History of Literature





English literature

 

CONTENTS:

The Old English period

The early Middle English period

The later Middle English and early Renaissance periods

The Renaissance period: 1550–1660

Elizabethan and early Stuart drama

Effect of religion and science on early Stuart prose

The Restoration

The 18th century

The 18th century. The novel

The Romantic period

The later Romantics

The Post-Romantic and Victorian eras

Late Victorian literature

The 20th century. The Modernist revolution

The literature of World War I and the interwar period

Literature after 1945. Fiction. Poetry

Literature after 1945. Drama. The 21st century



 



English literature

 



The later Middle English and early Renaissance periods

 

Sir Thomas Malory  "King Arthur and of his Noble Knights"
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"
Knowles James  "The Legends of King Arthur"  PART I, PART II, PART III, PART IV Illustrations by Lancelot Speed
William Langland
Geoffrey Chaucer  "The Canterbury Tales"
  PART I, PART II, PART III, PART IV
John Gower
Thomas Hoccleve
John Lydgate
Robert Henryson
William Dunbar
Osbern Bokenam
 


Howard Pyle "The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood"   PART I, PART II

Margery Kempe
John Wycliffe
William Tyndale
Ranulf Higden
Sir John Mandeville
John Capgrave
Sir John Fortescue
John Skelton
"Everyman"
Alexander Barclay
Stephen Hawes
Sir Thomas Elyot
Roger Ascham
Henry Medwall
Thomas More  "Utopia"

Sir Thomas Wyatt
Henry Howard, earl of Surrey

 

 


One of the most important factors in the nature and development of English literature between about 1350 and 1550 was the peculiar linguistic situation in England at the beginning of the period. Among the small minority of the population that could be regarded as literate, bilingualism and even trilingualism were common. Insofar as it was considered a serious literary medium at all, English was obliged to compete on uneven terms with Latin and with the Anglo-Norman dialect of French widely used in England at the time. Moreover, extreme dialectal diversity within English itself made it difficult for vernacular writings, irrespective of their literary pretensions, to circulate very far outside their immediate areas of composition, a disadvantage not suffered by writings in Anglo-Norman and Latin. Literary culture managed to survive and in fact to flourish in the face of such potentially crushing factors as the catastrophic mortality of the Black Death (1347–51), chronic external and internal military conflicts in the form of the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses, and serious social, political, and religious unrest, as evinced in the Peasants’ Revolt (1381) and the rise of Lollardism (centred on the religious teachings of John Wycliffe). All the more remarkable, then, was the literary and linguistic revolution that took place in England between about 1350 and 1400 and that was slowly and soberly consolidated over the subsequent 150 years.


 

Later Middle English poetry



The revival of alliterative poetry


The most puzzling episode in the development of later Middle English literature is the apparently sudden reappearance of unrhymed alliterative poetry in the mid-14th century. Debate continues as to whether the group of long, serious, and sometimes learned poems written between about 1350 and the first decade of the 15th century should be regarded as an “alliterative revival” or rather as the late flowering of a largely lost native tradition stretching back to the Old English period. The earliest examples of the phenomenon, William of Palerne and Winner and Waster, are both datable to the 1350s, but neither poem exhibits to the full all the characteristics of the slightly later poems central to the movement. William of Palerne, condescendingly commissioned by a nobleman for the benefit of “them that know no French,” is a homely paraphrase of a courtly Continental romance, the only poem in the group to take love as its central theme. The poet’s technical competence in handling the difficult syntax and diction of the alliterative style is not, however, to be compared with that of Winner and Waster’s author, who exhibits full mastery of the form, particularly in descriptions of setting and spectacle. This poem’s topical concern with social satire links it primarily with another, less formal body of alliterative verse, of which William Langland’s Piers Plowman was the principal representative and exemplar. Indeed, Winner and Waster, with its sense of social commitment and occasional apocalyptic gesture, may well have served as a source of inspiration for Langland himself.

The term alliterative revival should not be taken to imply a return to the principles of classical Old English versification. The authors of the later 14th-century alliterative poems either inherited or developed their own conventions, which resemble those of the Old English tradition in only the most general way. The syntax and particularly the diction of later Middle English alliterative verse were also distinctive, and the search for alliterating phrases and constructions led to the extensive use of archaic, technical, and dialectal words. Hunts, feasts, battles, storms, and landscapes were described with a brilliant concretion of detail rarely paralleled since, while the abler poets also contrived subtle modulations of the staple verse-paragraph to accommodate dialogue, discourse, and argument. Among the poems central to the movement were three pieces dealing with the life and legends of Alexander the Great, the massive Destruction of Troy, and the Siege of Jerusalem. The fact that all of these derived from various Latin sources suggests that the anonymous poets were likely to have been clerics with a strong, if bookish, historical sense of their romance “matters.” The “matter of Britain” was represented by an outstanding composition, the alliterative Morte Arthure, an epic portrayal of King Arthur’s conquests in Europe and his eventual fall, which combined a strong narrative thrust with considerable density and subtlety of diction. A gathering sense of inevitable transitoriness gradually tempers the virile realization of heroic idealism, and it is not surprising to find that the poem was later used by Sir Thomas Malory as a source for his prose account of the Arthurian legend, Le Morte Darthur (completed c. 1470).





 


Sir Thomas Malory


"King Arthur and of his Noble Knights"





flourished c. 1470

English writer whose identity remains uncertain but whose name is famous as that of the author of Le Morte Darthur, the first prose account in English of the rise and fall of the legendary king Arthur and the fellowship of the Round Table.

Even in the 16th century Malory’s identity was unknown, although there was a tradition that he was a Welshman. In the colophon to Le Morte Darthur the author, calling himself “Syr Thomas Maleore knyght,” says that he finished the work in the ninth year of the reign of Edward IV (i.e., March 4, 1469–March 3, 1470) and adds a prayer for “good delyueraunce” from prison. The only known knight at this time with a name like Maleore was Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell in the parish of Monks Kirby, Warwickshire. This Malory was jailed on various occasions during the period 1450–60, but it is not recorded that he was in prison about 1470, when the colophon was written.

A “Thomas Malorie (or Malarie), knight” was excluded from four general pardons granted by Edward IV to the Lancastrians in 1468 and 1470. This Malorie, who may have been Malory of Newbold Revell, was probably the author of Le Morte Darthur.

According to Sir William Dugdale’s Antiquities of Warwickshire (1656), Malory of Newbold Revell served in the train of Richard Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, at the siege of Calais (presumably 1436, but possibly 1414); was knight of the shire in 1445; and died on March 14, 1471. He was buried in the Chapel of St. Francis at Grey Friars, near Newgate. (He had been imprisoned in Newgate in 1460.)

Malory completed Le Morte Darthur about 1470; it was printed by William Caxton in 1485. The only extant manuscript that predates Caxton’s edition is in the British Library, London. It retells the adventures of the knights of the Round Table in chronological sequence from the birth of Arthur. Based on French romances, Malory’s account differs from his models in its emphasis on the brotherhood of the knights rather than on courtly love and on the conflicts of loyalty (brought about by the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere) that finally destroy the fellowship.
 



 


Arthurian legend


Malory Thomas  "King Arthur and of his Noble Knights"



 

the body of stories and medieval romances, known as the matter of Britain, centring on the legendary king Arthur. Medieval writers, especially the French, variously treated stories of Arthur’s birth, the adventures of his knights, and the adulterous love between his knight Sir Lancelot and his queen, Guinevere. This last situation and the quest for the Holy Grail (the vessel used by Christ at the Last Supper and given to Joseph of Arimathea) brought about the dissolution of the knightly fellowship, the death of Arthur, and the destruction of his kingdom.

Stories about Arthur and his court had been popular in Wales before the 11th century; European fame came through Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae (1135–38), celebrating a glorious and triumphant king who defeated a Roman army in eastern France but was mortally wounded in battle during a rebellion at home led by his nephew Mordred. Some features of Geoffrey’s story were marvelous fabrications, and certain features of the Celtic stories were adapted to suit feudal times. The concept of Arthur as a world conqueror was clearly inspired by legends surrounding great leaders such as Alexander the Great and Charlemagne. Later writers, notably Wace of Jersey and Lawamon, filled out certain details, especially in connection with Arthur’s knightly fellowship (the Knights of the Round Table).

Using Celtic sources, Chrétien de Troyes in the late 12th century made Arthur the ruler of a realm of marvels in five romances of adventure. He also introduced the themes of the Grail and the love of Lancelot and Guinevere into Arthurian legend. Prose romances of the 13th century explored these major themes further. An early prose romance centring on Lancelot seems to have become the kernel of a cyclic work known as the Prose Lancelot, or Vulgate cycle (c. 1225).

The Lancelot theme was connected with the Grail story through Lancelot’s son, the pure knight Sir Galahad, who achieved the vision of God through the Grail as fully as is possible in this life, whereas Sir Lancelot was impeded in his progress along the mystic way because of his adultery with Guinevere. Another branch of the Vulgate cycle was based on a very early 13th-century verse romance, the Merlin, by Robert de Boron, that had told of Arthur’s birth and childhood and his winning of the crown by drawing a magic sword (see Excalibur) from a stone. The writer of the Vulgate cycle turned this into prose, adding a pseudo-historical narrative dealing with Arthur’s military exploits. A final branch of the Vulgate cycle contained an account of Arthur’s Roman campaign and war with Mordred, to which was added a story of Lancelot’s renewed adultery with Guinevere and the disastrous war between Lancelot and Sir Gawain that ensued. A later prose romance, known as the post-Vulgate Grail romance (c. 1240), combined Arthurian legend with material from the Tristan romance.

The legend told in the Vulgate cycle and post-Vulgate romance was transmitted to English-speaking readers in Thomas Malory’s late 15th-century prose Le Morte Darthur. At the same time, there was renewed interest in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia, and the fictitious kings of Britain became more or less incorporated with official national mythology. The legend remained alive during the 17th century, though interest in it was by then confined to England. Of merely antiquarian interest during the 18th century, it again figured in literature during Victorian times, notably in Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. In the 20th century an American poet, Edwin Arlington Robinson, wrote an Arthurian trilogy, and the American novelist Thomas Berger wrote Arthur Rex (1978). In England T.H. White retold the stories in a series of novels collected as The Once and Future King (1958). His work was the basis for Camelot (1960), a musical by Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe; a film, also called Camelot (1967), was derived from the musical. Numerous other films have been based on the Arthurian legend, notably John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) and the satirical Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).
 






Tapestry by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898)
The Attainment of the Holy Grail by Sir Gallahad and Sir Percival



The alliterative movement would today be regarded as a curious but inconsiderable episode were it not for four other poems now generally attributed to a single anonymous author: the chivalric romance Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, two homiletic poems called Patience and Purity (or Cleanness), and an elegiac dream vision known as Pearl, all miraculously preserved in a single manuscript dated about 1400. The poet of Sir Gawayne far exceeded the other alliterative writers in his mastery of form and style, and, though he wrote ultimately as a moralist, human warmth and sympathy (often taking comic form) are also close to the heart of his work. Patience relates the biblical story of Jonah as a human comedy of petulance and irascibility set off against God’s benign forbearance. Purity imaginatively re-creates several monitory narratives of human impurity and its consequences in a spectacular display of poetic skill: the Flood, the destruction of Sodom, and Belshazzar’s Feast. The poet’s principal achievement, however, was Sir Gawayne, in which he used the conventional apparatus of chivalric romance to engage in a serious exploration of moral conduct in the face of the unknown. The hero, Gawain, a questing knight of Arthur’s court, embodies a combination of the noblest chivalric and spiritual aspirations of the age, but, instead of triumphing in the conventional way, he fails when tested (albeit rather unfairly) by mysterious supernatural powers. No paraphrase can hope to recapture the imaginative resources displayed in the telling of the story and the structuring of the poem as a work of art. Pearl stands somewhat aside from the alliterative movement proper. In common with a number of other poems of the period, it was composed in stanzaic form, with alliteration used for ornamental effect. Technically, it is one of the most complex poems in the language, an attempt to work in words an analogy to the jeweler’s art. The jeweler-poet is vouchsafed a heavenly vision in which he sees his pearl, the discreet symbol used in the poem for a lost infant daughter who has died to become a bride of Christ. She offers theological consolation for his grief, expounding the way of salvation and the place of human life in a transcendental and extra-temporal view of things.

