English Literature

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III   MIDDLE ENGLISH PERIOD

Extending from 1066 to 1485, this period is noted for the extensive influence of French literature on native English forms and themes. From the Norman-French conquest of England in 1066 until the 14th century, French largely replaced English in ordinary literary composition, and Latin maintained its role as the language of learned works. By the 14th century, when English again became the chosen language of the ruling classes, it had lost much of the Old English inflectional system, had undergone certain sound changes, and had acquired the characteristic it still possesses of freely taking into the native stock numbers of foreign words, in this case French and Latin ones. Thus, the various dialects of Middle English spoken in the 14th century were similar to Modern English and can be read without great difficulty today.

The Middle English literature of the 14th and 15th centuries is much more diversified than the previous Old English literature. A variety of French and even Italian elements influenced Middle English literature, especially in southern England. In addition, different regional styles were maintained, in literature and learning had not yet been centralized. For these reasons, as well as because of the vigorous and uneven growth of national life, the Middle English period contains a wealth of literary monuments not easily classified.

A   Allegory

In the north and west, poems continued to be written in forms very like the Old English alliterative, four-stress lines. Of these poems, The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman, better known as Piers Plowman, is the most significant. Now thought to be by William Langland, it is a long, impassioned work in the form of dream visions (a favorite literary device of the day), protesting the plight of the poor, the avarice of the powerful, and the sinfulness of all people. The emphasis, however, is placed on a Christian vision of the life of activity, of the life of unity with God, and of the synthesis of these two under the rule of a purified church. As such, despite various faults, it bears comparison with the other great Christian visionary poem, La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy), by Dante. For both, the watchwords are heavenly love and love operative in this world.

A second and shorter alliterative vision poem, The Pearl, written in northwest England in about 1370, is similarly doctrinal, but its tone is ecstatic, and it is far more deliberately artistic. Apparently an elegy for the death of a small girl (although widely varying religious allegorical interpretations have been suggested for it), the poem describes the exalted state of childlike innocence in heaven and the need for all souls to become as children to enter the pearly gates of the New Jerusalem. The work ends with an impressive vision of heaven, from which the dreamer awakes. In general, poetry and prose expressing a mystical longing for, and union with, the deity is a common feature of the late Middle Ages, particularly in northern England.

B   Tales of Chivalry and Adventure

A third alliterative poem, supposedly by the same anonymous author who wrote The Pearl, is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late 1300s), a romance, or tale, of knightly adventure and love, of the general medieval type introduced by the French. Most English romances were drawn, as this one apparently was, from French sources. Most of these sources are concerned with the knights of King Arthur (see Arthurian Legend) and seem to go back in turn to Celtic tales of great antiquity. In Sir Gawain, against a background of chivalric gallantry, the tale is told of the knight’s resistance to the blandishments of another man’s beautiful wife.

C   Chaucer

Two other important, nonalliterative verse romances form part of the work of Geoffrey Chaucer. These are the psychologically penetrating Troilus and Criseyde (1385?), a tale of the fatal course of a noble love, laid in Homeric Troy and based on Il filostrato, a romance by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio; and The Knight’s Tale (1382?; later included in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), also based on Boccaccio. Immersed in court life and charged with various governmental duties that carried him as far as Italy, Chaucer yet found time to translate French and Latin works, to write under French influence several secular vision poems of a semiallegorical nature (The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls) and, above all, to compose The Canterbury Tales (probably after 1387). This latter work consists of 24 stories or parts of stories (mostly in verse in almost all the medieval genres) recounted by Chaucer through the mouths and in the several manners of a group of pilgrims bound for Canterbury Cathedral, who were representative of most of the classes of medieval England. Characterized by an extraordinary sense of life and fertility of invention, these narratives range from The Knight’s Tale to sometimes indelicate but remarkable tales of low life, and they concern a host of subjects: religious innocence, married chastity, villainous hypocrisy, female volubility—all illumined by great humor. With extraordinary artistry the stories are made to characterize their tellers.

D   Arthurian Legends

In the 15th century a number of poets were obviously influenced by Chaucer but, in general, medieval literary themes and styles were exhausted during this period. Sir Thomas Malory stands out for his great work, Le morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur, 1469-1470), which carried on the tradition of Arthurian romance, from French sources, in English prose of remarkable vividness and vitality. He loosely tied together stories of various knights of the Round Table, but most memorably of Arthur himself, of Galahad, and of the guilty love of Lancelot and Arthur’s queen, Guinevere. Despite the great variety of incident and the complications of plot in his work, the dominant theme is the need to sacrifice individual desire for the sake of national unity and religious salvation, the latter of which is envisioned in terms of the dreamlike but intense mystical symbolism of the Holy Grail.