Middle English literature


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Middle English literature,

English literature of the medieval period, c.1100 to c.1500. See also English literatureEnglish literature,
literature written in English since c.1450 by the inhabitants of the British Isles; it was during the 15th cent. that the English language acquired much of its modern form.
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 and Anglo-Saxon literatureAnglo-Saxon literature,
the literary writings in Old English (see English language), composed between c.650 and c.1100.

See also English literature. Poetry
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.

Background

The Norman ConquestNorman Conquest,
period in English history following the defeat (1066) of King Harold of England by William, duke of Normandy, who became William I of England. The conquest was formerly thought to have brought about broad changes in all phases of English life.
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 of England in 1066 traditionally signifies the beginning of 200 years of the domination of French in English letters. French cultural dominance, moreover, was general in Europe at this time. French language and culture replaced English in polite court society and had lasting effects on English culture. But the native tradition survived, although little 13th-century, and even less 12th-century, vernacular literature is extant, since most of it was transmitted orally. Anglo-Saxon fragmented into several dialects and gradually evolved into Middle English, which, despite an admixture of French, is unquestionably English. By the mid-14th cent., Middle English had become the literary as well as the spoken language of England.

The Early Period

Several poems in early Middle English are extant. The OrrmulumOrrmulum
or Ormulum
, Middle English collection of homilies on the Gospels, in verse, comprising about 10,000 lines in all. The collection was written c.1200 by Orrm (or Orrmin), an Augustinian canon of Lincolnshire.
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 (c.1200), a verse translation of parts of the Gospels, is of linguistic and prosodic rather than literary interest. The Owl and the NightingaleOwl and the Nightingale, The,
Middle English poem written probably by Nicholas de Guildford of Dorsetshire about the beginning of the 13th cent. Written in 2,000 lines of octosyllabic couplets, it describes a debate between the sober owl and the merry nightingale as to their
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, of approximately the same date, is the first example in English of the débat, a popular continental form; in the poem, the owl, strictly monastic and didactic, and the nightingale, a free and amorous secular spirit, charmingly debate the virtues of their respective ways of life.

The Thirteenth Century

Middle English prose of the 13th cent. continued in the tradition of Anglo-Saxon prose—homiletic, didactic, and directed toward ordinary people rather than polite society. The "Katherine Group" (c.1200), comprising three saints' lives, is typical. The Ancren RiwleAncren Riwle
or Ancrene Wisse
[Mid. Eng.,=anchoresses' rule], English tract written c.1200 by an anonymous English churchman for the instruction of three young ladies about to become religious recluses.
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 (c.1200) is a manual for prospective anchoresses; it was very popular, and it greatly influenced the prose of the 13th and 14th cent. The fact that there was no French prose tradition was very important to the preservation of the English prose tradition.

In the 13th cent. the romanceromance
[O.Fr.,=something written in the popular language, i.e., a Romance language]. The roman of the Middle Ages was a form of chivalric and romantic literature widely diffused throughout Europe from the 11th cent.
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, an important continental narrative verse form, was introduced in England. It drew from three rich sources of character and adventure: the legends of Charlemagne, the legends of ancient Greece and Rome, and the British legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. LayamonLayamon
, fl. c.1200, first prominent Middle English poet. He described himself as a humble priest attached to the church at Ernley (Arley Regis) near Radstone. His Brut
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's BrutBrut,
 Brute
, or Brutus
, a Trojan, legendary founder of the British race, descendant of Aeneas. His story appears in Nennius and in Geoffrey of Monmouth, and his name gives the titles to long poems by Wace and Layamon.
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, a late 13th-century metrical romance (a translation from the French), marks the first appearance of Arthurian matter in English (see Arthurian legendArthurian legend,
the mass of legend, popular in medieval lore, concerning King Arthur of Britain and his knights. Medieval Sources

The battle of Mt. Badon—in which, according to the Annales Cambriae (c.
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). Original English romances based upon indigenous material include King HornKing Horn,
probably the earliest English-language romance, written c.1250 and containing about 1,500 lines. It is by an anonymous author and is based on an earlier work in French.
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 and Havelok the DaneHavelok the Dane,
English 13th-century metrical romance. It concerns a prince brought up as a scullion, who, after discovering his true identity, wins the kingdoms of Denmark and England.
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, both 13th-century works that retain elements of the Anglo-Saxon heroic tradition.