 


"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"





Middle English alliterative poem of unknown authorship, dating from the second half of the 14th century (perhaps 1375). It is a chivalric romance that tells a tale of enchantment in an Arthurian setting. Its hero, Sir Gawayne (Gawain), is presented as a devout but humanly imperfect Christian who wins a test of arms, resists temptation by a lord’s wife, but succumbs to an offer of invulnerability.

The poem is technically brilliant. Its alliterative lines (some 2,500) are broken up into irregular stanzas by short rhyming passages; they are tautly constructed, and the vocabulary is astonishingly rich—influenced by French in the scenes at court but strengthened by many dialect words, often of Scandinavian origin, that belonged to northwest England. The blend of sophisticated atmosphere, psychological depth, and vivid language produces an effect superior to that found in any other work of the time.

Preserved in the same manuscript with Sir Gawayne were three other poems, now generally accepted as the work of its author. These are two alliterative poems of moral teaching, Patience and Purity, and an intricate elegiac poem, Pearl. The author of Sir Gawayne and the other poems is frequently referred to as “the Pearl Poet.”


Gawain

hero of Arthurian legend and romance. A nephew and loyal supporter of King Arthur, Gawain appeared in the earliest Arthurian literature as a model of knightly perfection, against whom all other knights were measured. In the 12th-century Historia regum Britanniae, by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gawain (or Walgainus) was Arthur’s ambassador to Rome; his name (spelled “Galvaginus”) is carved against one of the figures on the 12th-century archivolt of Modena cathedral in Italy. In the verse romances of Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century, he was never a hero but always a leading character who displayed outstanding prowess, which was, however, surpassed by that of Lancelot (who was inspired by the power of courtly love) and by that of the Grail-winner Perceval (who received spiritual inspiration).

As the Grail theme began to emerge as an important element of Arthurian romance, in the great prose romances of the 13th century known as the Vulgate cycle, Gawain was no longer seen as the ideal knight. In the Queste del Saint Graal, especially, he was unable to perceive the spiritual significance of the Grail, refused to seek divine aid through the sacraments, relied on his own prowess, and failed utterly in the quest. This deterioration of character was even more marked in later romances, such as the prose Tristan, in which a number of episodes depict him as treacherous and brutal to women. These darker aspects of his character were transmitted to English-speaking readers in Sir Thomas Malory’s late 15th-century prose work Le Morte Darthur.

In Middle English poetry, however, Gawain was generally regarded as a brave and loyal knight. Perhaps his most important single adventure was that described in a fine, anonymous 14th-century poem, Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, which tells the much older story of a beheading challenge.

In early Welsh literature, including the Mabinogion and a Welsh translation of Geoffrey’s Historia, Gawain appears as Gwalchmei. In several of the romances and in Malory, Gawain’s strength waxed and waned with the sun, raising the possibility of a connection with a Celtic solar deity.

 



 


Knowles James


"The Legends of King Arthur"
  PART I, PART II, PART III, PART IV

Illustrations by Lancelot Speed




Sir James Knowles (1831 – 13 February 1908) was an English architect and editor.

Life
He was born in London, the son of architect James Thomas Knowles and himself trained in architecture at University College and in Italy. He designed amongst other buildings, three churches in Clapham, Lord Tennyson's house at Aldworth, the Thatched House Club, the Leicester Square garden (as restored at the expense of Baron Albert Grant), and Albert Mansions, Victoria Street, Westminster. However, his preferences led him simultaneously into a literary career.
In 1860 he published The Story of King Arthur. In 1866 he was introduced to Alfred Lord Tennyson, and later agreed to design his new house, Aldworth on condition there was no fee; this led to a close friendship, Knowles assisting Tennyson in business matters, and among other things helping to design scenery for The Cup, when Henry Irving produced that play in 1880.

Knowles became intimate with a number of the most interesting men of the day, and in 1869, with Tennyson's cooperation, he founded the Metaphysical Society, the object of which was to attempt some intellectual rapprochement between religion and science by getting the leading representatives of faith and unfaith to meet and exchange views. Members included Tennyson, Gladstone, W.K.Clifford, W. G. Ward, John Morley, Cardinal Manning, Archbishop Thomson, T. H. Huxley, Arthur Balfour, Leslie Stephen, and Sir William Gull. The society formed the nucleus of the distinguished list of contributors who supported Knowles in his capacity as an editor.

In 1870 he succeeded Dean Alford as editor of the Contemporary Review, but left it in 1877 owing to the objection of the proprietors to the insertion of articles (by W.K.Clifford notably) attacking Theism and founded the Nineteenth Century (to the title of which, in 1901, were added the words And After). Both periodicals became very influential under him, and formed the type of the new sort of monthly review which came to occupy the place formerly held by the quarterlies. Inter alia it was prominent in checking the Channel Tunnel project, by publishing a protest signed by many distinguished men in 1882. In 1904 he received the honour of knighthood. He was a considerable collector of works of art. He was married twice, (1) in 1860 to Jane Borradaile, (2) in 1865 to Isabel Hewlett. He died at Brighton and was buried with his father at West Norwood Cemetery.

 






The alliterative movement was primarily confined to poets writing in northern and northwestern England, who showed little regard for courtly, London-based literary developments. It is likely that alliterative poetry, under aristocratic patronage, filled a gap in the literary life of the provinces caused by the decline of Anglo-Norman in the latter half of the 14th century. Alliterative poetry was not unknown in London and the southeast, but it penetrated those areas in a modified form and in poems that dealt with different subject matter.

William Langland’s long alliterative poem Piers Plowman begins with a vision of the world seen from the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire, where, tradition has it, the poet was born and brought up and where he would have been open to the influence of the alliterative movement. If what he tells about himself in the poem is true (and there is no other source of information), he later lived obscurely in London as an unbeneficed cleric. Langland wrote in the unrhymed alliterative mode, but he modified it in such a way as to make it more accessible to a wider audience by treating the metre more loosely and avoiding the arcane diction of the provincial poets. His poem exists in at least three and possibly four versions: A, Piers Plowman in its short early form, dating from the 1360s; B, a major revision and extension of A made in the late 1370s; C (1380s), a less “literary” version of B, apparently intended to bring its doctrinal issues into clearer focus; and Z, a conjectured version that calls into question the dating for A, B, and C. The poem takes the form of a series of dream visions dealing with the social and spiritual predicament of late 14th-century England against a sombre apocalyptic backdrop. Realistic and allegorical elements are mingled in a phantasmagoric way, and both the poetic medium and the structure are frequently subverted by the writer’s spiritual and didactic impulses. Passages of involuted theological reasoning mingle with scatological satire, and moments of sublime religious feeling appear alongside forthright political comment. This makes it a work of the utmost difficulty, defiant of categorization, but at the same time Langland never fails to convince the reader of the passionate integrity of his writing. His bitter attacks on political and ecclesiastical corruption (especially among the friars) quickly struck chords with his contemporaries. Among minor poems in the same vein are Mum and the Sothsegger (c. 1399–1406) and a Lollard piece called Pierce the Ploughman’s Creed (c. 1395). In the 16th century, Piers Plowman was issued as a printed book and was used for apologetic purposes by the early Protestants.
 


William Langland

born c. 1330
died c. 1400

presumed author of one of the greatest examples of Middle English alliterative poetry, generally known as Piers Plowman, an allegorical work with a complex variety of religious themes. One of the major achievements of Piers Plowman is that it translates the language and conceptions of the cloister into symbols and images that could be understood by the layman. In general, the language of the poem is simple and colloquial, but some of the author’s imagery is powerful and direct.

There were originally thought to be three versions of Piers Plowman: the A version of the text, which was the earliest, followed by the B and C versions that consisted of revisions and further amplifications of the major themes of A. However, a fourth version, called Z, has been suggested and the order of issue questioned. The version described here is from the B text, which consists of (1) a prologue and seven passus (divisions) concerned primarily with the life of man in society, the dangers of Meed (love of gain), and manifestations of the seven capital sins; and (2) 13 passus ostensibly dealing with the lives of Do-wel, Do-bet, and Do-best; in effect, with the growth of the individual Christian in self-knowledge, grace, and charity.

In its general structure the poem mirrors the complexity of the themes with which it deals, particularly in the recurring concepts of Do-wel, Do-bet, and Do-best, all in the end seen as embodied in Christ. They are usually identified with the active, contemplative, and “mixed” religious life, but the allegory of the poem is often susceptible to more than one interpretation, and some critics have related it to the traditional exegetical way of interpreting the Scriptures historically, allegorically, anagogically, and topologically.

Little is known of Langland’s life: he is thought to have been born somewhere in the region of the Malvern Hills, in Worcestershire, and if he is to be identified with the “dreamer” of the poem, he may have been educated at the Benedictine school in Great Malvern. References in the poem suggest that he knew London and Westminster as well as Shropshire, and he may have been a cleric in minor orders in London.

Langland clearly had a deep knowledge of medieval theology and was fully committed to all the implications of Christian doctrine. He was interested in the asceticism of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and his comments on the defects of churchmen and the religious in his day are nonetheless concomitant with his orthodoxy.
 






Courtly poetry

 

Courtly love

in the later Middle Ages, a highly conventionalized code that prescribed the behaviour of ladies and their lovers. Amour courtois also provided the theme of an extensive courtly medieval literature that began with the troubadour poetry of Aquitaine and Provence in southern France toward the end of the 11th century. It constituted a revolution in thought and feeling, the effects of which are still apparent in Western culture.

The courtly lover existed to serve his lady. His love was invariably adulterous, marriage at that time being usually the result of business interest or the seal of a power alliance. Ultimately the lover saw himself as serving the all-powerful god of love and worshipping his lady-saint. Faithlessness was the mortal sin.

The philosophy found little precedent in other, older cultures. Conditions in the castle civilization of 11th-century southern France, however, were favourable to a change of attitude toward women. Castles themselves housed many men, few women; poets, wishing to idealize physical passion, looked beyond the marriage state. The Roman poet Ovid undoubtedly provided inspiration in the developing concept of courtly love. His Ars amatoria had pictured a lover as the slave of passion—sighing, trembling, growing pale and sleepless, even dying for love. The Ovidian lover’s adoration was calculated to win sensual rewards; the courtly lover, however, while displaying the same outward signs of passion, was fired by respect for his lady. This idealistic outlook may be explained partly by contemporary religious devotions, both orthodox and heretical, especially regarding the Virgin Mary, and partly by France’s exposure to Arab mystical philosophy (gained through contacts with Islām during the Crusades), which embodied concepts of love—as a delightful disease, as demanding of faithful service—that were to characterize courtly love.

Courtly love may therefore be regarded as the complex product of numerous factors—social, erotic, religious, and philosophical. The idea spread swiftly across Europe, and a decisive influence in this transmission was Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife first to Louis VII of France and then to Henry II of England, who inspired some of the best poetry of Bernard de Ventadour, among the last (12th century) and finest of troubadour poets. Her daughter Marie of Champagne encouraged the composition of Chrétien de Troyes’s Lancelot (Le Chevalier de la charrette), a courtly romance whose hero obeys every imperious (and unreasonable) demand of the heroine. Soon afterward the doctrine was “codified” in a three-book treatise by André le Chapelain. In the 13th century a long allegorical poem, the Roman de la rose, expressed the concept of a lover suspended between happiness and despair.

Courtly love soon pervaded the literatures of Europe. The German minnesinger lyrics and court epics such as Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan und Isolde (c. 1210) are evidence of its power. Italian poetry embodied the courtly ideals as early as the 12th century, and during the 14th century their essence was distilled in Francesco Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura. But perhaps more significantly, Dante had earlier managed to fuse courtly love and mystical vision: his Beatrice was, in life, his earthly inspiration; in La divina commedia she became his spiritual guide to the mysteries of Paradise. Courtly love was also a vital influential force on most medieval literature in England, but there it came to be adopted as part of the courtship ritual leading to marriage. This development, discussed in C.S. Lewis’ Allegory of Love (rev. ed., 1951), became more pronounced in later romances.

 



Apart from a few late and minor reappearances in Scotland and the northwest of England, the alliterative movement was over before the first quarter of the 15th century had passed. The other major strand in the development of English poetry from roughly 1350 proved much more durable. The cultivation and refinement of human sentiment with respect to love, already present in earlier 14th-century writings such as the Harley Lyrics, took firm root in English court culture during the reign of Richard II (1377–99). English began to displace Anglo-Norman as the language spoken at court and in aristocratic circles, and signs of royal and noble patronage for English vernacular writers became evident. These processes undoubtedly created some of the conditions in which a writer of Chaucer’s interests and temperament might flourish, but they were encouraged and given direction by his genius in establishing English as a literary language.






