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Middle English Literature Essay

9414 words - 38 pages

Middle English literatureThe Norman conquest of England in 1066 traditionally signifies the beginning of 200 years of the domination of French in English letters. French cultural dominance, moreover, was general in Europe at this time. French language and culture replaced English in polite court society and had lasting effects on English culture. But the native tradition survived, although little 13th-century, and even less 12th-century, vernacular literature is extant, since most of it was transmitted orally. Anglo-Saxon fragmented into several dialects and gradually evolved into Middle English, which, despite an admixture of French, is unquestionably English. By the mid-14th cent., Middle ...view middle of the document...

It drew from three rich sources of character and adventure: the legends of Charlemagne, the legends of ancient Greece and Rome, and the British legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Layamon's Brut , a late 13th-century metrical romance (a translation from the French), marks the first appearance of Arthurian matter in English. Original English romances based upon indigenous material include King Horn and Havelok the Dane , both 13th-century works that retain elements of the Anglo-Saxon heroic tradition.However, French romances, notably the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes , were far more influential than their English counterparts. In England French romances popularized ideas of adventure and heroism quite contrary to those of Anglo-Saxon heroic literature and were representative of wholly different values and tastes. Ideals of courtly love, together with its elaborate manners and rituals, replaced those of the heroic code; adventure and feats of courage were pursued for the sake of the knight's lady rather than for the sake of the hero's honor or the glory of his tribal king.Continental verse forms based on metrics and rhyme replaced the Anglo-Saxon alliterative line in Middle English poetry (with the important exception of the 14th-century alliterative revival). Many French literary forms also became popular, among them the fabliau; the exemplum, or moral tale; the animal fable; and the dream vision. The continental allegorical tradition, which derived from classical literature, is exemplified by the Roman de la Rose , which had a strong impact on English literature.A number of 13th-century secular and religious Middle English lyrics are extant, including the exuberant Sumer Is Icumen In , but like Middle English literature in general, the lyric reached its fullest flower during the second half of the 14th cent. Lyrics continued popular in the 15th cent., from which time the ballad also dates.The Fourteenth CenturyThe poetry of the alliterative revival, the unexplained reemergence of the Anglo-Saxon verse form in the 14th cent., includes some of the best poetry in Middle English. The Christian allegory The Pearl is a poem of great intricacy and sensibility that is meaningful on several symbolic levels. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight , by the same anonymous author, is also of high literary sophistication, and its intelligence, vividness, and symbolic interest render it possibly the finest Arthurian poem in English. Other important alliterative poems are the moral allegory Piers Plowman , attributed to William Langland, and the alliterative Morte Arthur, which, like nearly all English poetry until the mid-14th cent., was anonymous.The works of Geoffrey Chaucer mark the brilliant culmination of Middle English literature. Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales are stories told each other by pilgrims-who comprise a very colorful cross section of 14th-century English society-on their way to the shrine at Canterbury. The...

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