Literature of the Middle English Period
The official language of the Normans was French along with Scandinavian. French was the language of the ruling class of the period and Anglo Saxon was the language of the lower classes. In the inflectional aspects there was simplification in the language. After a while, the upper classes began to learn Anglo-Saxon words and the lower classes learnt some French words and there emerged a new language. This blend is referred to by scholars as Middle English.
The dialects were:
1. The Northern dialect – corresponded to the Old Northumbrian
2. East Midland dialect – corresponded to Mercian
3. West Midland dialect – also corresponded to Mercian
4. South eastern – corresponded to Kentish
5. South western – corresponded to West-Saxon
The midland dialect slowly became the most predominant from this we get the standard English we speak today.
This period can be divided into 3 phases:
- The Early Middle English – 1100-1250
- Middle English – 1250 – 1400
- Late Middle English – 1400 - 1500
The literature of the time falls into 2 main categories:
- Romantic literature
- Religious or Didactic
The Romances in the Middle English period were only a continuation of the tradition already established in France by French writers.
- The Romances dealt with the advantages of great or brave knights who fought against giants, criminals, thieves and Saracens (Islamic tribes) and in crusades (holy wars)
- These romances idealized love and honour
- These legends and stories were circulated by wandering minstrels or troubadours. They would go around singing these stories and then they were written down.
Examples of Romances in the written form
- The Matiere de Bretagne (The Matter of Britain (in English))
It was a collection of legends written by a variety of French authors. This collection originated in Brittany and Wales. They had to do with King Arthur and his knights. King Arthur was probably a chieftain who lived during the 5th and 6th Century in England and helped to fight the invasion of the Saxons. Arthurian romances are found in cycles, the most important ones being:
- The Quest of the Holy Grail
- The Death of Arthur
- Geoffrey de Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae (History of the Kingdom of Britain) was compiled in 1140. In this book too there are Arthurian legends. This book was translated into French verse by a Norman monk by name of Wace and he called it Gestes des Brefons (deeds of the Britains). Wace’s work was adapted by a monk in Worcestershire named Layamon. In the year 1200 Layamon rewrote this Arthurian literature into Middle English in the poetic form and added to them stories of fairies and magic which he got from the early Norman sources. It was called the Brut as the protagonist was named Brutus. Brutus was the great grandson of Aeneas who was the protagonist of Aenead written by Virgil. Brutus went to England and thus became the ancestor of the heroes of the Arthurian legends. Brut was the first major poem of this period and it maintains the alliterative form. It introduces rhyme. Yet another reason for its importance is because it lent inspiration to other writers and minstrels and the same heroes in Brut became the subjects of a lot of other poetry which spread in England, France and Germany. Two of the most famous poems inspired by Brut are Sir Gawain & the Green Knight and The Pearl.
- A French romance called Chanson de Roland (song of Roland) written in French in the 12th Century.
Religious and Didactic Poetry
- The first and important piece of religious poetry is Cursor Mundi written in the Northern Middle English dialect. It contains about 30,000 lines written in 8 syllabled couplets. The poet remains unknown.
- The Ormulum – the poet was an Augustian monk called Orm. It is an important poem with 10,000 lines in blank verse. The subject – translation of 30 Sunday gospels.
- The Prick of Conscience written by Richard Rolle, a hermit in Yorkshire. This poem is partly English and partly Latin. It is a meditation on life, death and life after death.
- The Love Rune (song), written by a monk, Thomas de Hales. This poem is in the form of a lyric and its theme is divine love.
- The Owl and the Nightingale is the argument between the owl and the nightingale. The owl which represents wisdom and sobriety. The nightingale represents light- heartedness. It is attributed to Nicholas de Guildford. Written in the early 13th century, this poem shows us the spirit of the period.
There are 4 very beautiful poems written in the West- midland dialect and they are:
- The Pearl
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Both the authorship and the dates are uncertain. The first three are religious in nature. The last one is remarkable for its plot, its realism, characterisation, descriptive passages and alliteration.
The two distinct features of Middle English poetry are:
- The development and popularity of the lyric form. This happened because of the fusion of French with Anglo-Saxon which produced a new sounding language. The techniques brought by French writers such as rhyme, rhythm and metre were adopted by English writers. Love and the season of spring were the main themes in lyrical poems. The Cuckoo Song is the most important lyric poem from the Middle English period.
- Innovations in metrical patterns. Although the alliterative poems were still being written, slowly poems with a definite rhyme and a definite metrical pattern began to be written.
It is mainly religious prose that the period inspired. The most striking example of religious prose – Ancrene Riwle (The Rule of the Anchoress). It was a code of conduct for those who aspired to be nuns, those nuns who lived in solitude. This reveals a deep understanding of human life. It was probably written in the 12th Century.
This referred to something that is outside religion. One example is, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. It is the account of an imaginary journey to Jerusalem and the East by a character called John Mandeville. Most scholars believe that the writer of this piece was a Frenchman called Jean d’ Outremeuse. The original was in French. It was translated into a midland dialect. The whole piece is a medley of highly fantastic tales as well as sober truths. It was probably influenced by the travels of Marco Polo.
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