Chaucer and Gower



Ezra Winter, Canterbury tales mural (1939), Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C



Geoffrey Chaucer
, a Londoner of bourgeois origins, was at various times a courtier, a diplomat, and a civil servant. His poetry frequently (but not always unironically) reflects the views and values associated with the term courtly. It is in some ways not easy to account for his decision to write in English, and it is not surprising that his earliest substantial poems, the Book of the Duchess (c. 1370) and the House of Fame (1370s), were heavily indebted to the fashionable French courtly love poetry of the time. Also of French origin was the octosyllabic couplet used in these poems. Chaucer’s abandonment of this engaging but ultimately jejune metre in favour of a 10-syllable line (specifically, iambic pentameter) was a portentous moment for English poetry. His mastery of it was first revealed in stanzaic form, notably the seven-line stanza (rhyme royal) of the Parliament of Fowls (c. 1382) and Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1385), and later was extended in the decasyllabic couplets of the prologue to the Legend of Good Women (1380s) and large parts of The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387–1400).

 


Geoffrey Chaucer


Geoffrey Chaucer "The Canterbury Tales"  (PART I, PART II, PART III, PART IV)




born c. 1342/43, London?, Eng.
died Oct. 25, 1400, London

the outstanding English poet before Shakespeare and “the first finder of our language.” His The Canterbury Tales ranks as one of the greatest poetic works in English. He also contributed importantly in the second half of the 14th century to the management of public affairs as courtier, diplomat, and civil servant. In that career he was trusted and aided by three successive kings—Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV. But it is his avocation—the writing of poetry—for which he is remembered.

Perhaps the chief characteristics of Chaucer’s works are their variety in subject matter, genre, tone, and style and in the complexities presented concerning the human pursuit of a sensible existence. Yet his writings also consistently reflect an all-pervasive humour combined with serious and tolerant consideration of important philosophical questions. From his writings Chaucer emerges as poet of love, both earthly and divine, whose presentations range from lustful cuckoldry to spiritual union with God. Thereby, they regularly lead the reader to speculation about man’s relation both to his fellows and to his Maker, while simultaneously providing delightfully entertaining views of the frailties and follies, as well as the nobility, of mankind.

Forebears and early years
Chaucer’s forebears for at least four generations were middle-class English people whose connection with London and the court had steadily increased. John Chaucer, his father, was an important London vintner and a deputy to the king’s butler; in 1338 he was a member of Edward III’s expedition to Antwerp, in Flanders, now part of Belgium, and he owned property in Ipswich, in the county of Suffolk, and in London. He died in 1366 or 1367 at age 53. The name Chaucer is derived from the French word chaussier, meaning a maker of footwear. The family’s financial success derived from wine and leather.

Although c. 1340 is customarily given as Chaucer’s birth date, 1342 or 1343 is probably a closer guess. No information exists concerning his early education, although doubtless he would have been as fluent in French as in the Middle English of his time. He also became competent in Latin and Italian. His writings show his close familiarity with many important books of his time and of earlier times.

Chaucer first appears in the records in 1357, as a member of the household of Elizabeth, countess of Ulster, wife of Lionel, third son of Edward III. Geoffrey’s father presumably had been able to place him among the group of young men and women serving in that royal household, a customary arrangement whereby families who could do so provided their children with opportunity for the necessary courtly education and connections to advance their careers. By 1359 Chaucer was a member of Edward III’s army in France and was captured during the unsuccessful siege of Reims. The king contributed to his ransom, and Chaucer served as messenger from Calais to England during the peace negotiations of 1360. Chaucer does not appear in any contemporary record during 1361–65. He was probably in the king’s service, but he may have been studying law—not unusual preparation for public service, then as now—since a 16th-century report implies that, while so engaged, he was fined for beating a Franciscan friar in a London street. On February 22, 1366, the king of Navarre issued a certificate of safe-conduct for Chaucer, three companions, and their servants to enter Spain. This occasion is the first of a number of diplomatic missions to the continent of Europe over the succeeding 10 years, and the wording of the document suggests that here Chaucer served as “chief of mission.”

By 1366 Chaucer had married. Probably his wife was Philippa Pan, who had been in the service of the countess of Ulster and entered the service of Philippa of Hainaut, queen consort of Edward III, when Elizabeth died in 1363. In 1366 Philippa Chaucer received an annuity, and later annuities were frequently paid to her through her husband. These and other facts indicate that Chaucer married well.

In 1367 Chaucer received an annuity for life as yeoman of the king, and in the next year he was listed among the king’s esquires. Such officers lived at court and performed staff duties of considerable importance. In 1368 Chaucer was abroad on a diplomatic mission, and in 1369 he was on military service in France. Also in 1369 he and his wife were official mourners for the death of Queen Philippa. Obviously, Chaucer’s career was prospering, and his first important poem—Book of the Duchess—seems further evidence of his connection with persons in high places.

That poem of more than 1,300 lines, probably written in late 1369 or early 1370, is an elegy for Blanche, duchess of Lancaster, John of Gaunt’s first wife, who died of plague in September 1369. Chaucer’s close relationship with John, which continued through most of his life, may have commenced as early as Christmas 1357 when they, both about the same age, were present at the countess of Ulster’s residence in Yorkshire. For this first of his important poems, Chaucer used the dream-vision form, a genre made popular by the highly influential 13th-century French poem of courtly love, the Roman de la rose. Chaucer translated that poem, at least in part, probably as one of his first literary efforts, and he borrowed from it throughout his poetic career. The Duchess is also indebted to contemporary French poetry and to Ovid, Chaucer’s favourite Roman poet. Nothing in these borrowings, however, will account for his originality in combining dream-vision with elegy and eulogy of Blanche with consolation for John. Also noteworthy here—as it increasingly became in his later poetry—is the tactful and subtle use of a first-person narrator, who both is and is not the poet himself. The device had obvious advantages for the minor courtier delivering such a poem orally before the high-ranking court group. In addition, the Duchess foreshadows Chaucer’s skill at presenting the rhythms of natural conversation within the confines of Middle English verse and at creating realistic characters within courtly poetic conventions. Also, Chaucer here begins, with the Black Knight’s account of his love for Good Fair White, his career as a love poet, examining in late medieval fashion the important philosophic and religious questions concerning the human condition as they relate to both temporal and eternal aspects of love.

Diplomat and civil servant
During the decade of the 1370s, Chaucer was at various times on diplomatic missions in Flanders, France, and Italy. Probably his first Italian journey (December 1372 to May 1373) was for negotiations with the Genoese concerning an English port for their commerce, and with the Florentines concerning loans for Edward III. His next Italian journey occupied May 28 to September 19, 1378, when he was a member of a mission to Milan concerning military matters. Several times during the 1370s, Chaucer and his wife received generous monetary grants from the king and from John of Gaunt. On May 10, 1374, he obtained rent-free a dwelling above Aldgate, in London, and on June 8 of that year he was appointed comptroller of the customs and subsidy of wools, skins, and tanned hides for the Port of London. Now, for the first time, Chaucer had a position away from the court, and he and his wife had a home of their own, about a 10-minute walk from his office. In 1375 he was granted two wardships, which paid well, and in 1376 he received a sizable sum from a fine. When Richard II became king in June 1377, he confirmed Chaucer’s comptrollership and, later, the annuities granted by Edward III to both Geoffrey and Philippa. Certainly during the 1370s fortune smiled upon the Chaucers.

So much responsibility and activity in public matters appears to have left Chaucer little time for writing during this decade. The great literary event for him was that, during his missions to Italy, he encountered the work of Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, which was later to have profound influence upon his own writing. Chaucer’s most important work of the 1370s was Hous of Fame, a poem of more than 2,000 lines, also in dream-vision form. In some ways it is a failure—it is unfinished, its theme is unclear, and the diversity of its parts seems to overshadow any unity of purpose—but it gives considerable evidence of Chaucer’s advancing skill as a poet. The eight-syllable metre is handled with great flexibility; the light, bantering, somewhat ironic tone—later to become one of Chaucer’s chief effects—is established; and a wide variety of subject matter is included. Further, the later mastery in creation of memorable characters is here foreshadowed by the marvelous golden eagle who carries the frightened narrator, “Geoffrey,” high above the Earth to the houses of Fame and Rumour, so that as a reward for his writing and studying he can learn “tydings” to make into love poems. Here, too, Chaucer’s standard picture of his own fictional character emerges: the poet, somewhat dull-witted, dedicated to writing about love but without successful personal experience of it. The comedy of the poem reaches its high point when the pedantic eagle delivers for Geoffrey’s edification a learned lecture on the properties of sound. In addition to its comic aspects, however, the poem seems to convey a serious note: like all earthly things, fame is transitory and capricious.

The middle years: political and personal anxieties
In a deed of May 1, 1380, one Cecily Chaumpaigne released Chaucer from legal action, “both of my rape and of any other matter or cause.” Rape (raptus) could at the time mean either sexual assault or abduction; scholars have not been able to establish which meaning applies here, but, in either case, the release suggests that Chaucer was not guilty as charged. He continued to work at the Customs House and in 1382 was additionally appointed comptroller of the petty customs for wine and other merchandise, but in October 1386 his dwelling in London was leased to another man, and in December of that year successors were named for both of his comptrollerships in the customs; whether he resigned or was removed from office is not clear. Between 1382 and 1386 he had arranged for deputies—permanent in two instances and temporary in others—in his work at the customs. In October 1385 he was appointed a justice of the peace for Kent, and in August 1386 he became knight of the shire for Kent, to attend Parliament in October. Further, in 1385 he probably moved to Greenwich, then in Kent, to live. These circumstances suggest that, for some time before 1386, he was planning to move from London and to leave the Customs House. Philippa Chaucer apparently died in 1387; if she had suffered poor health for some time previously, that situation could have influenced a decision to move. On the other hand, political circumstances during this period were not favourable for Chaucer and may have caused his removal. By 1386 a baronial group led by Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, had bested both Richard II and John of Gaunt—with whose parties Chaucer had long been associated—and usurped the king’s authority and administration. Numerous other officeholders—like Chaucer, appointed by the king—were discharged, and Chaucer may have suffered similarly. Perhaps the best view of the matter is that Chaucer saw which way the political wind was blowing and began early to prepare to move when the necessity arrived.

The period 1386–89 was clearly difficult for Chaucer. Although he was reappointed justice of the peace for 1387, he was not returned to Parliament after 1386. In 1387 he was granted protection for a year to go to Calais, in France, but seems not to have gone, perhaps because of his wife’s death. In 1388 a series of suits against him for debts began, and he sold his royal pension for a lump sum. Also, from February 3 to June 4, 1388, the Merciless Parliament, controlled by the barons, caused many leading members of the court party—some of them Chaucer’s close friends—to be executed. In May 1389, however, the 23-year-old King Richard II regained control, ousted his enemies, and began appointing his supporters to office. Almost certainly, Chaucer owed his next public office to that political change. On July 12, 1389, he was appointed clerk of the king’s works, with executive responsibility for repair and maintenance of royal buildings, such as the Tower of London and Westminster Palace, and with a comfortable salary.

Although political events of the 1380s, from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 through the Merciless Parliament of 1388, must have kept Chaucer steadily anxious, he produced a sizable body of writings during this decade, some of very high order. Surprisingly, these works do not in any way reflect the tense political scene. Indeed, one is tempted to speculate that during this period Chaucer turned to his reading and writing as escape from the difficulties of his public life. The Parlement of Foules, a poem of 699 lines, is a dream-vision for St. Valentine’s Day, making use of the myth that each year on that day the birds gathered before the goddess Nature to choose their mates. Beneath its playfully humorous tone, it seems to examine the value of various kinds of love within the context of “common profit” as set forth in the introductory abstract from the Somnium Scipionis (The Dream of Scipio) of Cicero. The narrator searches unsuccessfully for an answer and concludes that he must continue his search in other books. For this poem Chaucer also borrowed extensively from Boccaccio and Dante, but the lively bird debate from which the poem takes its title is for the most part original. The poem has often been taken as connected with events at court, particularly the marriage in 1382 of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. But no such connection has ever been firmly established. The Parlement is clearly the best of Chaucer’s earlier works.

