Middle English Period in english Literature

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middle english period

The Middle English period in England spans from the Norman Conquest in the 11th century to the beginning of the Renaissance in the 16th century. Here are some key points about the Middle English period.

Middle English Period

  1. Three Phases:
    The Middle Ages in Europe can be divided into three phases: the Early Middle Ages (5th to 10th centuries), the High Middle Ages (11th to 13th centuries), and the Late Middle Ages (14th to 16th centuries). In England, the Old English period corresponds to the Early Middle Ages, while Middle English covers the later two phases.
  2. French Influence:
    Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, French had a significant impact on English culture and society. The ruling class, including the aristocracy, spoke French and read French literature. French influence was felt in areas such as law, government, literature, and the arts.
  3. Feudalism and Social Hierarchy:
    Feudalism was the dominant social system during the Middle Ages. Society was organized into a strict hierarchy consisting of three main classes or estates. These were:
    a. The aristocracy, including the king, barons, and knights, who held land and power.
    b. The episcopacy, which comprised the clergy, including bishops and priests.
    c. The peasantry, who were primarily serfs bound to the land and obligated to work for the aristocracy.
  4. The Aristocracy:
    The kings ruled by the “Divine Right” theory, which asserted that their right to rule was granted by God and passed down through heredity. Barons were direct subordinates of the king and were granted large portions of land known as manors or fiefs. They paid homage or “fealty” to the king, supported and fought for him, and governed his land. The aristocracy also spoke French and read French poetry. They were associated with the ideals of chivalry.
  5. Chivalry:
    Chivalry was a knight’s code of behavior that emerged during the Late Middle Ages. Knights were the lower nobility and became identified with chivalric ideals. These ideals included faith in and love for the Christian religion, generosity, protection of women and the weak, fighting against injustice and evil, and courage in battle. Knights wore special armor and clothing, and songs about knights were sung by troubadours.
Middle English Period
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The Episcopacy refers to the clergy in the Middle Ages and their role within the social structure. Here are some key points about the Episcopacy and the Peasantry during that period:

The Episcopacy:

  1. Division within the Clergy:
    The clergy during the Middle Ages were divided into two groups: the high clergy and the low clergy. The high clergy, comparable to the barons, held positions of power and influence within the Church. The low clergy, similar to the serfs, occupied lower positions and often performed more menial tasks.
  2. Power and Political Involvement:
    Church leaders held significant power over the peasants or serfs. They played active roles in politics and government, sometimes wielding as much influence as the aristocracy. Bishops headed dioceses, which were like spiritual manors, and often governed real manors as well. They spoke and wrote in Latin for official church matters.

The Peasantry:

  1. Bondage and Treatment:
    The serfs or peasants lived in a state of bondage during the Middle Ages. They were treated harshly and mercilessly by the nobility and high clergy. They were often seen as property and were bought and sold along with the land they worked on.
  2. Religious Beliefs:
    The peasants believed that their afterlife would be in heaven if they showed greater devotion to the church and served the clergy unquestioningly. This belief sometimes led them to give more money to the church and comply without question.
  3. Living Conditions:
    Peasants lived in squalor and faced a life of poverty, superstition, and ignorance. Their living conditions were often difficult, and they lacked access to education and opportunities for social mobility.

The Crusades:

  1. Definition and Goal:
    The Crusades were a series of religiously motivated military campaigns conducted by Christian Europe against external and internal opponents, primarily targeting Muslim rule in the Holy Land, particularly Jerusalem. The Crusades aimed to recapture these territories from Muslim control.
  2. Symbolism and Impact:
    The Crusades symbolize Western brutality and hostility toward Islam for many Muslims. For Christians, the Crusades represented a war to protect Christendom and reclaim important religious sites.

Early Middle English Period:

  1. Language Transformation:
    During the Early Middle English period, the English language underwent simplification in spelling and grammar. The influence of Norman French, following the Norman Conquest, also impacted the language.
  2. Cultural Influence:
    Aristocratic society during this period developed a taste for French literature, which affected the nature and scope of English literature. Additionally, England became more militaristic and confident, ultimately shaping the boundaries of its vast empire.
  3. European Engagement:
    England became more integrated into European life during this period, benefiting from exposure to cosmopolitan cultures and literatures.

