Internet Medieval Sourcebook
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.