The Consolation of Philosophy, written by the Roman philosopher Boethius (early 6th century), a Christian, was one of the most influential of medieval books. Its discussion of free will, God’s foreknowledge, destiny, fortune, and true and false happiness—in effect, all aspects of the manner in which the right-minded individual should direct his thinking and action to gain eternal salvation—had a deep and lasting effect upon Chaucer’s thought and art. His prose translation of the Consolation is carefully done, and in his next poem—Troilus and Criseyde—the influence of Boethius’s book is pervasive. Chaucer took the basic plot for this 8,239-line poem from Boccaccio’s Filostrato.

Some critics consider Troilus and Criseyde Chaucer’s finest work, greater even than the far more widely read Canterbury Tales. But the two works are so different that comparative evaluation seems fruitless. The state of the surviving manuscripts of Troilus shows Chaucer’s detailed effort in revising this poem. Against the background of the legendary Trojan War, the love story of Troilus, son of the Trojan king Priam, and Criseyde, widowed daughter of the deserter priest Calkas, is recounted. The poem moves in leisurely fashion, with introspection and much of what would now be called psychological insight dominating many sections. Aided by Criseyde’s uncle Pandarus, Troilus and Criseyde are united in love about halfway through the poem; but then she is sent to join her father in the Greek camp outside Troy. Despite her promise to return, she gives her love to the Greek Diomede, and Troilus, left in despair, is killed in the war. These events are interspersed with Boethian discussion of free will and determinism. At the end of the poem, when Troilus’s soul rises into the heavens, the folly of complete immersion in sexual love is viewed in relation to the eternal love of God. The effect of the poem is controlled throughout by the direct comments of the narrator, whose sympathy for the lovers—especially for Criseyde—is ever present.

Also in the 1380s Chaucer produced his fourth and final dream-vision poem, The Legend of Good Women, which is not a success. It presents a Prologue, existing in two versions, and nine stories. In the Prologue the god of love is angry because Chaucer had earlier written about so many women who betrayed men. As penance, Chaucer must now write about good women. The Prologue is noteworthy for the delightful humour of the narrator’s self-mockery and for the passages in praise of books and of the spring. The stories—concerning such women of antiquity as Cleopatra, Dido, and Lucrece—are brief and rather mechanical, with the betrayal of women by wicked men as a regular theme; as a result, the whole becomes more a legend of bad men than of good women. Perhaps the most important fact about the Legend, however, is that it shows Chaucer structuring a long poem as a collection of stories within a framework. Seemingly the static nature of the framing device for the Legend and the repetitive aspect of the series of stories with a single theme led him to give up this attempt as a poor job. But the failure here must have contributed to his brilliant choice, probably about this same time, of a pilgrimage as the framing device for the stories in The Canterbury Tales.

Last years and The Canterbury Tales
Chaucer’s service as clerk of the king’s works lasted only from July 1389 to June 1391. During that tenure he was robbed several times and once beaten, sufficient reason for seeking a change of jobs. In June 1391 he was appointed subforester of the king’s park in North Petherton, Somerset, an office that he held until his death. He retained his home in Kent and continued in favour at court, receiving royal grants and gifts during 1393–97. The records show his close relationship during 1395–96 with John of Gaunt’s son, the earl of Derby, later King Henry IV. When John died in February 1399, King Richard confiscated John’s Lancastrian inheritance; then in May he set forth to crush the Irish revolt. In so doing, he left his country ready to rebel. Henry, exiled in 1398 but now duke of Lancaster, returned to England to claim his rights. The people flocked to him, and he was crowned on September 30, 1399. He confirmed Chaucer’s grants from Richard II and in October added an additional generous annuity. In December 1399 Chaucer took a lease on a house in the garden of Westminster Abbey. But in October of the following year he died. He was buried in the Abbey, a signal honour for a commoner.

Chaucer’s great literary accomplishment of the 1390s was The Canterbury Tales. In it a group of about 30 pilgrims gather at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, across the Thames from London, and agree to engage in a storytelling contest as they travel on horseback to the shrine of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury, Kent, and back. Harry Bailly, host of the Tabard, serves as master of ceremonies for the contest. The pilgrims are introduced by vivid brief sketches in the General Prologue. Interspersed between the 24 tales told by the pilgrims are short dramatic scenes presenting lively exchanges, called links and usually involving the host and one or more of the pilgrims. Chaucer did not complete the full plan for his book: the return journey from Canterbury is not included, and some of the pilgrims do not tell stories. Further, the surviving manuscripts leave room for doubt at some points as to Chaucer’s intent for arranging the material. The work is nevertheless sufficiently complete to be considered a unified book rather than a collection of unfinished fragments. Use of a pilgrimage as a framing device for the collection of stories enabled Chaucer to bring together people from many walks of life: knight, prioress, monk; merchant, man of law, franklin, scholarly clerk; miller, reeve, pardoner; wife of Bath and many others. Also, the pilgrimage and the storytelling contest allowed presentation of a highly varied collection of literary genres: courtly romance, racy fabliau, saint’s life, allegorical tale, beast fable, medieval sermon, alchemical account, and, at times, mixtures of these genres. Because of this structure, the sketches, the links, and the tales all fuse as complex presentations of the pilgrims, while at the same time the tales present remarkable examples of short stories in verse, plus two expositions in prose. In addition, the pilgrimage, combining a fundamentally religious purpose with its secular aspect of vacation in the spring, made possible extended consideration of the relationship between the pleasures and vices of this world and the spiritual aspirations for the next, that seeming dichotomy with which Chaucer, like Boethius and many other medieval writers, was so steadily concerned.

For this crowning glory of his 30 years of literary composition, Chaucer used his wide and deep study of medieval books of many sorts and his acute observation of daily life at many levels. He also employed his detailed knowledge of medieval astrology and subsidiary sciences as they were thought to influence and dictate human behaviour. Over the whole expanse of this intricate dramatic narrative, he presides as Chaucer the poet, Chaucer the civil servant, and Chaucer the pilgrim: somewhat slow-witted in his pose and always intrigued by human frailty but always questioning the complexity of the human condition and always seeing both the humour and the tragedy in that condition. At the end, in the Retractation with which The Canterbury Tales closes, Chaucer as poet and pilgrim states his conclusion that the concern for this world fades into insignificance before the prospect for the next; in view of the admonitions in The Parson’s Tale, he asks forgiveness for his writings that concern “worldly vanities” and remembrance for his translation of the Consolation and his other works of morality and religious devotion. On that note he ends his finest work and his career as poet.

Descendants and posthumous reputation
Information concerning Chaucer’s children is not fully clear. The probability is that he and Philippa had two sons and two daughters. One son, Thomas Chaucer, who died in 1434, owned large tracts of land and held important offices in the 1420s, including the forestership of North Petherton. He later leased Chaucer’s house in Westminster, and his twice-widowed daughter Alice became duchess of Suffolk. In 1391 Chaucer had written Treatise on the Astrolabe for “little Lewis,” probably his younger son, then 10 years old. Elizabeth “Chaucy,” probably the poet’s daughter, was a nun at Barking in 1381. A second probable daughter, Agnes Chaucer, was a lady-in-waiting at Henry IV’s coronation in 1399. The records lend some support to speculation that John of Gaunt fathered one or more of these children. Chaucer seems to have had no descendants living after the 15th century.

For Chaucer’s writings the subsequent record is clearer. His contemporaries praised his artistry, and a “school” of 15th-century Chaucerians imitated his poetry. Over the succeeding centuries, his poems, particularly The Canterbury Tales, have been widely read, translated into modern English, and, since about the middle of the 19th century, the number of scholars and critics who devote themselves to the study and teaching of his life and works has steadily increased.

R.M. Lumiansky
 

 

Though Chaucer wrote a number of moral and amatory lyrics, which were imitated by his 15th-century followers, his major achievements were in the field of narrative poetry. The early influence of French courtly love poetry (notably the Roman de la Rose, which he translated) gave way to an interest in Italian literature. Chaucer was acquainted with Dante’s writings and took a story from Petrarch for the substance of The Clerk’s Tale. Two of his major poems, Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight’s Tale, were based, respectively, on the Filostrato and the Teseida of Boccaccio. The Troilus, Chaucer’s single most ambitious poem, is a moving story of love gained and betrayed set against the background of the Trojan War. As well as being a poem of profound human sympathy and insight, it also has a marked philosophical dimension derived from Chaucer’s reading of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae, a work that he also translated in prose. His consummate skill in narrative art, however, was most fully displayed in The Canterbury Tales, an unfinished series of stories purporting to be told by a group of pilgrims journeying from London to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket and back. The illusion that the individual pilgrims (rather than Chaucer himself) tell their tales gave him an unprecedented freedom of authorial stance, which enabled him to explore the rich fictive potentialities of a number of genres: pious legend (in The Man of Law’s Tale and The Prioress’s Tale), fabliau (The Shipman’s Tale, The Miller’s Tale, and The Reeve’s Tale), chivalric romance (The Knight’s Tale), popular romance (parodied in Chaucer’s “own” Tale of Sir Thopas), beast fable (The Nun’s Priest’s Tale and The Manciple’s Tale), and more—what the poet John Dryden later summed up as “God’s plenty.”

A recurrent concern in Chaucer’s writings is the refined and sophisticated cultivation of love, commonly described by the modern expression courtly love. A French term of Chaucer’s time, fine amour, gives a more authentic description of the phenomenon; Chaucer’s friend John Gower translated it as “fine loving” in his long poem Confessio amantis (begun c. 1386). The Confessio runs to some 33,000 lines in octosyllabic couplets and takes the form of a collection of exemplary tales placed within the framework of a lover’s confession to a priest of Venus. Gower provides a contrast to Chaucer in that the sober and earnest moral intent behind Gower’s writing is always clear, whereas Chaucer can be noncommittal and evasive. On the other hand, though Gower’s verse is generally fluent and pleasing to read, it has a thin homogeneity of texture that cannot compare with the colour and range found in the language of his great contemporary. Gower was undoubtedly extremely learned by lay standards, and many Classical myths (especially those deriving from Ovid’s Metamorphoses) make the first of their numerous appearances in English literature in the Confessio. Gower was also deeply concerned with the moral and social condition of contemporary society, and he dealt with it in two weighty compositions in French and Latin, respectively: the Mirour de l’omme (c. 1374–78; The Mirror of Mankind) and Vox clamantis (c. 1385; The Voice of One Crying).
 


John Gower




born 1330?
died 1408, London?

medieval English poet in the tradition of courtly love and moral allegory, whose reputation once matched that of his contemporary and friend Geoffrey Chaucer, and who strongly influenced the writing of other poets of his day. After the 16th century his popularity waned, and interest in him did not revive until the middle of the 20th century.

It is thought from Gower’s language that he was of Kentish origin, though his family may have come from Yorkshire, and he was clearly a man of some wealth. Allusions in his poetry and other documents, however, indicate that he knew London well and was probably a court official. At one point, he professed acquaintance with Richard II, and in 1399 he was granted two pipes (casks) of wine a year for life by Henry IV as a reward for complimentary references in one of his poems. In 1397, living as a layman in the priory of St. Mary Overie, Southwark, London, Gower married Agnes Groundolf, who survived him. In 1400 Gower described himself as “senex et cecus” (“old and blind”), and on Oct. 24, 1408, his will was proved; he left bequests to the Southwark priory, where he is buried.

Gower’s three major works are in French, English, and Latin, and he also wrote a series of French balades intended for the English court. The Speculum meditantis, or Mirour de l’omme, in French, is composed of 12-line stanzas and opens impressively with a description of the devil’s marriage to the seven daughters of sin; continuing with the marriage of reason and the seven virtues, it ends with a searing examination of the sins of English society just before the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381: the denunciatory tone is relieved at the very end by a long hymn to the Virgin.

Gower’s major Latin poem, the Vox clamantis, owes much to Ovid; it is essentially a homily, being in part a criticism of the three estates of society, in part a mirror for a prince, in elegiac form. The poet’s political doctrines are traditional, but he uses the Latin language with fluency and elegance.

