Middle English literature



Middle English literature


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Middle English literature



Middle English, Anglo-Norman, Anglo-Latin


After the Conquest: dramatic changes in language and cultural temperament


Old English literature:                                           Middle English literature

realistic,matter-of-fact,unromantic,                           growing audience, a panorama of most

serious, often melancholic,                                        diverse folk of many social classes (castle,

monochrome gray, loyalty to the lord,                                   barnyard, town); the appearance of leasure

desperate courage in defeat,                                      class and an audience of women

rigorous adherence to the tribal code;                                   new type of secular entertainment:

major theme: agony of the lordless man,                   code continued but became chivalric

social alienation, noble and heroic deeds;                  agony of alienation, physical hardships for

audience: almost exclusively male;lords and              the sovereign lady

thanes - no mention of lower classes,           

strong courtly flavour,


…So they duly arrived                                                                                        The sumptuous bed on which she lay

in their grim war-graith and gear at the hall,                                                     Was beautiful. The drapes and tassel,

and, weary from the sea, stacked wide shields                                                  Sheets and pillows worth a castle.

of the toughest hardwood against the wall,                                                     The single gown she wore was sheer

…                                                                                                                         And made her shapely form appear.

… And the troops themselves                                                                          She’d thrown, in order to keep warm,

were as good as their weapons. Then a proud warrior                                    An ermine stole over her arm,

questioned the men concerning their origins:                                                  White fur with the lining dyed

„Where do you come from, carrying these                                                        Alexandrian purple. But her side,

Decorated shields and shirts of mail,                                                                Her face, her neck, her bosom

These cheek-hinged helmets and javelins?                                                        Showed whiter than the hawthorn blossom.

I am Hrithgar’s herald and an officer.                                                The knight moved towards the bed’s head.

I have never seen so impressive or large                                                            She asked him to sit down and said,

an assembly of strangers. Stoutness of heart,                                                   ”Lanval, fair friend, for you I’ve come,

bravery, not banishment, must have brought you to Hrothgar.”                   For you I have traveled far from home.

Then the man whose name was reknown for courage,                                    If you are brave and courteous,

the Geat leader, resolute in his helmet,                                                              You’ll be more glad and prosperous

answered in return: „We are retainers,                                                               Than ever was emperor or king,

from Hygelac’s band. Beowulf is my name.”                                                    For I love you over everything.”

                                               (Beowulf comes to Heorot)                Her loveliness transfixed his gaze.

                                                                                                                             Love pierced his eyes with its bright rays,

                                                                                                                             Set fire to and scorched his heart.

                                                                                                                             He gave fair answer on his part.

Her lieth our lord    all hewn to pieces                                                              „Lady,” he said, „if this should be

Good (man) on (the) sand.    Ever may he be sorry                                        your wish (and such joy meant for me),

Who now from this battle-play     thinks to turn.                                            To have me for your paramour,

I am old of life;     I do not want (to go away) from (here)                             There is no command, you may be sure,

But I myself beside    my lord,                                                                           Wise or foolish, what you will,

By so beloved (a) a man    think to lie (dead).                                                  Which I don’t promise to fulfill.

(The Battle of Maldon)                                            I’ll follow only your behest.

For you I’ll give up all the rest.”

When the lady heard him say

That he would love her in this way,

She bestowed on him her heart,

And her body, every part.

Now Lanval is on easy street!



 Whatever his needs are she will meet

               (from Mairie de France: Lanval)


Middle English secular songs: unique pictures of spring and May; merry country life outdoors; reverdie (a dance song or poem, which celebrates the coming of spring)

the appearance of romance and humour


Linguistic division: economic and social, rather than one of nationality

upper class (both Norman and Saxon) spoke: French; common folk (of both): English

no interest in the English language until the loss of Normandy in 1204 by King John

Anglo-Norman literature: entertainment for the elite; religious themes and important histories; Wace: Roman de Brut (C. 1170)(adaptation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Anglo-Latin Historia Regum Britanniae, contains the germ of Arthurian legends);

few lyrical pieces; most famous poet of Breton lais (short narratives, concisely organized, based on Celtic material, most often secular and usually set to music;): Marie de France (around 1180).