The Episcopacy, the Peasantry, the Crusades, and the Early Middle English period all played significant roles in shaping medieval society, language, and culture.

Late Middle English period, spanning the 14th to the 16th century

The Late Middle English period, spanning the 14th to the 16th century, was a time of significant challenges and social upheaval. Here are key events and their impact during this period:

Beset with Crises:

The Late Middle Ages were marked by a series of crises, including famines, plagues, and political conflicts. These events had a profound impact on the social and economic fabric of England.

The Great Famine (1315-1317):

Europe faced a population crisis by 1300 due to extensive cultivation of available land. Climate changes led to crop failures between 1315 and 1317, resulting in widespread famine. In England, as many as 15% of peasants in some villages died, leading to increased vulnerability to diseases.

The Black Death:

The Black Death, a bubonic plague that originated in Asia, reached England in 1348 and recurred several times. It resulted in the death of approximately one-third of the English population. The social chaos and labor shortages caused by the plague had long-lasting effects on English society, including the Peasants’ Revolt and the introduction of the wage system.

The Peasants' Revolt (1381):
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Hundred Years’ War:

The Hundred Years’ War was a protracted conflict between England and France that began in 1337 and lasted until 1453. It was the first major European war and covered the reigns of five English kings, starting with Edward III. The war ended with the French gaining ultimate victory, aided by the appearance of Joan of Arc in 1429. The English resented French supremacy, leading to the decline of feudalism and a growing nationalistic interest in the English language as a literary medium.

The Peasants’ Revolt (1381):

The Peasants’ Revolt was a widespread uprising of peasants across England. It was a result of economic and political insecurities following the aftermath of the Black Death. The immediate cause was King Richard II’s attempt to collect a poll tax. The revolt, led by figures like Wat Tyler and John Ball, involved violence throughout the country and demanded an end to unpaid serfdom. Although the revolt was ultimately suppressed, it highlighted the discontent and desire for change among the lower classes.

The Fall of Constantinople, the invention of printing, William Caxton, and the Wars of the Roses are all significant events and developments during the late medieval period. Here are key points about each:

Fall of Constantinople:

  • Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, was founded by Emperor Constantine I in the 4th century AD. It was a major cultural, trade, and learning center.
  • In 1453, the Ottoman Turkish Sultan Mehmed II successfully conquered Constantinople, leading to the fall of the Byzantine Empire.
  • The defeat of the Byzantine Empire and the rise of the Ottoman Empire marked a significant shift in power in the region.
  • Constantinople was renamed Istanbul, and the Christians lost control of their territories to the Ottoman Turks.
  • The fall of Constantinople had profound effects on European history, including the spread of Greek and Roman learning to the West and increased European trade with the East.

Invention of Printing:

  • Woodblock printing was invented in China in the 3rd century AD, but it was a tedious and difficult process.
  • The Koreans were the first to use movable metal types for printing books in the late 14th century.
  • German artisan Johannes Gutenberg introduced movable type printing to Europe.
  • The first printed book in Europe, produced by Gutenberg, was the Vulgate Bible in 1456, known as the Gutenberg Bible.
  • The invention of printing revolutionized the dissemination of knowledge, as texts, including the Bible, could be made available in vernacular languages, leading to the spread of literacy and the Reformation.

William Caxton:

  • William Caxton was an English merchant, diplomat, and translator who introduced the printing press to England in 1476.
  • He printed the first English book in Belgium in 1473 and later established a printing press in Westminster, England.
  • Caxton’s translations and printed books played a crucial role in the development of English literature and the standardization of the English language.
  • His first printed book at the Westminster press was likely an edition of Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” and the first book to be printed with a date was “The Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers” in 1477.

Wars of the Roses:

  • The Wars of the Roses were a series of civil wars in England between two rival branches of the Plantagenet dynasty: the House of Lancaster (represented by the red rose) and the House of York (represented by the white rose).
  • The wars lasted from 1455 to 1485 and resulted in political instability and power struggles within England.
  • The conflict began with King Henry VI on the throne, and the Duke of York, Richard, laid claim to the throne. His son, Edward IV, eventually became king and ruled until 1470.
  • In 1470, the Lancastrians under Queen Margaret of Anjou briefly brought back Henry VI, but Edward IV returned and regained power. After Edward’s reign, his brother Richard III ruled until he was killed by Henry Tudor (Henry VII) in the Battle of Bosworth Field.
  • Henry Tudor’s victory marked the end of the Wars of the Roses and the establishment of the Tudor dynasty in England.
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Major kings of the medieval period in England

Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-1066):

  • The last Anglo-Saxon king of England.
  • Lived in exile in Normandy during Danish rule and promised the succession to William, Duke of Normandy, who would later become known as William the Conqueror.

