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Middle English Period Essay

1260 words - 6 pages

Middle English Period
(1066 - 1400)


1096-9 The first Crusade, the capture of Jerusalem
1138 Geoffrey of Monmouth: Historia Regum Britanniae (Latin) -the most important source of the Arthurian legends
1152 Marriage of future Henry II to Eleanor of Aquitaine
1154 Last entries in the Peterborough copy of Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
1155 Wace dedicates Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut to Eleanor
1170 Murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury
c.1200 The Owl and the Nightingale,
1204 Loss of Normandy: division of Angevin kingdom
1215 Magna Carta, Fourth Lateran Council: annual confession obligatory
c. 1220 Layamon's Brut
1224 Arrival of Franciscan friars in England
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1390 MS Cotton Nero A x.: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,
Pearl, Patience, Cleanness
1415 Agincourt: great English victory over the French
1415 Important record of York play cycle
c.1430 Development of Wakefield play cycle
c.1440 Development of N-town play cycle
1453 Byzantium falls to the Ottoman
1455-85 The Wars of the Roses (Lancaster and York)
1469-70 Malory completes Le Morte Darthur
c.1470 Morality plays: Wisdom, Mankind
1476 First English press set up by William Caxton


Derek Pearsall characterises the difference between Old and Middle English verse in a way that is characteristic of most of the literature of the two periods:

“The dominance of the classical (Germanic) tradition in Old English verse is almost monolithic, and one searches painfully for scraps of other influences; … its resistance to alien forms such as rhyme is remarkable. Early Middle English verse, by contrast is amorphous: not the product of a single coherent tradition with a systematic style and diction and a standardised language, but a series of fragmentary and imperfect responses to a multitude of European influences, in a language thrown open to the winds of change. Anglo-Saxon England had its contacts with the continent, but England is now part of the continent, and not a very important part.” (Old English and Middle English Poetry, London: Routledge, 1977. p.85)

The most important changes:

Educated people, clerics, courtiers after the Norman Conquest usually used three rather than two languages: French, English, and Latin, which remained the language of the church. Literary works were also composed in these languages. To obtain a full picture about literature in England in this period one would have to study all three fields. E.g. the major works of Geoffrey Chaucer’s contemporary in the 14th century, John Gower were in those three languages.

New topics like love, new genres like the romance and lyric poetry, and new verse forms appeared in literary works in English. Besides a loosened up version of the Old English kind of alliterative line appearing in poems of what is called the alliterative revival (e.g. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) a new, European kind of versification system, based on the regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, metrical feet (iambs, trochees, etc.), and ornamental rhyme was introduced.

Whereas in the later Old English period, the time when most now extant manuscripts were copied, the royal court and administration functioned in English, in the later Middle Ages there was no such standardizing force active in the language. As a result documents preserve the local...

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