early 13th century an anonymous worker at Worcester supplied glosses to certain words in a number of Old English manuscripts, which demonstrates that by this time the older language was beginning to pose difficulties for readers.
The composition of English prose also continued without interruption. Two manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle exhibit very strong prose for years after the conquest, and one of these, the Peterborough Chronicle, continues to 1154. Two manuscripts of about 1200 contain 12th-century sermons, and another has the workmanlike compilation Vices and Virtues, composed about 1200. But the English language faced stiff competition from both Anglo-Norman (the insular dialect of French being used increasingly in the monasteries) and Latin, a language intelligible to speakers of both English and French. It was inevitable, then, that the production of English prose should decline in quantity, if not in quality. The great prose works of this period were composed mainly for those who could read only English—women especially. In the West Midlands the Old English alliterative prose tradition remained very much alive into the 13th century, when the several texts known collectively as the Katherine Group were written. St. Katherine, St. Margaret, and St. Juliana, found together in a single manuscript, have rhythms strongly reminiscent of those of Aelfric and Wulfstan. So to a lesser extent do Hali Meithhad (“Holy Maidenhood”) and Sawles Warde (“The Guardianship of the Soul”) from the same book, but newer influences can be seen in these works as well: as the title of another devotional piece, The Wohunge of Ure Lauerd (“The Wooing of Our Lord”), suggests, the prose of this time often has a rapturous, even sensual flavour, and, like the poetry, it frequently employs the language of love to express religious fervour.
Further removed from the Old English prose tradition, though often associated with the Katherine Group, is the Ancrene Wisse (“Guide for Anchoresses,” also known as the Ancrene Riwle, or “Rule for Anchoresses”), a manual for the guidance of women recluses outside the regular orders. This anonymous work, which was translated into French and Latin and remained popular until the 16th century, is notable for its humanity, practicality, and insight into human nature but even more for its brilliant style. Like the other prose of its time, it uses alliteration as ornament, but it is more indebted to new fashions in preaching, which had originated in the universities, than to native traditions. With its richly figurative language, rhetorically crafted sentences, and carefully logical divisions and subdivisions, it manages to achieve in English the effects that such contemporary writers as John of Salisbury and Walter Map were striving for in Latin.
Little noteworthy prose was written in the late 13th century. In the early 14th century Dan Michel of Northgate produced in Kentish the Ayenbite of Inwit (“Prick of Conscience”), a translation from French. But the best prose of this time is by the mystic Richard Rolle, the hermit of Hampole, whose English tracts include The Commandment, Meditations on the Passion, and The Form of Perfect Living, among others. His intense and stylized prose was among the most popular of the 14th century and inspired such later works as Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection, Julian of Norwich’s Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, and the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing.
The Later Middle English And Early Renaissance Periods
One of the most important factors in the nature and development of English literature between about 1350 and 1550 was the peculiar linguistic situation in England at the beginning of the period. Among the small minority of the population that could be regarded as literate, bilingualism and even trilingualism were common. Insofar as it was considered a serious literary medium at all, English was obliged to compete on uneven terms with Latin and with the Anglo-Norman dialect of French widely used in England at the time. Moreover, extreme dialectal diversity within English itself made it difficult for vernacular writings, irrespective of their literary pretensions, to circulate very far outside their immediate areas of composition, a disadvantage not suffered by writings in Anglo-Norman and Latin. Literary culture managed to survive and in fact to flourish in the face of such potentially crushing factors as the catastrophic mortality of the Black Death (1347–51), chronic external and internal military conflicts in the form of the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses, and serious social, political, and religious unrest, as evinced in the Peasants’ Revolt (1381) and the rise of Lollardism (centred on the religious teachings of John Wycliffe). All the more remarkable, then, was the literary and linguistic revolution that took place in England between about 1350 and 1400 and that was slowly and soberly consolidated over the subsequent 150 years.
Later Middle English poetry
The revival of alliterative poetry
The most puzzling episode in the development of later Middle English literature is the apparently sudden reappearance of unrhymed alliterative poetry in the mid-14th century. Debate continues as to whether the group of long, serious, and sometimes learned poems written between about 1350 and the first decade of the 15th century should be regarded as an “alliterative revival” or rather as the late flowering of a largely lost native tradition stretching back to the Old English period. The earliest examples of the phenomenon, William of Palerne and Winner and Waster, are both datable to the 1350s, but neither poem exhibits to the full all the characteristics of the slightly later poems central to the movement.
William of Palerne, condescendingly commissioned by a nobleman for the benefit of “them that know no French,” is a homely paraphrase of a courtly Continental romance, the only poem in the group to take love as its central theme. The poet’s technical competence in handling the difficult syntax and diction of the alliterative style is not, however, to be compared with that of Winner and Waster’s author, who exhibits full mastery of the form, particularly in descriptions of setting and spectacle. This poem’s topical concern with social satire links it primarily with another, less formal body of alliterative verse, of which William Langland’s Piers Plowman was the principal representative and exemplar. Indeed, Winner and Waster, with its sense of social commitment and occasional apocalyptic gesture, may well have served as a source of inspiration for Langland himself.