Further Breton lais in Middle English: Chaucer's Franklin's Tale and Wife of Bath's Tale.


works considered important; scholarly works: Latin

Geoffrey of Monmouth: Historia Regum Britanniae (1137) mythic history (Arthurian stories, Lear, Gorboduc (most influential chronicle of the Middle Ages)


1244: Decree of the Two Masters - English and French nobility separated

increased interest in the English language and culture

linguistic changes

4 main dialects: Southern, Northern, East Midland, West Midland

And certainly our language now used varyeth ferre from that which was used and spoken whan I was borne... And that comyn Englysshe that is spoken in one shyre varyeth from a nother. In so moche that in my dayes happened that certayne marchauntes were in a shippe in Tamyse [Thames] for to have sayled over the see into Zelande, and for lacke of wynde thei taryed atte forlond, and wente to lande for to refreshe them. And one of them named Sheffelde, a mercer, cam in to an hows and axed for mete, and specyally he axyd after 'eggys'. And the good wyf answered that she coude speke no Frenshe. And the merchaunt was angry, for he also coude speke no Frenshe, but wolde have hadde egges, and she understode hym not. And thenne at last a nother sayd that he wolde have 'eyren'. Then the good wyf sayd that she understod hym wel. Loo! What sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, 'egges' or 'eyren'? Certaynly, it is harde to playse every man by cause of dyversite & chaunge of language.” (Wm. Caxton: Preface to Eneydos, 1490;)


Chronological division of the Middle English period:

1066-1250: Period of Religious Record (for the common people, biblical, instructive)

1250-1350: Period of Religious and Secular Literature (mixture; moralistic as well as romances, Havelok and Horn)

1350-1400: Period of Great Individual Writers (Chaucer, the Pearl Poet, Langland, Gower)

1400-1500: Period of Imitation or Transition (overwhelming fame of Chaucer, internal wars)



homilies, sermons, paraphrases of the Bible – words of salvation to a disinherited people

few exceptions: secular literature of high aesthetic value

The Owl and the Nightingale (1220?, Nicholas de Guilford?, a judge)


rhymed, octosyllabic couplets, iambic tetrameter (romance metre) first used here

English (proverbs from King Alfred), French (rhyme) and Latin (influences of the Church)

debate, vigorous intellectual strife between Owl (allegory of Philosophy, Old Age, Didactic Poetry) and Nightingale (Art, Youth, Courtly Poetry)


'Owl,' she said, 'You asked me what                   "[H]ule, þu axest me," ho seide,                               How strange that such a barefaced liar
Accomplishment or skill I've got                       "3if ich kon eni oþer dede                                         As you should bluff so openly!
But singing in the summertide                            bute singen in sume tide,                                           D'you think they'll come so easily
And giving pleasure far and wide.                      an bringe blisse for & wide.                                      To God's high kingdom? By a song?
Why ask, when all your skills are less                  Wi axestu of craftes mine?                                       No, no. They'll surely find that long
Than that one art that I possess?                       Betere is min on þan alle þine                                    And contrite weeping and a plea
One song from me's worth more than all          betere is o song of mine muþe                                     For pardon for their sins will be
The songs the whole of owlkind bawl.             þan al þat eure þi kun kuþe                                      The only way to enter in.
The reason, if you'll hear, is this:                         an lust, ich telle þe wareuore.                                     I therefore say men should begin
Mankind was born for heavenly bliss,               Wostu to wan man was ibore?                                  To Weep much rather than to sing
(Did you know that of human birth?)               To þare blisse of houene-riche,                                   If they yearn for heaven's king.
And heaven has endless song and mirth.          þar euer is song & mur3þe iliche:                              There's not a single man alive
Thus every man of virtuous skill                         þider fundeþ eurich man                                            Who's free of sin; so all should strive
Hurries there with all his will.                             þat eni þing of gode kan.                                           With tears and weeping to atone
And thus in holy church men sing,                    Vorþi me singþ in holi-chirche,                                  Till all sweet things to sour are grown.
And priests compose their offering,                  an clerkes ginneþ songes wirche,                                I help this process on, God knows:
That song may keep in each man's mind           þat man iþenche bi þe songe                                       My songs no idiot course propose
The eternal home that he shall find,                   wider he shal, & þar bon longe:                                 But teach the listening Man to yearn
That he may not forget that bliss,                      þat he þe mur3þe ne uor3ete,                                     And make lament his chief concern.
But think of it and make it his.                           ac þarof þenche & bi3ete,                                         For thus he heeds his mortal state
And thus they heed the Church's lore                an nime 3eme of chirche steuene,                                               And groans because his sins are great
That heaven is joy for evermore.                         hu murie is þe blisse of houene.                                  I goad him on, by what I sing,

To wail his guilty trespassing.


