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Th-15th century: Middle English period

English Literature

English Literature consists of the poetry, prose, and drama written in the English language by authors in England, Scotland, and Wales from the introduction of Old English by the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century to the present. The works of those Irish and Scottish authors who are closely identified with English life are also considered part of English literature.

English literature is a rich literature. It includes masterpieces in many forms, particularly the novel, the short story, epic and lyric poetry, the essay, literary criticism, and drama. English literature is also one of the oldest national literatures in the Western world. English authors wrote important works as early as the A.D. 700's.

English authors have always been deeply interested in the political and social conditions of their times. In their works, they have described, criticized, and commented on the society in which they lived and often used their works to promote economic, political, and social reforms, as well as to reach purely aesthetic goals.

Old English literature (500-1100)

English literature started as Old English poetry and prose written in the various dialects of Old English. This language was brought from Europe by the Germanic tribes of the Angles, the Jutes, and the Saxons who overran England in the 5th century. They also brought a poetic tradition that remained relatively constant until the conquest by Norman-French invaders in 1066. Another important historic event that influence the formation of English national literature was the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, which St. Augustine of Canterbury started in 597. So, English literature began through the combined influence of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the Christian church.

Old English poetry, brought by the Anglo-Saxons, was alliterative, i.e. without rhyme, using words that begin with the same sound, though it had internal rhyme, in which a word within a line rhymes with a word at the end of the line. Old English poetry heavily relied upon kennings (elaborate descriptive phrases). Such poems, usually glorifying a real or imaginary hero and tried to teach the values of bravery and generosity, were delivered orally, i.e. chanted by a bard with harp or drum accompaniment.

The first major work of English literature and the greatest surviving epic poem is "Beowulf" (c. 700), which recounts the hero's battles with mythical foes such as the man-eating Grendel and his mother. The heroic tradition was continued in "The Battle of Maldon" written soon after the event 991, which glorifies heroic values of courage in defeat.

After about 750, poetry flourished in Northumbria, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in the north. There, poets wrote verses about the lives and hardships of saints. The leading Northumbrian poet was Cynewulf. Several works are attributed to him, including the religious poems "The Fates of the Apostles" and "Elene" elegies, written before 940, which express the sense of loneliness in exile and an inflexible Fate.

Due to its oral form, much poetry has been lost. What remains owes its survival to monastic scribes who favoured verse with a Christian motivation or flavour. Such was one of the earliest attributed short poems praising God, "Caedmon's Hymn", which consists of nine lines, and was written by Caedmon the herder. He was the first Enlish poet known by name, who lived during the 600's and reputedly was inspired to sing about the Creation by a vision.

Prose in Old English was a later achievement represented by many religious works. Most prose writers wrote in Latin until the late 800's when King Alfred the Great of Wessex started English translations of Latin works. The most prominent prosaic work of the Old English Period is the Latin work "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" (731) by Saint Bede the Venerable, first published in Latin and then translated between 871 and 899. This work is the first history of the English people and a valuable source of information about English life from the late 500's to 731.

Historical writing began with the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" (from about 892 to 1154) -- at first brief notes of yearly events but later a dignified and even poetic record of current events in England. The existing version of the
"Chronicle" dates from King Alfred's reign and was compiled from earlier records (now lost).

Some spells and riddles have also survived, including some later included into the famous "Mother Goose" collection of nursery rhymes.

th-15th century: Middle English period

In 1066, Norman ruling class conquered England and began the rise of Norman-French in English cultural life. So this period, extending from 1066 to 1485, is noted for the influence of French literature on native English writing. French largely replaced English in fiction and poetry and Latin remained the language of learned works, with only the common people speaking English. It was not until the 13th century that the native literature regained its strength and only by the 14th century, English (in its altered form now called Middle English) was again the language of the ruling classes. Middle English included elements of French, Latin, Old English, and local dialects.

Middle English literature of the 14th and 15th centuries is more diversified than the Old English literature. Prose was concerned chiefly with popular devotional use, but verse emerged typically in the numerous romances based on the stories of Charlemagne, the classical episodes of Troy, and the Arthurian legends. Medieval romances (adventure stories, usually in verse, about battles and heroes) originated in France during the 1100's and by the end of the 1200's, they had become the most popular literary form in England. Such is the popular poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (1370?), drawn from a French source.

Of purely native inspiration was a popular Christian visionary poem "The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman", better known as "Piers Plowman" attributed to William Langland and written in the old alliterative verse in the late 1300s. Religious and symbolic "Piers Plowman" provides a fascinating glimpse of English life during the 1300's as well as the anonymous poem "Pearl".

The greatest poet of the period and the first of the great English poets was Geoffrey Chaucer, author of the famous "The Canterbury Tales" (probably after 1387) written in classical Middle English. It is an unfinished collection of comic and moral stories of a group of pilgrims going to Canterbury Cathedral. Chaucer introduced a rhythmic pattern called iambic pentameter into English poetry. This meter consists of 10 syllables alternately unaccented and accented in each line, which may or may not rhyme. Iambic pentameter became a widely used meter in English poetry though Chaucer's mastery of versification was not shared by his successors. More successful were the anonymous authors of songs and carols, and of the ballads, which (for example, those concerned with Robin Hood) often formed a complete cycle.

Drama flowered in the form of miracle, and morality plays which originated from brief scenes that monks acted out in churches to illustrate Biblical stories. Morality plays appeared during the 1400's and featured characters who represented a certain quality, such as good or evil, to teach a moral lesson. Eventually, craft and merchant guilds (associations) took over presentation of the plays and staged them in town squares.

Prose rose to a great height with Thomas Malory in the 15th century. His romance "Le Morte Darthur", or "The Death of Arthur" (1469-1470) is the most complete English version of stories about Arthur. Malory's masterpiece set the tradition of Arthurian legends in English prose and has kept its popularity for many a century.


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