However, French romances, notably the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de TroyesChrétien de Troyes
or Chrestien de Troyes
, fl. 1170, French poet, author of the first great literary treatments of the Arthurian legend. His narrative romances, composed c.1170–c.
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, were far more influential than their English counterparts. In England French romances popularized ideas of adventure and heroism quite contrary to those of Anglo-Saxon heroic literature and were representative of wholly different values and tastes. Ideals of courtly lovecourtly love,
philosophy of love and code of lovemaking that flourished in France and England during the Middle Ages. Although its origins are obscure, it probably derived from the works of Ovid, various Middle Eastern ideas popular at the time, and the songs of the troubadours.
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, together with its elaborate manners and rituals, replaced those of the heroic code; adventure and feats of courage were pursued for the sake of the knight's lady rather than for the sake of the hero's honor or the glory of his tribal king.

Continental verse forms based on metrics and rhyme replaced the Anglo-Saxon alliterative line in Middle English poetry (with the important exception of the 14th-century alliterative revival). Many French literary forms also became popular, among them the fabliaufabliau,
plural fabliaux , short comic, often bawdy tale in verse that deals realistically and satirically with middle-class or lower-class characters. Fabliaux were often directed against marriage and against members of the clergy.
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; the exemplum, or moral tale; the animal fable; and the dream vision. The continental allegorical tradition, which derived from classical literature, is exemplified by the Roman de la RoseRoman de la Rose, Le
, French poem of 22,000 lines in eight-syllable couplets. It is in two parts. The first (4,058 lines) was written (c.1237) by Guillaume de Lorris and was left unfinished. It is an elaborate allegory on the psychology of love, often subtle and charming.
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, which had a strong impact on English literature.

Medieval works of literature often center on a popular rhetorical figure, such as the ubi sunt, which remarks on the inevitability—and sadness—of change, loss, and death; and the cursor mundi, which harps on the vanity of human grandeur. A 15,000-line 13th-century English poem, the Cursor Mundi, retells human history (i.e., the medieval version—biblical plus classical story) from the point of view its title implies.

A number of 13th-century secular and religious Middle English lyrics are extant, including the exuberant Sumer Is Icumen InSumer Is Icumen In
[M.E.,=summer has (literally: is) come in], an English rota or round composed c.1250. It is the earliest extant example of canon, of six part music, and of ground bass. Four tenor voices are in canon and two bass voices sing the pes, or ground, also in canon.
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, but like Middle English literature in general, the lyriclyric,
in ancient Greece, a poem accompanied by a musical instrument, usually a lyre. Although the word is still often used to refer to the songlike quality in poetry, it is more generally used to refer to any short poem that expresses a personal emotion, be it a sonnet, ode,
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 reached its fullest flower during the second half of the 14th cent. Lyrics continued popular in the 15th cent., from which time the balladballad,
in literature, short, narrative poem usually relating a single, dramatic event. Two forms of the ballad are often distinguished—the folk ballad, dating from about the 12th cent., and the literary ballad, dating from the late 18th cent.
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 also dates.

The Fourteenth Century

The poetry of the alliterative revival (see alliterationalliteration
, the repetition of the same starting sound in several words of a sentence. Probably the most powerful rhythmic and thematic uses of alliteration are contained in Beowulf, written in Anglo-Saxon and one of the earliest English poems extant.
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), the unexplained reemergence of the Anglo-Saxon verse form in the 14th cent., includes some of the best poetry in Middle English. The PearlPearl, The,
one of four Middle English alliterative poems, all contained in a manuscript of c.1400, composed in the West Midland dialect, almost certainly by the same anonymous author, who flourished c.1370–1390.
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, a Christian allegory, is a poem of great intricacy and sensibility that is meaningful on several symbolic levels. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by the same anonymous author, is also of high literary sophistication, and its intelligence, vividness, and symbolic interest render it possibly the finest Arthurian poem in English. Other important alliterative poems are the moral allegory Piers Plowman, attributed to William LanglandLangland, William,
c.1332–c.1400, putative author of Piers Plowman. He was born probably at Ledbury near the Welsh marshes and may have gone to school at Great Malvern Priory. Although he took minor orders he never became a priest.
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, and the alliterative Morte Arthur, which, like nearly all English poetry until the mid-14th cent., was anonymous.

The works of Geoffrey ChaucerChaucer, Geoffrey
, c.1340–1400, English poet, one of the most important figures in English literature. Life and Career

The known facts of Chaucer's life are fragmentary and are based almost entirely on official records.
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 mark the brilliant culmination of Middle English literature. Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales are stories told each other by pilgrims—who comprise a very colorful cross section of 14th-century English society—on their way to the shrine at Canterbury. The tales are cast into many different verse forms and genres and collectively explore virtually every significant medieval theme. Chaucer's wise and humane work also illuminates the full scope of medieval thought. Overshadowed by Chaucer but of some note are the works of John GowerGower, John
, 1330?–1408, English poet. He was the best-known contemporary and friend of Chaucer, who addressed him as "Moral Gower," at the end of Troilus and Criseyde.
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.