Gower’s English poems include In Praise of Peace, in which he pleads urgently with the king to avoid the horrors of war, but his greatest English work is the Confessio amantis, essentially a collection of exemplary tales of love, whereby Venus’ priest, Genius, instructs the poet, Amans, in the art of both courtly and Christian love. The stories are chiefly adapted from classical and medieval sources and are told with a tenderness and the restrained narrative art that constitute Gower’s main appeal today.
 





Poetry after Chaucer and Gower


Courtly poetry

The numerous 15th-century followers of
Chaucer continued to treat the conventional range of courtly and moralizing topics, but only rarely with the intelligence and stylistic accomplishment of their distinguished predecessors. The canon of Chaucer’s works began to accumulate delightful but apocryphal trifles such as The Flower and the Leaf and The Assembly of Ladies (both c. 1475), the former, like a surprising quantity of 15th-century verse of this type, purportedly written by a woman. The stock figures of the ardent but endlessly frustrated lover and the irresistible but disdainful lady were cultivated as part of the “game of love” depicted in numerous courtly lyrics. By the 15th century, vernacular literacy was spreading rapidly among both men and women of the laity, with the influence of French courtly love poetry remaining strong. Aristocratic and knightly versifiers such as Charles, duc d’Orléans (captured at Agincourt in 1415), his “jailer” William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk, and Sir Richard Ros (translator of Alain Chartier’s influential La Belle Dame sans merci) were widely read and imitated among the gentry and in bourgeois circles well into the 16th century.

Both Chaucer and Gower had to some extent enjoyed royal and aristocratic patronage, and the active seeking of patronage became a pervasive feature of the 15th-century literary scene. Thomas Hoccleve, a minor civil servant who probably knew Chaucer and claimed to be his disciple, dedicated The Regiment of Princes (c. 1412), culled from an earlier work of the same name, to the future king Henry V. Most of Hoccleve’s compositions seem to have been written with an eye to patronage, and, though they occasionally yield unexpected glimpses of his daily and private lives, they have little to recommend them as poetry. Hoccleve’s aspiration to be Chaucer’s successor was rapidly overshadowed, in sheer bulk if not necessarily in literary merit, by the formidable oeuvre of John Lydgate, a monk at the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds. Lydgate, too, was greatly stimulated at the prospects opened up by distinguished patronage and produced as a result a number of very long pieces that were greatly admired in their day. A staunch Lancastrian, Lydgate dedicated his Troy Book (1412–21) and Life of Our Lady to Henry V and his Fall of Princes (1431–38; based ultimately on Boccaccio’s De casibus virorum illustrium) to Humphrey Plantagenet, duke of Gloucester. He also essayed courtly verse in Chaucer’s manner (The Complaint of the Black Knight and The Temple of Glass), but his imitation of the master’s style was rarely successful. Both Lydgate and Hoccleve admired above all Chaucer’s “eloquence,” by which they meant mainly the Latinate elements in his diction. Their own painfully polysyllabic style, which came to be known as the “aureate” style, was widely imitated for more than a century. In sum, the major 15th-century English poets were generally undistinguished as successors of Chaucer, and, for a significant but independent extension of his achievement, one must look to the Scottish courtly poets known as the makaris (“makers”), among whom were King James I of Scotland, Robert Henryson, and William Dunbar.

Lydgate’s following at court gave him a central place in 15th-century literary life, but the typical concerns shown by his verse do not distinguish it from a great body of religious, moral, historical, and didactic writing, much of it anonymous. A few identifiable provincial writers turn out to have had their own local patrons, often among the country gentry. East Anglia may be said to have produced a minor school in the works of John Capgrave, Osbern Bokenam, and John Metham, among others also active during the middle of the century. Some of the most moving and accomplished verse of the time is to be found in the anonymous lyrics and carols (songs with a refrain) on conventional subjects such as the transience of life, the coming of death, the sufferings of Christ, and other penitential themes. The author of some distinctive poems in this mode was John Audelay of Shropshire, whose style was heavily influenced by the alliterative movement. Literary devotion to the Virgin Mary was particularly prominent and at its best could produce masterpieces of artful simplicity, such as the poem I sing of a maiden that is makeless [matchless].
 


Thomas Hoccleve

born 1368/69, London
died c. 1450?, Southwick, Eng.

English poet, contemporary and imitator of Chaucer, whose work has little literary merit but much value as social history.

What little is known of Hoccleve’s life must be gathered mainly from his works. At age 18 or 19 he obtained a clerkship in the privy seal office in London, which he retained intermittently for about 35 years. His earliest dated poem, a translation of Christine de Pisan’s L’Épistre au dieu d’amours, appeared in 1402 as “The Letter of Cupid.” His poem La Mâle Règle (1406; “The Male Regimen”) presents a vivid picture of the delights of a bachelor’s evening amusements in the taverns and cookshops of Westminster. Hoccleve married in about 1411.

In 1411 he produced The Regement of Princes, or De regimine principum, culled from a 13th-century work of the same name, for Henry, Prince of Wales. A tedious homily, it contains a touching accolade to Chaucer, whose portrait Hoccleve had painted on the manuscript to ensure that his appearance would not be forgotten. In his later years Hoccleve turned from the ballads addressed to his many patrons to serious religious verse and to recording the ills of the day in a literal-minded manner that presents a clear picture of the time. His most interesting work, La Mâle Règle, contains some realistic descriptions of London life.
 

 

 


John Lydgate

born c. 1370, Lidgate, Suffolk, Eng.
died c. 1450, Bury St. Edmunds?

English poet, known principally for long moralistic and devotional works.

In his Testament Lydgate says that while still a boy he became a novice in the Benedictine abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, where he became a priest in 1397. He spent some time in London and Paris; but from 1415 he was mainly at Bury, except during 1421–32 when he was prior of Hatfield Broad Oak in Essex.

Lydgate had few peers in his sheer productiveness; 145,000 lines of his verse survive. His only prose work, The Serpent of Division (1422), an account of Julius Caesar, is brief. His poems vary from vast narratives such as The Troy Book and The Falle of Princis to occasional poems of a few lines. Of the longer poems, one translated from the French, the allegory Reason and Sensuality (c. 1408) on the theme of chastity, contains fresh and charming descriptions of nature, in well-handled couplets. The Troy Book, begun in 1412 at the command of the prince of Wales, later Henry V, and finished in 1421, is a rendering of Guido delle Colonne’s Historia troiana. It was followed by The Siege of Thebes, in which the main story is drawn from a lost French romance, embellished by features from Boccaccio.

Lydgate admired the work of Chaucer intensely and imitated his versification. In 1426 Lydgate translated Guillaume de Deguilleville’s Le Pèlerinage de la vie humaine as The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man, a stern allegory; between 1431 and 1438 he was occupied with The Falle of Princis, translated into Chaucerian rhyme royal from a French version of Boccaccio’s work. He also wrote love allegories such as The Complaint of the Black Knight and The Temple of Glass, saints’ lives, versions of Aesop’s fables, many poems commissioned for special occasions, and both religious and secular lyrics.

His work is uneven in quality, and the proportion of good poetry is small. Yet with all his faults, Lydgate at his best wrote graceful and telling lines. His reputation long equalled Chaucer’s, and his work exercised immense influence for nearly a century.
 

 

 


Robert Henryson

born 1420/30?
died c. 1506

Scottish poet, the finest of early fabulists in Britain. He is described on some early title pages as schoolmaster of Dunfermline—probably at the Benedictine abbey school—and he appears among the dead poets in William Dunbar’s Lament for the Makaris, which was printed about 1508.

Henryson’s longest work is The Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian, Compylit in Eloquent & Ornate Scottis, a version of 13 fables based mainly on John Lydgate and William Caxton and running to more than 400 seven-line stanzas. The collection has a prologue, and each tale is adorned with a moralitas. Its virtue lies in the freshness of the narrative, in the sly humour and sympathy of Henryson’s animal characterization, and in his miniatures of the Scottish countryside.

In The Testament of Cresseid, a narrative and “complaint” in 86 stanzas, Henryson completes the story of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, giving a grim and tragic account of the faithless heroine’s rejection by her lover Diomede and her decline into prostitution. The Testament is more than a splendid piece of rhetorical craftsmanship; blended with Henryson’s unwavering concern for justice are an aesthetic attraction to the repulsive and grotesque and a refined sense of the variance of human love.

Among the shorter poems ascribed to Henryson are the lovely Orpheus and Eurydice, based on Boethius and akin to the Testament in mood and style; a pastourelle, Robene and Makyne, in which a traditional French genre assimilates the speech and humour of the Scottish peasantry; and a number of fine moral narratives and meditations.
 

 

 


William Dunbar
 

born 1460/65, Scotland
died before 1530

Middle Scots poet attached to the court of James IV who was the dominant figure among the Scottish Chaucerians (see makar) in the golden age of Scottish poetry.

He was probably of the family of the earls of Dunbar and March and may have received an M.A. degree from St. Andrews in 1479. It is believed that he was a Franciscan novice and travelled to England and France in the King’s service. In 1501 he was certainly in England, probably in connection with the arrangements for the marriage of James IV and Margaret Tudor, which took place in 1503. In 1500 he was granted a pension of £10 by the King. By 1504 he was in priest’s orders, and in 1510 he received, as a mark of royal esteem, a pension of £80. In 1511 he accompanied the Queen to Aberdeen and celebrated in the verse “Blyth Aberdeen” the entertainments provided by that city. After the King’s death at the Battle of Flodden (1513), he evidently received the benefice for which he had so often asked in verse, as there is no record of his pension after 1513.

With few exceptions the more than 100 poems attributed to Dunbar are short and occasional, written out of personal moods or events at court. They range from the grossest satire to hymns of religious exaltation. Of his longer works, some are courtly Chaucerian pieces like the dream allegory The Goldyn Targe, which wears its allegory very lightly and charms with descriptive imagery. The Thrissill and the Rois is a nuptial song celebrating the marriage of James IV and Margaret Tudor.

In a quite different vein, the alliterative Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie is a virtuoso demonstration of personal abuse directed against his professional rival Walter Kennedy, who is, incidentally, mentioned with affection in The Lament for the Makaris, Dunbar’s reminiscence of dead poets. Dunbar’s most celebrated and shocking satire is the alliterative Tretis of the tua mariit Wemen and the Wedo (“Treatise of the Two Married Women and the Widow”).

Dunbar’s versatility was astonishing. He was at ease in hymn and satire, morality and obscene comedy, panegyric and begging complaint, elegy and lampoon. His poetic vocabulary ranged through several levels, and he moved freely from one to another for satiric effect. He wrote with uncommon frankness and wit, manipulating old themes and forms with imagination and originality. Like other Scots poets after him—notably Robert Burns—he was a vigorously creative traditionalist. In artistry and range, though not in humanity, he was the finest of Scotland’s poets.
 

 

 


Osbern Bokenam

 

born Oct. 6, 1393?, Old Buckenham?, Norfolk, Eng.
died c. 1447

English poet and friar best known as the author of a verse collection entitled Legends of Holy Women.

Little is known of Bokenam’s life. He traveled often to Italy, living for several years in Venice and later making pilgrimages to Rome and other cities. He made his home, however, in an Augustinian convent in Suffolk. At least two works in addition to the legends have been attributed to Bokenam.

The work on which his reputation stands is an approximately 10,000-line poem written in the Middle English Suffolk dialect. It consists of three stanza forms—a 10-syllable rhymed couplet, ottava rima, and a seven-line alternately rhymed stanza—in which Bokenam relates the legends of 12 women saints (Agatha, Agnes, Anne, Cecilia, Christina, Dorothy, Elizabeth of Hungary, Faith, Katherine of Alexandria, Lucy, Margaret, and Mary Magdalene) and of the 11,000 virgins of the legend of Saint Ursula. The prologues to the individual legends are more lively than the legends themselves, which are closely translated from Latin originals. The first of the legends, of St. Margaret, was written for Bokenam’s friend Thomas Burgh, and some of the other legends were dedicated to noblewomen of Bokenam’s acquaintance. The only surviving copy of the manuscript is in the British Library.

Bokenam was familiar with the poetry of John Lydgate and is thought to have been inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, but his chief source was the Legenda aurea (Golden Legend) of Jacobus de Voragine.
 