William the Conqueror (r. 1066-1087):

  • Duke of Normandy who invaded England and defeated Harold II at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
  • Unified England and introduced Norman culture and language.
  • Commissioned the Domesday Book, a comprehensive survey of land ownership in England and Wales.

Henry II (r. 1154-1189):

  • Established the House of Plantagenet, a prominent royal dynasty in medieval England.
  • Faced revolts and political tensions during his reign.
  • Became embroiled in a conflict with Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, which ultimately led to Becket’s murder and a settlement with the papacy.

Richard the Lionheart (r. 1189-1199):

  • Known for his reputation as a great warrior, particularly in the Crusades.
  • Often associated with the legend of Robin Hood.

King John (r. 1199-1216):

  • Faced the First Barons’ War, a conflict between the king and the barons over issues such as military service, taxation, and corruption.
  • Forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, which pledged the king to uphold feudal law and established principles of individual rights and limitations on royal power.

Edward II (r. 1307-1327):

  • Son of Edward I and known for his disastrous rule.
  • Rumored to have been bisexual and infatuated with Piers Gaveston.
  • Deposed by Queen Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer.

Edward III (r. 1327-1377):

  • Laid claim to the French throne, which led to the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453).
  • Notable victories in the war included the battles of Crécy and Poitiers.
  • His reign saw the birth of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

Richard II (r. 1377-1399):

  • Ascended to the throne at a young age and ruled in a tyrannical manner.
  • Suppressed the Peasants’ Revolt.
  • Associated with the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower.

Henry IV (r. 1399-1413):

  • Initially known as Henry Bolingbroke, he was the son of John of Gaunt and the first Lancastrian king.
  • Faced plots, rebellions, and assassination attempts.
  • His reign was marked by the disfiguring skin disease he suffered from.

Henry V (r. 1413-1422):

  • Rebelled against his father, Henry IV.
  • Played a significant role in the Hundred Years’ War, notably winning the Battle of Agincourt.
  • Died unexpectedly while in France.

Henry VI (r. 1422-1461; 1470-1471):

  • Ascended to the throne as an infant and had a weak and pious reign.
  • His reign saw the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses and England’s defeat in the Hundred Years’ War.
  • Eventually deposed, leading to the temporary rule of Edward IV and the rise of the House of York.

Edward IV (r. 1461-1470; 1471-1483):

  • Son of Richard, Duke of York, and brother of Richard III.
  • Destroyed the House of Lancaster during the Wars of the Roses and brought the printing press to England in 1476.

Richard III (r. 1483-1485):

  • The last Plantagenet king.
  • Killed by Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth, marking the end of the Wars of the Roses.
  • Often depicted as a villainous character in William Shakespeare’s play, “Richard III.”

These kings played significant roles in shaping the history, politics, and culture of medieval England.

Middle English literature

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In Middle English literature, there was an extensive influence of French literature, and several major genres emerged during this period. Here is an overview of the key genres and some famous examples:


  • Allegory is a literary device that represents abstract ideas through concrete characters and events.
  • It often involves at least two levels of meaning and can be political, historical, or an allegory of ideas.
  • Notable examples include “Piers the Plowman” by William Langland.

Dream Allegory:

  • Dream allegories feature narratives where the narrator falls asleep and experiences a dream.
  • The dream is then related, often guided by a human or animal guide.
  • Famous examples include “The Romance of the Rose” by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung, “The Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri, and “Piers Plowman” by William Langland.

Chivalric Romances:

  • Chivalric romances were popular in medieval literature and focused on knighthood, chivalry, adventure, and courtly love.
  • These romances were often written in prose or verse.
  • Notable examples include “Lancelot and Perceval” by Chrétien de Troyes, “King Horn,” and “Parzifal” by Wolfram von Eschenbach.