The term alliterative revival should not be taken to imply a return to the principles of classical Old English versification. The authors of the later 14th-century alliterative poems either inherited or developed their own conventions, which resemble those of the Old English tradition in only the most general way. The syntax and particularly the diction of later Middle English alliterative verse were also distinctive, and the search for alliterating phrases and constructions led to the extensive use of archaic, technical, and dialectal words. Hunts, feasts, battles, storms, and landscapes were described with a brilliant concretion of detail rarely paralleled since, while the abler poets also contrived subtle modulations of the staple verse-paragraph to accommodate dialogue, discourse, and argument.
Among the poems central to the movement were three pieces dealing with the life and legends of Alexander the Great, the massive Destruction of Troy, and the Siege of Jerusalem. The fact that all of these derived from various Latin sources suggests that the anonymous poets were likely to have been clerics with a strong, if bookish, historical sense of their romance “matters.” The “matter of Britain” was represented by an outstanding composition, the alliterative Morte Arthure, an epic portrayal of King Arthur’s conquests in Europe and his eventual fall, which combined a strong narrative thrust with considerable density and subtlety of diction. A gathering sense of inevitable transitoriness gradually tempers the virile realization of heroic idealism, and it is not surprising to find that the poem was later used by Sir Thomas Malory as a source for his prose account of the Arthurian legend, Le Morte Darthur (completed c. 1470).
The alliterative movement would today be regarded as a curious but inconsiderable episode were it not for four other poems now generally attributed to a single anonymous author: the chivalric romance Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, two homiletic poems called Patience and Purity (or Cleanness), and an elegiac dream vision known as Pearl, all miraculously preserved in a single manuscript dated about 1400. The poet of Sir Gawayne far exceeded the other alliterative writers in his mastery of form and style, and, though he wrote ultimately as a moralist, human warmth and sympathy (often taking comic form) are also close to the heart of his work.
Patience relates the biblical story of Jonah as a human comedy of petulance and irascibility set off against God’s benign forbearance. Purity imaginatively re-creates several monitory narratives of human impurity and its consequences in a spectacular display of poetic skill: the Flood, the destruction of Sodom, and Belshazzar’s Feast. The poet’s principal achievement, however, was Sir Gawayne, in which he used the conventional apparatus of chivalric romance to engage in a serious exploration of moral conduct in the face of the unknown. The hero, Gawain, a questing knight of Arthur’s court, embodies a combination of the noblest chivalric and spiritual aspirations of the age, but, instead of triumphing in the conventional way, he fails when tested (albeit rather unfairly) by mysterious supernatural powers. No paraphrase can hope to recapture the imaginative resources displayed in the telling of the story and the structuring of the poem as a work of art. Pearl stands somewhat aside from the alliterative movement proper.
In common with a number of other poems of the period, it was composed in stanzaic form, with alliteration used for ornamental effect. Technically, it is one of the most complex poems in the language, an attempt to work in words an analogy to the jeweler’s art. The jeweler-poet is vouchsafed a heavenly vision in which he sees his pearl, the discreet symbol used in the poem for a lost infant daughter who has died to become a bride of Christ. She offers theological consolation for his grief, expounding the way of salvation and the place of human life in a transcendental and extra-temporal view of things.
The alliterative movement was primarily confined to poets writing in northern and northwestern England, who showed little regard for courtly, London-based literary developments. It is likely that alliterative poetry, under aristocratic patronage, filled a gap in the literary life of the provinces caused by the decline of Anglo-Norman in the latter half of the 14th century. Alliterative poetry was not unknown in London and the southeast, but it penetrated those areas in a modified form and in poems that dealt with different subject matter.
William Langland’s long alliterative poem Piers Plowman begins with a vision of the world seen from the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, where, tradition has it, the poet was born and brought up and where he would have been open to the influence of the alliterative movement. If what he tells about himself in the poem is true (and there is no other source of information), he later lived obscurely in London as an unbeneficed cleric. Langland wrote in the unrhymed alliterative mode, but he modified it in such a way as to make it more accessible to a wider audience by treating the metre more loosely and avoiding the arcane diction of the provincial poets.
His poem exists in at least three and possibly four versions: A, Piers Plowman in its short early form, dating from the 1360s; B, a major revision and extension of A made in the late 1370s; C (1380s), a less “literary” version of B, apparently intended to bring its doctrinal issues into clearer focus; and Z, a conjectured version that calls into question the dating for A, B, and C. The poem takes the form of a series of dream visions dealing with the social and spiritual predicament of late 14th-century England against a sombre apocalyptic backdrop. Realistic and allegorical elements are mingled in a phantasmagoric way, and both the poetic medium and the structure are frequently subverted by the writer’s spiritual and didactic impulses.