The Fifteenth Century

The 15th cent. is not distinguished in English letters, due in part to the social dislocation caused by the prolonged Wars of the Roses. Of the many 15th-century imitators of Chaucer the best-known are John LydgateLydgate, John
, c.1370–c.1450, English poet, a monk of Bury St. Edmunds. A professed disciple of Chaucer, he was one of the most influential, voluminous, and versatile writers of the Middle Ages.
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 and Thomas HoccleveHoccleve or Occleve, Thomas
, c.1368–c.1450, English poet, an imitator of Chaucer. He was a clerk in the office of the Privy Seal.
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. Other poets of the time include Stephen HawesHawes, Stephen,
c.1475–1530, English poet. His best-known works, the two allegories Example of Virtue (1504?) and Pastime of Pleasure (1505?), use typically medieval conventions, but they differ from medieval allegory in their humanist emphasis on learning,
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 and Alexander BarclayBarclay, Alexander
, 1475?–1552, Scottish clergyman and poet. Although the first to write pastoral eclogues in English, he is best known for The Ship of Fools (1509), a translation and elongation of Sebastian Brant's widely popular poem Das Narrenschiff.
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 and the Scots poets William DunbarDunbar, William,
c.1460–c.1520, Scottish poet. After attending the Univ. of St. Andrews he was attached for some time to the Franciscans, probably as a novice. By 1491 he seems to have been connected with the court of James IV as a poet and minor diplomat.
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, Robert HenrysonHenryson, Robert,
c.1425–c.1506, Scottish poet. It is thought that he was a schoolmaster at Dunfermline Abbey. His principal poem is The Testament of Cresseid, which was written as a harshly moral epilogue to Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde.
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, and Gawin DouglasDouglas, Gawin or Gavin
, 1474?–1522, Scottish poet and churchman; son of Archibald Douglas, 5th earl of Angus. He is considered one of the great medieval Scottish poets. Douglas was Bishop of Dunkeld.
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. The poetry of John SkeltonSkelton, John,
1460–1529, English poet and humanist. Tutor to Prince Henry (later Henry VIII), he later (c.1502) became rector of Diss, Norfolk. In 1512 he began to call himself royal orator, a position that may have been conferred by Henry VIII requiring that Skelton
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, which is mostly satiric, combines medieval and Renaissance elements.

William CaxtonCaxton, William,
c.1421–91, English printer, the first to print books in English. He served apprenticeship as a mercer and from 1463 to 1469 was at Bruges as governor of the Merchants Adventurers in the Low Countries, serving as a diplomat for the English king.
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 introduced printing to England in 1475 and in 1485 printed Sir Thomas MaloryMalory, Sir Thomas
, d. 1471, English author of Morte d'Arthur. It is almost certain that he was Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell, Warwickshire. Knighted in 1442, he served in the parliament of 1445.
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's Morte d'Arthur. This prose work, written in the twilight of chivalrychivalry
, system of ethical ideals that arose from feudalism and had its highest development in the 12th and 13th cent.

Chivalric ethics originated chiefly in France and Spain and spread rapidly to the rest of the Continent and to England.
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, casts the Arthurian tales into coherent form and views them with an awareness that they represent a vanishing way of life. The miracle playmiracle play
or mystery play,
form of medieval drama that came from dramatization of the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. It developed from the 10th to the 16th cent., reaching its height in the 15th cent.
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, a long cycle of short plays based upon biblical episodes, was popular throughout the Middle Ages in England. The morality playmorality play,
form of medieval drama that developed in the late 14th cent. and flourished through the 16th cent. The characters in the morality were personifications of good and evil usually involved in a struggle for a man's soul.
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, an allegorical drama centering on the struggle for man's soul, originated in the 15th cent. The finest of the genre is EverymanEveryman,
late-15th-century English morality play. It is the counterpart of the Dutch play Elckerlijk; which of these anonymous plays is the original has been the subject of controversy.
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.

Bibliography

See J. W. Wells, Manual of the Writings in Middle English (1916–51); R. M. Wilson, Early Middle English Literature (3d ed. 1968); M. Schlauch, English Medieval Literature and Its Social Foundation (1956, repr. 1971); J. A. Burrow, Medieval Writers and Their Work (1982).

References in periodicals archive ?
This work thus adds greatly to our understanding of late Middle English literature.
A cynical reviewer might be tempted to read this as a coded apology for the uncomfortable fact that the research assessment of university departments, combined with the over-cultivation of some fields of Middle English literature, is currently forcing mediaevalists to publish more and more about less and less; but it is fair to say that in this case at least the cynicism would be unjustified.
Contributors identified only by name look for comedy in some neglected corners, but also offer new insights into well trodden paths of Middle English literature.