Layamon: Brut  (C.1190) archaic, alliterative, heroic, nationalistic in spirit, French loanwords are ruled out

English epic in the OE tradition; alliterations, kennings, tribal code, descriptions of feasts

After Layamon the alliterative line is dormant for 150 years




growing interest in the English language and culture; French influence in literature

early medieval Englishromances: often based on French sources and originals

medieval romance: story of adventure and love which flourished from the mid 12th to the end of 14th century; before 1300: always in verse (common metre: octosyllabic couplet); focus on the individual hero, who emerges from a communal background (often a royal court, hence the importance of courtly and chivalrous ideals) and journeys alone, seeking adventure. The quest motif is fundamental. Growth in self-knowledge, achiveing fulfilment through overcoming obstacles. Women are of central concern, they allow authors to depict, analyze and celebrate matters of the heart. Love often ennobles the hero. Hero: ideal, chivalrous knight, wonderfully good-mannered, brave beyond belief, acultely conscious of honour and loyalty, even merciful to his enemies, helpful to the oppressed.


epics vs. romance

in the epic: hero retains some part of his personality; keeps some kind of logic, unity of action

romance: hero more of a type (gracious, courteous, breave, generous, debonaire, handsome - Lancelot, Gawain, Tristram, Galahad), aided by magic, less heroic in tone, more sophisticated, looser structure, less obvious unity of action ("epic superman is now a ladies' man in desperate straits, and supernatural powers come to his aid")

romance: "feminized" form of the old heroic literature

Medieval romances grouped into 3 cycles (according to their subject matter):

1. "The Matter of Britain"; two subgroups: the Arthurian Matter and Matter of England

2. "The Matter of Rome" (stories of Alexander, the Troyan war, Thebes and the Orient)

3. "The Matter of France" (cycles of Charlemagne, William of Orange)


although secular literature was deeply inspired by French works of chivalry; dawning  patriotism: preference for English subjects and English heroes

Matter of England: King Horn and Havelok the Dane

King Horn (c. 1225?, 1250?) the earliest surviving English verse romance, typical pattern (central themes: Exile, Return, Male Cinderella motif)

short, accentual metre: some influence from the rhyming ballad meters of Anglo-Norman poetry, the poem retains characteristics of Old English verse in a century when French-speaking Normans dominated English culture. Like Old English verse, its meter depends on several heavy stresses per line, though rhymed couplets have overshadowed the alliteration common to earlier English poems

typical pattern; central themes: Exile, Return, Male Cinderella motif (King Horn begins with the death of the hero's father at the hands of the Saracens who send Horn and his companions into exile. The young Horn finds himself with his twelve companions abandoned in Westernesse (identified with the Wirral peninsula near modern-day Liverpool). There the king's daughter, Rymenhild, declares her passion for Horn, and persuades her father to make him a knight. But Horn will not marry her until he has proved his worthiness, which he does by killing some invading Saracens. Jealous of his exploits, Horn's companion Fikenhild tells the king that Horn plans to kill him. Horn goes into exile again, this time in Ireland where he proves his military skill further by killing yet more invading Saracens. Though King Thurston offers his daughter Reynild in marriage as a reward, Horn remains loyal to Rymenhild. He returns in disguise when she is about to be forced into marriage with one King Mody, but then goes off to defeat the Saracens who murdered his father. When he returns he discovers that the evil Fikenhild has just forced Rymenhild to marry him. Horn quickly kills the traitor comrade, and he and Rymenhild then marry. Reynild, Thurston's daughter, is given in marriage to Horn's faithful comrade, Athulf, and everyone lives happily ever after.)


Alle beon he* bliþe                                                                                                                    be they/ of cheer

þat to my song lyþe.*                                                                                                                           listen

A sang ihc* schal 3ou singe                                                                                                                 song I

Of Murry þe Kinge.                                                                                                                               

King he was biweste*                                                                                                                          in the west

So* longe so hit laste.*                                                                                                                        as/ he lived

Godhild het* his quen;*                                                                                                                      was called/ queen

Fairer ne mi3te non ben,*                                                                                                                    fairer not might be none

He hadde a sone* þat het Horn,                                                                                                         son

Fairer ne miste* non beo born,                                                                                                           might/ be

Ne* no rein* vpon birine,*                                                                                                                 nor/ rain/ rain

Ne sunne vpon bischine.*                                                                                                                   shine

Fairer nis* non þane* he was                                                                                                              is not/ than

He was bri3t* so þe glas,                                                                                                                     bright

He was whit* so þe flur,*                                                                                                                    white/ flower

Rose-red was his colur.                                                                                                                         


Havelok the Dane (c.1275?) Exile, Return, Male Cinderella, folk elements; irregular, octosyllabic rhyming couplets; rough epic energy and vigour reminiscent of Beowulf

Havelok: ruled over the combined kingdom of England and Denmark

"Incipit Vita Hauelok Quondam / Rex Angliae Et Denemarchie"; "Here begins the life of Havelok, formerly king of England and Denmark" (allusion to the Scandinavean ancestry of many Northern English settlers).

The story is based on the exile-and-return motive combined with that of the dispossessed heir. Havelok, heir to the Danish throne, is rescued from murder by Grim, the fisherman, who flees with him to Grimsby, England. There Havelok becomes a scullion in the household of Earl Godrich, who is the warden of the English heiress, Goldborough. In order to degrade the princess Godrich marries her to Havelok. His royal origin is revealed by magic, the couple regains the Danish and English crowns and the traitors are punished.