Passages of involuted theological reasoning mingle with scatological satire, and moments of sublime religious feeling appear alongside forthright political comment. This makes it a work of the utmost difficulty, defiant of categorization, but at the same time Langland never fails to convince the reader of the passionate integrity of his writing. His bitter attacks on political and ecclesiastical corruption (especially among the friars) quickly struck chords with his contemporaries. Among minor poems in the same vein are Mum and the Sothsegger (c. 1399–1406) and a Lollard piece called Pierce the Ploughman’s Creed (c. 1395). In the 16th century, Piers Plowman was issued as a printed book and was used for apologetic purposes by the early Protestants.
Apart from a few late and minor reappearances in Scotland and the northwest of England, the alliterative movement was over before the first quarter of the 15th century had passed. The other major strand in the development of English poetry from roughly 1350 proved much more durable. The cultivation and refinement of human sentiment with respect to love, already present in earlier 14th-century writings such as the Harley Lyrics, took firm root in English court culture during the reign of Richard II (1377–99). English began to displace Anglo-Norman as the language spoken at court and in aristocratic circles, and signs of royal and noble patronage for English vernacular writers became evident. These processes undoubtedly created some of the conditions in which a writer of Chaucer’s interests and temperament might flourish, but they were encouraged and given direction by his genius in establishing English as a literary language.
Chaucer and Gower
Geoffrey Chaucer, a Londoner of bourgeois origins, was at various times a courtier, a diplomat, and a civil servant. His poetry frequently (but not always unironically) reflects the views and values associated with the term courtly. It is in some ways not easy to account for his decision to write in English, and it is not surprising that his earliest substantial poems, the Book of the Duchess (c. 1370) and the House of Fame (1370s), were heavily indebted to the fashionable French courtly love poetry of the time. Also of French origin was the octosyllabic couplet used in these poems. Chaucer’s abandonment of this engaging but ultimately jejune metre in favour of a 10-syllable line (specifically, iambic pentameter) was a portentous moment for English poetry. His mastery of it was first revealed in stanzaic form, notably the seven-line stanza (rhyme royal) of the Parliament of Fowls (c. 1382) and Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1385), and later was extended in the decasyllabic couplets of the prologue to the Legend of Good Women (1380s) and large
Compare Middle English and modern English readings of the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales
A dramatization of the opening lines of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, first heard in Chaucer’s language, Middle English, and then in a modern translation. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.See all videos for this article
Though Chaucer wrote a number of moral and amatory lyrics, which were imitated by his 15th-century followers, his major achievements were in the field of narrative poetry. The early influence of French courtly love poetry (notably the Roman de la Rose, which he translated) gave way to an interest in Italian literature. Chaucer was acquainted with Dante’s writings and took a story from Petrarch for the substance of “The Clerk’s Tale.” Two of his major poems, Troilus and Criseyde and “The Knight’s Tale,” were based, respectively, on the Filostrato and the Teseida of Boccaccio. The Troilus, Chaucer’s single most ambitious poem, is a moving story of love gained and betrayed set against the background of the Trojan War. As well as being a poem of profound human sympathy and insight, it also has a marked philosophical dimension derived from Chaucer’s reading of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae, a work that he also translated in prose.
His consummate skill in narrative art, however, was most fully displayed in The Canterbury Tales, an unfinished series of stories purporting to be told by a group of pilgrims journeying from London to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket and back. The illusion that the individual pilgrims (rather than Chaucer himself) tell their tales gave him an unprecedented freedom of authorial stance, which enabled him to explore the rich fictive potentialities of a number of genres: pious legend (in “The Man of Law’s Tale” and “The Prioress’s Tale”), fabliau (“The Shipman’s Tale,” “The Miller’s Tale,” and “The Reeve’s Tale”), chivalric romance (“The Knight’s Tale”), popular romance (parodied in Chaucer’s “own” “Tale of Sir Thopas”), beast fable (“The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” and “The Manciple’s Tale”), and more—what the poet John Dryden later summed up as “God’s plenty.”
A recurrent concern in Chaucer’s writings is the refined and sophisticated cultivation of love, commonly described by the modern expression courtly love. A French term of Chaucer’s time, fine amour, gives a more authentic description of the phenomenon; Chaucer’s friend John Gower translated it as “fine loving” in his long poem Confessio amantis (begun c. 1386). The Confessio runs to some 33,000 lines in octosyllabic couplets and takes the form of a collection of exemplary tales placed within the framework of a lover’s confession to a priest of Venus. Gower provides a contrast to Chaucer in that the sober and earnest moral intent behind Gower’s writing is always clear, whereas Chaucer can be noncommittal and evasive. On the other hand, though Gower’s verse is generally fluent and pleasing to read, it has a thin homogeneity of texture that cannot compare with the colour and range found in the language of his great contemporary. Gower was undoubtedly extremely learned by lay standards, and many Classical myths (especially those deriving from Ovid’s Metamorphoses) make the first of their numerous appearances in English literature in the Confessio. Gower was also deeply concerned with the moral and social condition of contemporary society, and he dealt with it in two weighty compositions in French and Latin, respectively: the Mirour de l’omme (c. 1374–78; The Mirror of Mankind) and Vox clamantis (c. 1385; The Voice of One Crying).