Popular and secular verse

The art that conceals art was also characteristic of the best popular and secular verse of the period, outside the courtly mode. Some of the shorter verse romances, usually in a form called tail rhyme, were far from negligible: Ywain and Gawain, from the Yvain of Chrétien de Troyes; Sir Launfal, after Marie de France’s Lanval; and Sir Degrevant. Humorous and lewd songs, versified tales, folk songs, ballads, and others form a lively body of compositions. Oral transmission was probably common, and the survival of much of what is extant is fortuitous. The manuscript known as the Percy Folio, a 17th-century antiquarian collection of such material, may be a fair sampling of the repertoire of the late medieval itinerant entertainer. In addition to a number of popular romances of the type satirized long before by Chaucer in Sir Thopas, the Percy manuscript also contains a number of impressive ballads very much like those collected from oral sources in the 18th and 19th centuries. The extent of medieval origin of the poems collected in Francis J. Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882–98) is debatable. Several of the Robin Hood ballads undoubtedly were known in the 15th century, and the characteristic laconically repetitious and incremental style of the ballads is also to be seen in the enigmatic Corpus Christi Carol, preserved in an early 16th-century London grocer’s commonplace book. In the same manuscript, but in a rather different vein, is The Nut-Brown Maid, an expertly managed dialogue-poem on female constancy.

 


Robin Hood


"The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood"  (PART I, PART II)



legendary outlaw hero of a series of English ballads, some of which date from at least as early as the 14th century. Robin Hood was a rebel, and many of the most striking episodes in the tales about him show him and his companions robbing and killing representatives of authority and giving the gains to the poor. Their most frequent enemy was the Sheriff of Nottingham, a local agent of the central government (though internal evidence from the early ballads makes it clear that the action took place chiefly in south Yorkshire, not in Nottinghamshire). Other enemies included wealthy ecclesiastical landowners. Robin treated women, the poor, and people of humble status with courtesy. A good deal of the impetus for his revolt against authority stemmed from popular resentment over those laws of the forest that restricted hunting rights. The early ballads, especially, reveal the cruelty that was an inescapable part of medieval life.

Numerous attempts have been made to prove that there was a historical Robin Hood, though references to the legend by medieval writers make it clear that the ballads themselves were the only evidence for his existence available to them. A popular modern belief that he was of the time of Richard I probably stems from a “pedigree” fabricated by an 18th-century antiquary, William Stukeley. None of the various claims identifying Robin Hood with a particular historical figure has gained much support, and the outlaw’s existence may never have been anything but legendary.

The authentic Robin Hood ballads were the poetic expression of popular aspirations in the north of England during a turbulent era of baronial rebellions and agrarian discontent, which culminated in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The theme of the free but persecuted outlaw enjoying the forbidden hunting of the forest and outwitting or killing the forces of law and order naturally appealed to the common people.

Although many of the best-known Robin Hood ballads are postmedieval, there is a core that can be confidently attributed to the medieval period. These are Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Robin Hood and the Potter, and the Lytyll Geste of Robin Hode. During the 16th century and later, the essential character of the legend was distorted by a suggestion that Robin was a fallen nobleman, and playwrights, eagerly adopting this new element, increased the romantic appeal of the stories but deprived them of their social bite. Postmedieval ballads (which gave Robin a companion, Maid Marian) also lost most of their vitality and poetic value, doubtless as a result of losing the original social impulse that brought them into existence.

 



Political verse

A genre that does not fit easily into the categories already mentioned is political verse, of which a good deal was written in the 15th century. Much of it was avowedly and often crudely propagandist, especially during the Wars of the Roses, though a piece like the Agincourt Carol shows that it was already possible to strike the characteristically English note of insular patriotism soon after 1415. Of particular interest is the Libel of English Policy (c. 1436) on another typically English theme of a related kind:

“Cherish merchandise, keep the admiralty,
That we be masters of the narrow sea.”





Later Middle English prose



The continuity of a tradition in English prose writing, linking the later with the early Middle English period, is somewhat clearer than that detected in verse. The Ancrene Wisse, for example, continued to be copied and adapted to suit changing tastes and circumstances. But sudden and brilliant imaginative phenomena like the writings of Chaucer, Langland, and the author of Sir Gawayne are not to be found in prose. Instead came steady growth in the composition of religious prose of various kinds and the first appearance of secular prose in any quantity.



Religious prose

Of the first importance was the development of a sober, analytical, but nonetheless impressive kind of contemplative or mystical prose, represented by Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection and the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing. The authors of these pieces certainly knew the more rugged and fervent writings of their earlier, 14th-century predecessor Richard Rolle, and to some extent they reacted against what they saw as excesses in the style and content of his work. It is of particular interest to note that the mystical tradition was continued into the 15th century, though in very different ways, by two women writers, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. Julian, often regarded as the first English woman of letters, underwent a series of mystical experiences in 1373 about which she wrote in her Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love, one of the foremost works of English spirituality by the standards of any age. Rather different religious experiences went into the making of The Book of Margery Kempe (c. 1432–36), the extraordinary autobiographical record of a bourgeoise woman, dictated to two clerks. The nature and status of its spiritual content remain controversial, but its often engaging colloquial style and vivid realization of the medieval scene are of abiding interest.

Another important branch of the contemplative movement in prose involved the translation of Continental Latin texts. A major example, and one of the best-loved of all medieval English books in its time, is The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ (c. 1410), Nicholas Love’s translation of the Meditationes vitae Christi, attributed to St. Bonaventure. Love’s work was particularly valued by the church as an orthodox counterbalance to the heretical tendencies of the Lollards, who espoused the teachings of John Wycliffe and his circle. The Lollard movement generated a good deal of stylistically distinctive prose writing, though as the Lollards soon came under threat of death by burning, nearly all of it remains anonymous. A number of English works have been attributed to Wycliffe himself, and the first English translation of the Bible to Wycliffe’s disciple John Purvey, but there are no firm grounds for these attributions. The Lollard Bible, which exists in a crude early form and in a more impressive later version (supposedly Purvey’s work), was widely read in spite of being under doctrinal suspicion. It later influenced William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament, completed in 1525, and, through Tyndale, the King James Version (1611).
 


Margery Kempe

born c. 1373
died c. 1440

English religious mystic whose autobiography is one of the earliest in English literature.

The daughter of a mayor of Lynn, she married John Kempe in 1393 and bore 14 children before beginning a series of pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, Germany, and Spain in 1414. Her descriptions of her travels and her religious ecstasies, which often included “boystous” crying spells, are narrated in an unaffected prose style that uses such contemporary expressions as “thou wost no more what thou blaberest than Balamis asse.” Apparently illiterate, she dictated her Book of Margery Kempe to two clerks from about 1432 to about 1436. It was first published (modernized) in 1936 and in Middle English in 1940.
 

 

 


John Wycliffe

born c. 1330, Yorkshire, England
died December 31, 1384, Lutterworth, Leicestershire

English theologian, philosopher, church reformer, and promoter of the first complete translation of the Bible into English. He was one of the forerunners of the Protestant Reformation. The politico-ecclesiastical theories that he developed required the church to give up its worldly possessions, and in 1378 he began a systematic attack on the beliefs and practices of the church. The Lollards, a heretical group, propagated his controversial views.

Early life and career
Wycliffe was born in the North Riding of Yorkshire and received his formal education at the University of Oxford, where his name has been associated with three colleges, Queen’s, Merton, and Balliol, but with some uncertainty. He became a regent master in arts at Balliol in 1360 and was appointed master of the college, but he resigned in 1361 to become vicar of Fillingham, the college’s choicest living, or church post. There is some doubt as to whether or not he became soon afterward warden of Canterbury Hall, a house for secular (pastoral) and regular (monastic) clergy; but there was a petition from the university to the pope in 1362 to “provide” for him, and he was given a prebend (a stipend) at Aust in the church of Westbury-on-Trym. He drew his prebend while residing elsewhere, a practice he condemned in others. In 1363 and 1368 he was granted permission from the bishop of Lincoln to absent himself from Fillingham in order to study at Oxford, though in 1368 he exchanged Fillingham for Ludgershall, a parish nearer the university. He became a bachelor of divinity about 1369 and a doctor of divinity in 1372.


Political activities and theories
On April 7, 1374, Edward III appointed Wycliffe to the rectory of Lutterworth in place of Ludgershall, and about this time the theologian began to show an interest in politics. He received a royal commission to the deputation sent to discuss with the papal representatives at Brugge the outstanding differences between England and Rome, such as papal taxes and appointments to church posts. In this work, Wycliffe showed himself to be both a patriot and a king’s man.

He complemented this activity with his political treatises on divine and civil dominion (De dominio divino libri tres and Tractatus de civili dominio), in which he argued men exercised “dominion” (the word is used of possession and authority) straight from God and that if they were in a state of mortal sin, then their dominion was in appearance only. The righteous alone could properly have dominion, even if they were not free to assert it. He then proceeded to say that, as the church was in sin, it ought to give up its possessions and return to evangelical poverty. Such disendowment was, in his view, to be carried out by the state, and particularly by the king. These politico-ecclesiastical theories, devised with ingenuity and written up at inordinate length, may be criticized as the work of a theorizer with a limited sense of what was possible in the real world. Exhibiting an ingenuousness and lack of worldly wisdom, he became a tool in the hands of John of Gaunt (1340–99), Duke of Lancaster and a younger son of Edward III, who, from motives less scrupulous than those of Wycliffe, was opposed to the wealth and power of the clergy.

Wycliffe preached acceptably in London in support of moderate disendowment, but the alliance with Gaunt led to the displeasure of his ecclesiastical superiors, and he was summoned to appear before them in February 1377. The proceedings broke up in disorder, and Wycliffe retired unmolested and uncondemned. That year saw Wycliffe at the height of his popularity and influence. Parliament and the king consulted him as to whether or not it was lawful to keep back treasure of the kingdom from Rome, and Wycliffe replied that it was. In May Pope Gregory XI issued five bulls against him, denouncing his theories and calling for his arrest. The call went unanswered, and Oxford refused to condemn its outstanding scholar. Wycliffe’s last political appearance was in the autumn of 1378 when, after Gaunt’s men killed an insubordinate squire who had taken refuge in Westminster Abbey, he pleaded for the crown before Parliament against the right of sanctuary. Wycliffe defended the action on the ground that the king’s servants might lawfully invade sanctuaries to bring criminals to justice.


Wycliffe’s attack on the church
He returned to Lutterworth and, from the seclusion of his study, began a systematic attack on the beliefs and practices of the church. Theologically, this was facilitated by a strong predestinarianism that enabled him to believe in the “invisible” church of the elect, constituted of those predestined to be saved, rather than in the “visible” church of Rome—that is, in the organized, institutional church of his day. But his chief target was the doctrine of transubstantiation—that the substance of the bread and wine used in the Eucharist is changed into the body and blood of Christ. As a Realist philosopher—believing that universal concepts have a real existence—he attacked it because, in the annihilation of the substance of bread and wine, the cessation of being was involved. He then proceeded on a broader front and condemned the doctrine as idolatrous and unscriptural. He sought to replace it with a doctrine of remanence (remaining)—“This is very bread after the consecration”—combined with an assertion of the Real Presence in a noncorporeal form.

Meanwhile, he pressed his attack ecclesiastically. The pope, the cardinals, the clergy in remunerative secular employment, the monks, and the friars were all castigated in language that was bitter even for 14th-century religious controversy. For this exercise, Wycliffe was well equipped. His restless, probing mind was complemented by a quick temper and a sustained capacity for invective. Few writers have damned their opponents’ opinions and sometimes, it would appear, the opponents themselves, more comprehensively.

Yet most scholars agree that Wycliffe was a virtuous man. Proud and mistaken as he sometimes was, he gives an overall impression of sincerity. Disappointed as he may have been over his failure to receive desirable church posts, his attack on the church was not simply born of anger. It carried the marks of moral earnestness and a genuine desire for reform. He set himself up against the greatest organization on earth because he sincerely believed that organization was wrong, and if he said so in abusive terms he had the grace to confess it. Neither must his ingenuousness be forgotten. There was nothing calculated about the way in which he published his opinions on the Eucharist, and the fact that he was not calculating cost him—in all probability—the support of John of Gaunt and of not a few friends at Oxford. He could afford to lose neither.