Dame Sirith (c.1272-83) one of the rare fabliaux in Middle English literature which have come down to us
450 lines; the plot shows typical traits of the fabliau form: middle-class setting, stereotype characters, illicit love, trickery, broad humour and directness (story of Wilekin, the rich aristocratic clerk, Margery, the merchant's wife, and Dame
Sirith, the match-maker. For a long time, the clerk has unsuccessfully tried to seduce Margery. One day, when her husband is absent, he asks Dame Sirith to help him. She makes her dog weep by giving him hot spices and takes it to Margery. The merchant's wife can be persuaded that the weeping dog is her daughter transformed by the clerk whose love she refused. There is only one remedy for the weeping dog/daughter: Margery has to yield herself to the clerk during her husband's absence.)

Willikin: I’ve loved you many and many a year,                                Margery:                 By Jesus Christ our heavenly king,
Although I’ve never journeyed here                                                                                  I swear that I’ll do no such thing!
To show my love’s anxiety.                                                                                               May God above restore you!
For when your master’s here at home,                                                                             
A man can’t chat with you alone--                                                                                    I have my lord who is my spouse
At least not with propriety.                                                                                               Who took me virgin to this house;
…                                                                                                                                         I honour did we do it.
And since I knew that he was out,                                                                                    I love him well and he loves me;
This is why I’ve gone about                                                                                              Steel-true is our fidelity,
To have this conversation.                                                                                                And we shall never rue it.
So come, dear lady, and agree,                                                                                           Although he’s working far away,
And now and everlastingly                                                                                                I should be wrong to go astray
I’ll secretly adore you.                                                                                                         And set up as a whore.
Oh no! I never shall contract
To do that very faithless act
In bed or on the floor.

Margery: Welcome, Willikin, darling thing!                                                      Willikin:                 Lady, by my fasts till noon,
You are more welcome than the King!                                                                             I shall devotedly and soon
O, Willikin, my precious sweeting,                                                                                    Accomplish what you say.
I give you my most loving greeting,                                                                                  And now, old mother, you must go;
And all your will beside.                                                                                                     For by my faith, you surely know
You see I’ve wholly changed my mind:                                                                            That she and I must play.
I wouldn’t dream of being unkind                                                    Dame Siriz:            God knows I’ll leave you, holy sir
In case you drooped and died!                                                                                          …

God visit you with every pest
If you give her any rest
Whilst lying there inside!

Devout, allegoric interpretation: chaste wife=purified soul after baptism, absent husband=Christ, lover=worldly vanity, Dame Siriz=Devil,

Fabliau: short, humorous and typically bawdy poem. They abounded as elements of poetry in France of the 12th and 13th centuries and first appeared in English some 100 years later. In French, the verse form is almost invariably in octosyllabic couplets, but is variable in English. The themes deal for the most part with domestic comedy full of sexual innuendo of the merchant and middle classes. They have local settings and almost inevitably involve a lovers' triangle, trickery designed to gain favours from a desired woman most likely married or otherwise unavailable (one of the cloth or one too young etc.), and / or trickery designed to delude an ageing or otherwise undesirable husband to clear the way for a lover, worldly, opportunistic clergy.
comic source of fabliau: continual reversal of elements of courtly love—carnality for sentiment, lower-class for nobility

All other examples of fabliaux are Chaucerian Canterbury Tales: e.g. The Miller's Tale (considered the most outstanding example of a fabliau in Middle English), The Reeve's Tale, The Shipman's Tale, The Merchant's Tale (Best fabliaux in prose: Boccaccio’s Decamerone)

Courtly literature (King Horn) and popular literature (Dame Siriz) live side by side (Havelok); romance: courtly frame; fabliau: folk and middle-class frame utilizing courtly themes for purposes of humour, satire


Beast fable: folk elements, common people in all their moods, their naive pleasures represented in animal terms; environment: farm, barnyard; Reynard the Fox


LYRIC POEMS (short, emotional expressions of personal feeling) Middle English lyrics: imagery conventional rather than individual. Vast majority: religious verses sung in the praise of the Virgin or Christ, divine love and divine mercy, they center on the Passion and the figure of the crucified Saviour; moral and didactic in tone.
Secular poems: mainly love songs, comic accounts of seduction, verses in praise of spring (reverdie), and satires against friars, women, fashion

In Middle English lyric poems courtly, religious and popular are co-existent
Harley Lyrics: a collection of 32 Middle English Lyrics from the West Midlands (c. 1314-1325)

Source : http://seas3.elte.hu/coursematerial/CsikosDora/Middle_English.doc

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Middle English literature