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UNIT 1

THE BEGINNINGS OF
ENGLISH: OLD AND MIDDLE
ENGLISH (450-1485)
Contexts and conditions
 Literature: words, speech
 Fragments of literature from the Anglo-Saxon period
 Motivations and inspirations: comfort, consolation;
problems; affirmation of social, political, and
ideological standpoints
 Spread of Anglo-Saxon (Old English) considered one
of the most significant elements in moulding a national
identity
Personal and religious voices
 First fragment: Caedmon’s Hymn (c. 670)
 Voice of everyday people: ordinary human experience
told in the first person, inviting the listener to identify
and sympathise with these feelings
 Other texts: Deor’s Lament, The Wanderer, The Seafarer.
Importance of memory and things past (UBI SUNT?),
but also hope for the future
 The Dream of the Rood (7th century): complexity of
expression, representational more than referential
 . Cynewulf: only other poet known; religious poems
Oral tradition and poetry: formal
features
 . Head-rhyme: double line with a break in the
middle (caesura); alliteration
 Ongeat þa se goda grund-wyrgenne
 . Kennings: compounds used to describe things
indirectly, usually chosen to meet alliterative
requirements (hronrad – whale-road, ‘the sea’;
banhus – bone-house, ‘the human body’)
Long poems
 . Beowulf: epic poem; people and setting Germanic; shared heroic
past
 . Mixture of facts and fiction: historical events + monsters
 . The main character is a hero, but a mortal man as well, a fact
illustrated by images of doom which prepare the audience for the
tragic outcome
 . A poem of praise, a tragedy, and an elegy. It admits many
readings: myth, historical document, hope for the future
 . Dates of the poem: events, composition, written text.
 . Beginning of a heroic tradition
 . The Battle of Maldon: more a document of a battle, a defeat in
991; more factual, less fictional; a different authorial point of
view
Works in prose
 . Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the
English People, written in Latin
 . The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: inspired by King
Alfred, the Great
French influence and English
affirmation
 . The world of warriors and battles was doomed to change after the Norman Conquest
of 1066; and also the language. Normans brought with them French language and
culture, and English had to struggle to survive. Only in 1415 King Henry V affirmed
English as the dominant language
 . Layamon’s Brut: national epic in English; story of King Arthur and the Knights of the
Round Table.
 . Different sources: Wace, Geoffrey of Monmouth. Search for classical roots, wish for
historical continuity; England was seeking to establish its ‘Englishness’
 . Courtly love: warrior heroes sing of love. The new love theme comes from Provence,
from the troubadours. For them, love is a religious passion, unattainable and
unfulfilled; maybe related to the spread of the worship of the Virgin Mary, or to the
figure of the women at home, waiting for the crusaders
 . Romance tradition and French literature: Le Roman de la Rose, fidelity, feminine
imagery; a code of behaviour where women are always subordinate to men
 . Songs and ballads: local tradition, popular
Language and dialect
 . London language was predominant in artistic
expressions, helped by the university cities of
Oxford and Cambridge
 . Presence of other dialects, usually related to the
‘Alliterative Revival’
 . Authors writing in Latin, French and English
From anonymity to individualism
 . Anonymous verse at the beginning of the period: The
Owl and the Nightingale, Winner and Waster; genre of
debate or ‘conflictus’
 . Pearl and the ‘dream vision’ form: gap between
perfection and humanity
 . Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: a ‘lay’, with an implied
audience and a bard telling a story. There is an
ambiguous treatment of the chivalric code of truth and
honour. A questioning of heroism and historical myths,
bringing human weakness to the fore
Women’s voices
 . Marie de France’s Lais; Ancrene Wisse or Ancrene
Riwle, a book of advice for nuns
 . Julian of Norwich and visionary writing:
Revelations of Divine Love, written after a
miraculous recovery on her deathbed
 . The Book of Margery Kempe: an illiterate woman,
she dictated her revelations
Travel
 . Sir John Mandeville’s Travels: written in Anglo-
Norman French, and supposed to be a guide for
pilgrims to the Holy Land; more fantasy than
fact
Geoffrey Chaucer
 . Geoffrey Chaucer: family of wine traders; kind of civil servant whose work took him to the
continent, where he knew the works of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio
 . Works with cultural references from the literature of the continent, but written in English; old
genres applied to a new society
 . The Book of the Duchess: ‘dream poem’ of consolation; French tradition
 . The House of Fame: ‘dream poem’ influenced by Dante
 . Troilus and Criseyde: Boccaccio as its source, but a rewriting of the classical story of love full of
intertextual references
 . The Legend of Good Women: joys and pain of love; views of a female audience are considered;
description of historical female figures who sacrificed themselves for love
 . The Canterbury Tales: greatest innovation, the ‘here and now’, which helps the writer to talk about
religion and the individual in the modern world
 . Chaucer depicts a new social order, with people of all levels becoming emblems of their period
 . Chaucer’s treatment of the characters: serious or ironic? A gap between how they see themselves
and how others see them
 . With Chaucer, literature both affirms a developing language and mirrors its time, opening up a
range of issues and questions
Langland
 . Piers Plowman: alliterative poem recounting a series of
dreams, with waking interludes to connect them. The
main character, Long Will, is the dreamer, and Piers
acts as a kind of alter ego, becoming semi-divine by the
end.
 . How England might be reformed; disillusioned view
of human nature and the church, shown as corrupt.
 . Allegorical poem exposing a problem: human
weakness and religious idealism.
 . Influence on the Peasants’ Revolt (1381)
The Scottish Chaucerians
 . Scottish poets writing between Chaucer’s death and the
Renaissance: different in style, tone and subject matter
 . King James I of Scotland: Kingis Quair, a love poem in ‘rhyme-
royal’
 . John Barbour’s The Bruce: a chronicle celebrating Scottish
nationalism
 . Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid: almost misogynistic
 . William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makaris: first great work which
concentrates on death, anticipating Renaissance poetry (‘Timor
mortis conturbat me’)
Mediaeval drama
 . Miracles and mysteries: an attempt to bring
Bible stories to a wider audience, first inside the
church, and later outside.
 . Importance of the guilds and the pageants.
 . Morality plays: allegorical representations of
human life. Everyman and The Castle of Perseverance;
didactic style, explicit moral.
Malory
 . Le Morte D’Arthur: a prose version of the story
of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round
Table, published in 1485 by William Caxton.
 . Climax of a tradition of writing with emphasis
on myth, chivalry; full of sadness rather than
heroism.
BIBLIOGRAPHY
 Carter, R. & McRae, J. (1998) The Routledge
History of Literature in English. Britain and Ireland.
Pp. 3-53