Translation of the Bible
From August 1380 until the summer of 1381, Wycliffe was in his rooms at Queen’s College, busy with his plans for a translation of the Bible and an order of Poor Preachers who would take Bible truth to the people. (His mind was too much shaped by Scholasticism, the medieval system of learning, to do the latter himself.) There were two translations made at his instigation, one more idiomatic than the other. The most likely explanation of his considerable toil is that the Bible became a necessity in his theories to replace the discredited authority of the church and to make the law of God available to every man who could read. This, allied to a belief in the effectiveness of preaching, led to the formation of the Lollards. The precise extent to which Wycliffe was involved in the creation of the Lollards is uncertain. What is beyond doubt is that they propagated his controversial views.

In 1381, the year when Wycliffe finally retired to Lutterworth, the discontent of the labouring classes erupted in the Peasants’ Revolt. His social teaching was not a significant cause of the uprising because it was known only to the learned, but there is no doubt where his sympathies lay. He had a constant affection for the deserving poor. The archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury, was murdered in the revolt, and his successor, William Courtenay (1347–96), a more vigorous man, moved against Wycliffe. Many of his works were condemned at the synod held at Blackfriars, London, in May 1382; and at Oxford his followers capitulated, and all his writings were banned. That year, Wycliffe suffered his first stroke at Lutterworth; but he continued to write prolifically until he died from a further stroke in December 1384.


Assessment
It is no wonder that such a controversial figure produced—and still produces—a wide variety of reactions. The monks and friars retaliated, immediately and fiercely, against his denunciations of them, but such criticism grew less as the Reformation approached. Most of Wycliffe’s post-Reformation, Protestant biographers see him as the first Reformer, fighting almost alone the hosts of medieval wickedness. There has now been a reaction to this, and some modern scholars have attacked this view as the delusion of uncritical admirers. The question “Which is the real John Wycliffe?” is almost certainly unanswerable after 600 years.

The Rev. John Stacey
 

 

 


William Tyndale

born c. 1490–94, near Gloucestershire, Eng.
died Oct. 6, 1536, Vilvoorde, near Brussels, Brabant

English biblical translator, humanist, and Protestant martyr.

Tyndale was educated at the University of Oxford and became an instructor at the University of Cambridge, where, in 1521, he fell in with a group of humanist scholars meeting at the White Horse Inn. Tyndale became convinced that the Bible alone should determine the practices and doctrines of the church and that every believer should be able to read the Bible in his own language.

After church authorities in England prevented him from translating the Bible there, he went to Germany in 1524, receiving financial support from wealthy London merchants. His New Testament translation was completed in July 1525 and printed at Cologne and, when Catholic authorities suppressed it, at Worms. The first copies reached England in 1526. Tyndale then began work on an Old Testament translation but was captured in Antwerp before it was completed; he was executed at Vilvoorde in 1536.

At the time of his death, several thousand copies of his New Testament had been printed; however, only one intact copy remains today at London’s British Library. The first vernacular English text of any part of the Bible to be so published, Tyndale’s version became the basis for most subsequent English translations, beginning with the King James Version of 1611.
 


 


Secular prose

Secular compositions and translations in prose also came into prominence in the last quarter of the 14th century, though their stylistic accomplishment does not always match that of the religious tradition. Chaucer’s Tale of Melibeus and his two astronomical translations, the Treatise on the Astrolabe and the Equatorie of the Planets, were relatively modest endeavours beside the massive efforts of John of Trevisa, who translated from Latin both Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon (c. 1385–87), a universal history, and Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s De proprietatibus rerum (1398; “On the Properties of Things”), an encyclopaedia. Judging by the number of surviving manuscripts, however, the most widely read secular prose work of the period is likely to have been The Voyage and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, the supposed adventures of Sir John Mandeville, knight of St. Albans, on his journeys through Asia. Though the work now is believed to be purely fictional, its exotic allure and the occasionally arch style of its author were popular with the English reading public down to the 18th century.

The 15th century saw the consolidation of English prose as a respectable medium for serious writings of various kinds. The anonymous Brut chronicle survives in more manuscripts than any other medieval English work and was instrumental in fostering a new sense of national identity. John Capgrave’s Chronicle of England (c. 1462) and Sir John Fortescue’s On the Governance of England (c. 1470) were part of the same trend. At its best, the style of such works could be vigorous and straightforward, close to the language of everyday speech, like that found in the chance survivals of private letters of the period. Best known and most numerous among letters are those of the Paston family of Norfolk, but significant collections were also left by the Celys of London and the Stonors of Oxfordshire. More-eccentric prose stylists of the period were the religious controversialist Reginald Pecock and John Skelton, whose aureate translation of the Bibliotheca historica of Diodorus Siculus stands in marked contrast to the demotic exuberance of his verse.

The crowning achievement of later Middle English prose writing was Sir Thomas Malory’s cycle of Arthurian legends (Malory Thomas  "King Arthur and of his Noble Knights"),
which was given the title Le Morte Darthur by William Caxton when he printed his edition in 1485. There is still uncertainty as to the identity of Malory, who described himself as a “knight-prisoner.” The characteristic mixture of chivalric nostalgia and tragic feeling with which he imbued his book gave fresh inspiration to the tradition of writing on Arthurian themes. The nature of Malory’s artistry eludes easy definition, and the degree to which the effects he achieved were a matter of conscious contrivance on his part is debatable. Much of Le Morte Darthur was translated from prolix French prose romances, and Malory evidently selected and condensed his material with instinctive mastery as he went along. At the same time, he cast narrative and dialogue in the cadences of a virile and natural English prose that matched the nobility of both the characters and the theme.

 


Merlin reads his prohecies to King Vortigern.
British Library MS Cotton Claudius B VII f.224,
Geoffrey of Monmouth's Prophetiae Merlini.


 


Ranulf Higden

born c. 1280, western England
died March 12, 1364, Chester, Cheshire

English monk and chronicler remembered for his Polychronicon, a compilation of much of the knowledge of his age.

After taking monastic vows in 1299, Higden entered the Abbey of St. Werburgh, a Benedictine community in Chester. His Polychronicon was a universal history from the Creation to his own times. Modeling his seven books on the seven days of Creation, he gave an account of world geography and a universal history of the world, based on a compilation from about 40 sources. Higden himself carried the work down to the 1340s; continuators worked on the Polychronicon during the reign of Richard II (1377–99).

Although marred by recordings of miracles and supernatural events, the work provides a significant indication of 14th-century historical, geographic, and scientific knowledge. Higden wrote many other works, all theological.
 

 

 


Sir John Mandeville

flourished 14th century

purported author of a collection of travelers’ tales from around the world, The Voyage and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Knight, generally known as The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. The tales are selections from the narratives of genuine travelers, embellished with Mandeville’s additions and described as his own adventures.

The actual author of the tales remains as uncertain as the existence of the English knight Sir John Mandeville himself. The book originated in French about 1356–57 and was soon translated into many languages, an English version appearing about 1375. The narrator Mandeville identifies himself as a knight of St. Albans. Incapacitated by arthritic gout, he has undertaken to stave off boredom by writing of his travels, which began on Michaelmas Day (September 29) 1322, and from which he returned in 1356. The 14th-century chronicler Jean d’Outremeuse of Liège claimed that he knew the book’s true author, a local physician named Jean de Bourgogne, and scholars afterward speculated that d’Outremeuse himself wrote the book. Modern historical research debunked the d’Outremeuse tradition but has yielded few more positive conclusions, and the actual author of the Travels remains unknown.

It is not certain whether the book’s true author ever traveled at all, since he selected his materials almost entirely from the encyclopaedias and travel books available to him, including those by William of Boldensele and Friar Odoric of Pordenone. The author enriched these itineraries with accounts of the history, customs, religions, and legends of the regions visited, culled from his remarkably wide reading, transforming and enlivening the originals by his literary skill and genuine creative imagination. The lands that he describes include the realm of Prester John, the land of darkness, and the abode of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, all legendary. Although in his time “Mandeville” was famous as the greatest traveler of the Middle Ages, in the ensuing age of exploration he lost his reputation as a truthful narrator. His book, notwithstanding, has always been popular and remains extremely readable.
 

 

 


John Capgrave

born April 21, 1393, Lynn, Norfolk, Eng.
died Aug. 12, 1464, Lynn

historian, theologian, and hagiographer who wrote an English Life of St. Katharine, vigorous in its verse form and dramatically energetic in its debate. His work illustrates well the literary tastes and circumstances of his time.

Capgrave became a priest, lectured in theology at Oxford University, and later joined the Augustinian order of hermits at Lynn, where he probably became prior. He was provincial of his order in England and made at least one journey to Rome, the wonders of which are described in his Solace of Pilgrims (ed. C.A. Mills, 1911).

Most of his theological works seem to have been compiled from other authors, or freely translated, and consist of biblical commentaries, lectures, sermons, treatises, and lives of saints. His history in honour of Henry VI is of little historical value, but the latter part of his unfinished Chronicle of England is of some interest. He wrote several lives of saints in English, both in verse and in prose, but the huge Latin collection of the lives of English saints, the Nova Legenda Angliae, attributed to him in the 16th century, was at most edited by him.
 

 

 


Sir John Fortescue

born c. 1385, Norris, Somerset, Eng.
died c. 1479, Ebrington, Gloucestershire

jurist, notable for a legal treatise, De laudibus legum Angliae (c. 1470; “In Praise of the Laws of England”), written for the instruction of Edward, prince of Wales, son of the deposed king Henry VI of England. He also stated a moral principle that remains basic to the Anglo-American jury system: It is better that the guilty escape than that the innocent be punished.

Fortescue became chief justice of the King’s Bench in 1442 and was knighted the following year. After the defeat of Henry VI’s Lancastrian army at Towton, Yorkshire (March 29, 1461), he fled with Henry to Scotland, where Fortescue probably was appointed lord chancellor of the exiled government. From 1463 to 1471 he lived in France at the court of Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, where he helped to educate Prince Edward to rule England in the event of a Lancastrian restoration. Returning to England, he was captured at Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, during the final defeat of the Lancastrians (May 4, 1471), submitted to the Yorkist king Edward IV, and was allowed to retire to his home.

Unusual for its time, De laudibus depreciates the Roman-derived civil law and eulogizes the English constitution, statutes, and system of legal education, while offering suggestions for reform. It was probably the first book about law written in a style so simple and lucid as to be comprehensible to the layman.
 

 

 


John Skelton

born c. 1460
died June 21, 1529, London

Tudor poet and satirist of both political and religious subjects whose reputation as an English poet of major importance was restored only in the 20th century and whose individual poetic style of short rhyming lines, based on natural speech rhythms, has been given the name of Skeltonics.

His place of birth and childhood is unknown. He was educated at the University of Cambridge and later achieved the status of “poet laureate” (a degree in rhetoric) at Oxford, Leuven (Louvain) in the Netherlands (now in Belgium), and Cambridge. This success and also his skill at translating ancient Greek and Roman authors led to his appointment in 1488 first as court poet to Henry VII and later, in addition, as “scolemaster” to the Duke of York (later Henry VIII). In 1498 Skelton took holy orders and in 1502, when Henry became heir to the throne and the royal household was reorganized, he became rector of Diss, in Norfolk, a position he held until his death, though from 1512 he lived in London. In about 1512 Henry VIII granted him the title of orator regius, and in this capacity Skelton became a forthright adviser to the King, in court poems, on public issues, and on church affairs.

Little of Skelton’s early work is known, but his reputation was such that Desiderius Erasmus, greatest figure in the northern Renaissance, visiting England in 1499, referred to him as “the incomparable light and glory of English letters.” His most notable poem from his time at court is Bowge of courte, a satire of the disheartening experience of life at court; it was not until his years at Diss that he attempted his now characteristic Skeltonics. The two major poems from this period are Phyllyp Sparowe, ostensibly a lament for the death of a young lady’s pet but also a lampoon of the liturgical office for the dead; and Ware the Hawke, an angry attack on an irreverent hunting priest who had flown his hawk into Skelton’s church. Skelton produced a group of court poems, mostly satirical: A ballad of the Scottysshe Kynge, a savage attack on the King’s enemies, was written in 1513 after the Battle of Flodden; and in the next year he entertained the court with a series of “flyting” poems of mock abuse. In 1516 he wrote the first secular morality play in English, Magnyfycence, a political satire, followed by The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummynge, a portrayal of a drunken woman in an alehouse, which, though popular, contributed largely to Skelton’s later reputation as a “beastly” poet. His three major political and clerical satires, Speke Parrot (written 1521), Collyn Clout (1522), and Why come ye nat to courte (1522), were all directed against the mounting power of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, both in church and in state, and the dangers—as Skelton saw them—of the new learning of the Humanists. Wolsey proved too strong an opponent to attack further, and Skelton turned to lyrical and allegorical themes in his last poems, dedicating them all to the Cardinal himself. Skelton’s reputation declined rapidly in a 16th-century England predominantly Protestant in religion and Italianate in poetic style. A new appreciation of his qualities, however, emerged in the 20th century.
 



