Middle English Period (in English literature)

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Middle English Period (in English literature)

Middle English Period (in English literature): A period in English literary history often said to span the years 1100—1500 but sometimes dated to 1066, the year of the Norman (French) conquest of England. The Middle English Period was punctuated by war, including the four Crusades (late eleventh—early thirteenth centuries), the French-English conflicts during the Hundred Years’ War (1337—1453), and the civil war known as the War of the Roses (1455—85), but also encompassed the signing of the Magna Carta (1215), which limited the power of the monarchy, and the introduction of printing into England by William Caxton in the 1470s. It is often divided into two parts: an Anglo-Norman phase dominated by French influence and ending around 1300 or 1350, and a later phase in which Middle English prevailed. Much of the literature of the period was anonymous; much was religious in nature, particularly in drama, and forms such as hagiography, sermons making use of exempla, and devotional manuals were popular. But secular genres also thrived, ranging from ballads, legends, and tales to chronicles (histories), dream visions, and medieval romances.

During the Anglo-Norman phase of the Middle English Period, a transitional form of English, bridging Old English and Middle English, competed with Anglo-Norman, a dialect of French. Scholarly works of this era were often written in Latin, which was also the language of the Christian Church, whereas works of “high” literature were written in Anglo-Norman, the language of the royal court and aristocracy. For instance, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s prose chronicle Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) (c. 1135—39), which included legends of the Arthurian court, was written in Latin, and Marie de France’s lais (c. 1160—78), narrative poems that drew on Celtic folklore, were composed in Anglo-Norman. The native English vernacular, by contrast, surfaced primarily in popular works, including drama; folk literature; lyrics, such as the mid-thirteenth-century song “Sumer Is Icumen In” (“Summer Has Arrived”); and metrical romances, such as King Horn (thirteenth century) and Havelok the Dane (c. 1300).

Middle English verse drew on both foreign and native literary forms and traditions. Layamon’s Brut (c. 1205), an early example, is a verse chronicle based on an Anglo-Norman version of Geoffrey’s Historia. “The Owl and the Nightingale,” a poem from the twelfth or thirteenth century, employed a French form, the débat, which featured a debate between two characters. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, poets imitating Marie de France and writing in Middle English developed the Breton lay, which drew on classical and Oriental lore as well as Celtic themes. In the latter half of the fourteenth century, a revival of verse written in alliterative meter, as was common in Old English literature, produced works including the dream vision Pearl and the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, both attributed to the same, anonymous poet, and William Langland’s dream vision Piers Plowman (c. 1362—95). At the same time, Middle English poetry flourished in different dialects. For instance, each of the aforementioned alliterative poems was written in the West Midlands dialect, whereas Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1387) was written in the East Midlands dialect. Chaucer, who was influenced heavily by Italian poets, particularly Boccaccio, and who experimented with a variety of genres and end-rhymed verse forms including rhyme royal, is also credited with the first efforts at humor based on dialect, particularly in “The Reeve’s Tale.” Other noted works include John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, or, Tales of the Seven Deadly Sins (1386—90), concerning courtly love, and James I’s dream vision in rhyme royal, The Kingis Quair (The King’s Book) (c. 1424).

Drama also began to develop in the Middle English Period. Miracle plays and mystery plays, forms of religious drama that arose within the Christian Church as dramatized parts of the liturgy, were subsequently sponsored by towns and religious and trade guilds, which often staged productions on festival days. Morality plays, which arose in the second half of the period and used allegory to make a moral point, portrayed the quest for salvation, featuring a protagonist who represented humanity as well as a cast of other characters vying for the protagonist’s soul. The interlude, a transitional form between religious and secular drama, arose toward the end of the Middle English Period.

In prose, Middle English came into its own in the latter half of the period and was the vehicle of the earliest known efforts of women writers in English. Noted religious works include Ancrene Wisse (c. 1200), a guide for anchoresses (female religious recluses); the fourteenth-century prose of mystic Richard Rolle, such as The Form of Perfect Living, which also offered advice to an anchoress; the “Wycliffe Bible” (c. 1380—82), the first complete translation of the Bible into English, led by theologian John Wycliffe; anchoress Julian of Norwich’s Showings, also known as the Revelations of Divine Love (“Short Text” 1373; “Long Text” c. 1393), the first known female-authored book in English; and the spiritual autobiography of Margery Kempe (c. 1436—38), the first-known autobiography in English, recorded by two scribes and now called The Book of Margery Kempe. Secular works include the correspondence of the landowning Paston family of Norfolk, England, commonly referred to as the “Paston Letters” (1422—1509), and Sir Thomas Malory’s medieval romance Le morte d’Arthur, an encyclopedic synthesis of almost three hundred years of the Arthurian literary tradition completed in 1470 and printed by Caxton in 1485.