Courtly Love:

  • Courtly love is a theme that suggests an ideal, spiritual love between aristocrats.
  • It involves codes of behavior between lovers, with the man serving the lady, often in secret and without marriage.
  • Courtly love was a prominent element in chivalric romances.

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”:

  • An anonymous chivalric romance from the 14th century, written in Middle English.
  • It tells the story of Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, and his encounter with the Green Knight.

“Le Morte D’Arthur”:

  • Written by Sir Thomas Malory in the 15th century, it is one of the most famous works of Arthurian legend.
  • It is a compilation of various Arthurian tales, including the stories of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, and the Knights of the Round Table.

These genres and works of Middle English literature showcase the rich tapestry of themes, styles, and influences during this period.

The Alliterative Revival

The Alliterative Revival, which occurred from approximately 1350 to 1500, marked a resurgence of the use of alliterative verse in English poetry. This revival can be attributed to the nationalistic spirit of the post-Black Death years and a reaction against French poetic styles. Several notable works emerged during this period, including:

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (by the Pearl poet):

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  • A chivalric romance written in Middle English.
  • The poem tells the story of Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, and his encounter with the Green Knight.

“The Alliterative Morte Arthure” (anonymous):

  • An alliterative verse retelling of the Arthurian legend, focusing on the final days of King Arthur and his knights.

“Piers Plowman” (by William Langland):

  • A long allegorical poem that explores the moral and spiritual journey of a character named Piers.
  • The poem reflects on social issues and offers critiques of the Church and society.

“The Destruction of Troy” (by John Clerk from Lancashire):

  • A poem that recounts the fall of Troy and draws on classical mythology and history.

Poetry by William Dunbar:

  • William Dunbar was a Scottish poet known for his allegorical and satirical works.
  • His poems often addressed social and political themes.

Dante Alighieri,

Dante Alighieri,
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In addition to the Alliterative Revival, the works of Dante Alighieri, an Italian poet, also had a significant influence during this period. Dante is best known for his epic poem “The Divine Comedy,” written between 1308 and 1321. Here are some key details about Dante and his work:

  • Dante was born in Florence, Italy, and was associated with the White Guelphs, a political group in Florence.
  • His works helped establish the Tuscan dialect of Latin as the basis for standard Italian.
  • Dante’s early poems were love sonnets dedicated to his beloved, Beatrice Portinari.

The Divine Comedy

  • The Divine Comedy” is a long epic poem divided into three parts: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise).
  • The poem follows Dante as he journeys through the realms of the afterlife, guided by the poet Virgil in Inferno and Purgatorio and by Beatrice in Paradiso.
  • “The Divine Comedy” explores themes of sin, redemption, and the nature of divine love.
  • The poem uses a complex structure of terza rima, a three-line stanza with a specific rhyme scheme.

During the Middle English period, there were several other notable works in addition to those mentioned earlier. Here are a few more examples:

“Layamon’s Brut” (c. 1190)

  • A long poem that traces the legendary history of Britain, beginning with the Trojan War and ending with the Norman Conquest.
  • It is named after its author, Layamon, and is based on Wace’s French poem, “Roman de Brut.”
  • “Layamon’s Brut” is considered one of the last major alliterative poems before the Alliterative Revival.

“The Owl and the Nightingale”:

  • This poem presents a debate between an owl and a nightingale about which is better: happiness or sorrow.
  • It is one of the earliest examples of “debate poetry” in English literature, exploring contrasting viewpoints and arguments.

“Ancrene Riwle” (or “Ancrene Wisse”):

  • This work is a guidebook for anchoresses, who were women living as reclusive religious hermits.
  • It provides instructions and advice for anchoresses on their daily routine, religious devotion, and spiritual guidance.
  • The popularity of the anchorite lifestyle, especially among women, was notable during this period in England.

These works, along with others of the Middle English period, contributed to the rich literary tradition and cultural development of the time. They provide insights into the historical, social, and intellectual aspects of medieval England.



Age of Chaucer: Geoffrey Chaucer

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Old English Literature

Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, was the language spoken and written in England from the 5th to the 11th centuries.

1 comment on “Middle English Period in english Literature

    Licznik Prądu

    • February 20, 2024 at 11:18 pm

    What a great piece! You have a real talent for making complex subjects accessible and interesting.

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