Periods: Medieval

Here you will find Old English major authors. Other pages cover a general overview and prosody and style.

Reference Works:


Web Sites:

Library Reference Guide

Labyrinth Resources for Medieval Studies
Corpus of Middle English
Middle English Dictionary
The Medieval Lyric (Mt. Holyoke)
Chaucer Metapage
Harvard Chaucer Page
Luminarium anthology



Literature Online (UMass only)
Labyrinth medieval editions
The Electronic Canterbury Tales
Canterbury Tales Project
Canterbury Tales in Modern Spelling


Medieval Major Authors

English literature during the Medieval period rages widely from popular lyrics to erudite Latin hexameters. Although some of the best Medieval literature is in Latin, for obvious reasons, we will be reading works written in Middle English.

Like Old English literature, Middle English literature is written in manuscipts. Manuscript is a term that means "written by hand." Texts were copied out by hand onto vellum (animal skin) by scribes (literate men and women who were taught to reproduce books) and bound into codicies (singular, codex, Latin for "book"). Books were rare and precious things. They were sometimes covered in gold and jewels. (Search Google for medieval manuscripts.) Some poems exist in only one copy. Gawain and the Green Knight would have been lost except for a unique copy, now held in the British Library (Cotton Nero A x). We can discover a great deal about a poem's history and its audience by investigating the manuscript(s) it appears in.

Medieval lyrics and much longer poetry, including the romances, are anonymous. We have no idea who wrote Gawain and the Green Knight or Sir Orfeo. Nevertheless, we do know something about some authors. And our focus in 201 is largely on the 14th century.


Medieval lyrics are anonymous (with a few exceptions). They were likely set to music. Lyrics are typically short, metrically simple, and rhymed. Some were sung by troubadours, French court poets of the High Middle Ages. A number of lyrics are devotional , others are ribald. Here is "Sumer is icumen in." And here is a Gregorian chant of the thirteenth century, "Dies Irae."

Prose & Longer Poetry

The 1100's are dominated by Anglo-French langauge and literature. Perhaps the greatest of English writers in the vernacular was Marie de France. Her lais (short songs) are deceptively simple stories of knights and ladies in the court of King Arthur. Beneath their simplicity lie layers of profound observation on the human condition. In France, Chrétien de Troyes is writing his Arthurian romances. During this century, Old English continued to be written. About 60 manuscripts of Anglo-French survive, and about 90 in Old English from the twelfth century.

The thirteenth century is an age of transition, as French and English both come to be used as a means of formal literary expression. Old English has almost entirely died away, and Middle English is the vernacular language of the realm. About as many English manuscripts as French survive from this century.

By the 1300's, attitudes towards French have changed. In the later years of the century, French is seen as a foreign language. A number of manuscripts in English survive that contain English romances. Most of these romances are edited in a series published by the Early English Text Society.(Click here for a list from UMass library.) Changes in manuscript production (almost all commercial rather than monastic), books sales, ideas of authorship, and so forth make this an extremely lively century for English literature.