 

Middle English drama

Because the manuscripts of medieval English plays were usually ephemeral performance scripts rather than reading matter, very few examples have survived from what once must have been a very large dramatic literature. What little survives from before the 15th century includes some bilingual fragments, indicating that the same play might have been given in English or Anglo-Norman, according to the composition of the audience. From the late 14th century onward, two main dramatic genres are discernible, the mystery, or Corpus Christi, cycles and the morality plays. The mystery plays were long cyclic dramas of the Creation, Fall, and Redemption of humankind, based mostly on biblical narratives. They usually included a selection of Old Testament episodes (such as the stories of Cain and Abel and of Abraham and Isaac) but concentrated mainly on the life and Passion of Jesus Christ. They always ended with the Last Judgment. The cycles were generally financed and performed by the craft guilds and staged on wagons in the streets and squares of the towns. Texts of the cycles staged at York, Chester, and Wakefield and at an unstated location in East Anglia (the so-called N-Town plays) have survived, together with fragments from Coventry, Newcastle, and Norwich. Their literary quality is uneven, but the York cycle (probably the oldest) has an impressively realized version of Christ’s Passion by a dramatist influenced by the alliterative style in verse. The Wakefield cycle has several particularly brilliant plays, attributed to the anonymous Wakefield Master, and his Second Shepherds’ Play is one of the masterpieces of medieval English literature. The morality plays were allegorical dramas depicting the progress of a single character, representing the whole of humankind, from the cradle to the grave and sometimes beyond. The other dramatis personae might include God and the Devil but usually consisted of personified abstractions, such as the Vices and Virtues, Death, Penance, Mercy, and so forth. A varied collection of the moralities is known as the Macro Plays (The Castle of Perseverance, Wisdom, Mankind), but the single most impressive piece is Everyman, an English rendering of a Dutch play on the subject of the coming of death. Both the mystery and morality plays were frequently revived and performed into the 21st century.

 



"Everyman"





Type of work: Drama
Author: Unknown
Type of plot: Moral allegory
Time of plot: Any time
Locale: Any place
Earliest extant version: 1508


An English morality play of the 15th century, probably a version of a Dutch play, Elckerlyc. It achieves a beautiful, simple solemnity in treating allegorically the theme of death and the fate of the human soul—of Everyman’s soul as he tries to justify his time on earth. Though morality plays on the whole failed to achieve the vigorous realism of the Middle Ages’ scriptural drama, this short play (about 900 lines) is more than an allegorical sermon because vivid characterization gives it dramatic energy. It is generally regarded as the finest of the morality plays.

 


 


The transition from medieval to Renaissance

The 15th century was a major period of growth in lay literacy, a process powerfully expedited by the introduction into England of printing by William Caxton in 1476. Caxton published Malory’s Le Morte Darthur in the same year (1485) that Henry Tudor acceded to the throne as Henry VII, and the period from this time to the mid-16th century has been called the transition from medieval to Renaissance in English literature. A typical figure was the translator Alexander Barclay. His Eclogues (c. 1515), drawn from 15th-century Italian humanist sources, was an early essay in the fashionable Renaissance genre of pastoral, while his rendering of Sebastian Brant’s Narrenschiff as The Ship of Fools (1509) is a thoroughly medieval satire on contemporary folly and corruption. The Pastime of Pleasure (completed in 1506; published 1509) by Stephen Hawes, ostensibly an allegorical romance in Lydgate’s manner, unexpectedly adumbrates the great Tudor theme of academic cultivation as a necessary accomplishment of the courtly knight or gentleman.


The themes of education and good government predominate in the new humanist writing of the 16th century, both in discursive prose (such as Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Book Named the Governor [1531] and Roger Ascham’s Toxophilus [1545; “Lover of the Bow”] and The Schoolmaster [1570]) and in drama (the plays of Henry Medwall and Richard Rastall). The preeminent work of English humanism,
Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), was composed in Latin and appeared in an English translation in 1551.

 


Alexander Barclay

born c. 1476
died June 10, 1552, Croydon, Surrey, Eng.

poet who won contemporary fame chiefly for his adaptation of a popular German satire, Das Narrenschiff, by Sebastian Brant, which he called The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde (first printed 1509).

Barclay, possibly of Scottish birth, was by 1509 a chaplain at the College of St. Mary Ottery, Devon. He later became a Benedictine monk at Ely and still later a Franciscan friar of Canterbury. He presumably conformed to Protestantism, however, for after the Reformation he retained livings (benefices) in Essex and Somerset held since 1546. In 1552 he became rector of All Hallows, London.

Barclay also wrote (probably while a monk at Ely) the first formal eclogues in English, filled with entertaining pictures of rural life.

 

 

 


Stephen Hawes

flourished 1502–21

poet and courtier who served King Henry VII of England and was a follower of the devotional poet John Lydgate.

Hawes’s main work is a long allegorical poem, The Passetyme of Pleasure, the chief theme of which is the education and pilgrimage through life of the knight Graunde Amoure. Completed in 1506, it was printed by Wynkyn de Worde in 1509. Another allegory by Hawes, The Example of Vertu, is simpler and shorter. Though he shows at times a finer quality of mind than Lydgate, Hawes is not even Lydgate’s equal in technical accomplishment, and little of his prolix, repetitious verse is memorable.

Little is known of Hawes’s life beyond the facts that he was educated at the University of Oxford, traveled in England, Scotland, and France, and in 1502 was groom of the chamber to Henry VII. He was alive in 1521, but his date of death is unknown.
 

 

 


Sir Thomas Elyot




born c. 1490
died March 26, 1546, Carleton, Cambridgeshire, Eng.

English author and administrator, memorable for his championship and use of English prose for subjects then customarily treated in Latin. Both as a philosopher and as a lexicographer, he endeavoured to “augment our Englysshe tongue” as a medium for ideas.

He was clerk to the Privy Council (1523–30) and was knighted in 1530. A member of Sir Thomas More’s circle, Elyot was suspected of being out of sympathy with Henry VIII’s plan to divorce Catherine of Aragon and probably owed his lack of advancement to his friendship with More. In 1531 he published The Boke Named the Governour, dedicated to the king, and that autumn went as the king’s envoy to the court of the Holy Roman emperor Charles V.

Elyot’s very popular Governour, a plan for the upbringing of gentlemen’s sons who were to bear authority in the realm, was the first important treatise on education in English and did much to form the later English ideal of the gentleman. His Castel of Helth was a popular regimen of health that, written in the vernacular and by a layman (although he had received some instruction in medicine), incurred censure but was widely read. His Dictionary, the first English dictionary of Classical Latin, was published in 1538. The aim of all Elyot’s works was usefulness: he brought classics and Italian authors to the general public through his translations, he provided practical instruction in his own writings, and he added many new words to the English language.
 

 

 


Roger Ascham

born 1515?, Kirby Wiske, near York, Eng.
died Dec. 30, 1568, London

British humanist, scholar, and writer, famous for his prose style, his promotion of the vernacular, and his theories of education.

As a boy of 14, Ascham entered the University of Cambridge, where he earned his M.A. (1537) and one year later was elected a fellow of St. John’s and appointed reader in Greek. The new Renaissance enthusiasm for the classics, especially Greek, was at its height.

Ascham’s Toxophilus (“Lover of the Bow”), written in the form of a dialogue, was published in 1545 and was the first book on archery in English. In the preface Ascham showed the growing patriotic zeal of the humanists by stating that he was writing “Englishe matter in the Englishe tongue for Englishe men.” He became Princess Elizabeth’s tutor in Greek and Latin (1548–50), then served as secretary to Sir Richard Morison (1550–52), English ambassador to the Habsburg emperor Charles V, traveling widely on the European continent. Thereafter, he was appointed Latin secretary to Queen Mary, a post he held until her death in 1558. He continued in this position for Queen Elizabeth I until his death. He served her by composing her official letters to foreign rulers and by helping her pursue the study of Greek.

The Scholemaster, written in simple, lucid English prose and published posthumously in 1570, is Ascham’s best-known book. It presents an effective method of teaching Latin prose composition, but its larger concerns are with the psychology of learning, the education of the whole person, and the ideal moral and intellectual personality that education should mold. His success in tutoring three females—Lady Jane Grey, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth—has led some to consider Ascham an early proponent of education for girls.
 

 

 


Henry Medwall



Fulgens and Lucrece by Henry Medwall


born September 1461, Southwark, London, Eng.
died after 1501

author remembered for his Fulgens and Lucrece, the first known secular play in English.

Medwall was educated at Eton College and the University of Cambridge and participated in dramatic performances there. After 1485 he worked as a lawyer and administrator in London, eventually entering the employ of Cardinal John Morton, archbishop of Canterbury. In 1492–1501 he held a sinecure, the rectory of Balynghem in the English marches of Calais, France. His career ended with Morton’s death in 1500, and nothing is known of him after 1501.

Medwall’s dramatic works were written for the entertainment of Morton and his guests. A morality play, Nature, a good example of the allegorical type of early drama, displays Medwall’s talent for realistic dialogue and his skill as a versifier. Fulgens and Lucrece is a debate on the origins of true nobility, enlivened by the interruptions of household servants.
 

 

 


Thomas More


"Utopia"




born Feb. 7, 1477, London, Eng.
died July 6, 1535, London; canonized May 19, 1935; feast day June 22


also called Saint Thomas More humanist and statesman, chancellor of England (1529–32), who was beheaded for refusing to accept King Henry VIII as head of the Church of England. He is recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic church.


Early life and career.

Thomas—the eldest son of John More, a lawyer who was later knighted and made a judge of the King's Bench—was educated at one of London's best schools, St. Anthony's in Threadneedle Street, and in the household of John Morton, archbishop of Canterbury and chancellor of England. The future cardinal, a shrewd judge of character, predicted that the bright and winsome page would prove a “marvellous man.” His interest sent the boy to the University of Oxford, where More seems to have spent two years, mastering Latinand undergoing a thorough drilling in formal logic.

About 1494 his father brought More back to London to study the common law. In February 1496 he was admitted to Lincoln's Inn, one of the four legal societies preparing for admission to the bar. In 1501 More became an “utter barrister,” a full member of the profession. Thanks to his boundless curiosity and a prodigious capacity for work, he managed, along with the law, to keep up his literary pursuits. He read avidly from Holy Scripture, the Church Fathers, and the classics and tried his hand at all literary genres.

Although bowing to his father's decision that he should become a lawyer, More was prepared to be disowned rather than disobey God's will. To test his vocation to the priesthood, he resided for about four years in the Carthusian monastery adjoining Lincoln's Inn and shared as much of the monks' way of life as was practicable. Although attracted especially to the Franciscan order, More decided that he would best serve God and his fellowmen as a lay Christian. More, however, never discarded the habits of early rising, prolonged prayer, fasting, and wearing the hair shirt. God remained the centre of his life.

In late 1504 or early 1505, More married Joan Colt, the eldest daughter of an Essex gentleman farmer. She was a competent hostess for non-English visitors, such as the Dutch Humanist Desiderius Erasmus, who was given permanent rooms in the Old Barge on the Thames side in Bucklersbury in the City of London, More's home for the firsttwo decades of his married life. Erasmus wrote his Praise of Folly while staying there.

The important negotiations More conducted in 1509 on behalf of a number of London companies with the representative of the Antwerp merchants confirmed his competence in trade matters and his gifts as an interpreter and spokesman. From September 1510 to July 1518, when he resigned to be fully in the king's service, More was one of the two under sheriffs of London, “the pack-horses of the City government.” He endeared himself to the Londoners—as an impartial judge, a disinterested consultant, and “the general patron of the poor.”

More's domestic idyll came to a brutal end in the summer of 1511 with the death, perhaps in childbirth, of his wife. He wasleft a widower with four children, and within weeks of his first wife's death, he married Alice Middleton, the widow of a London mercer. She was several years his senior and had a daughter of her own; she did not bear More any children.

More's History of King Richard III, written in Latin and in English between about 1513 and 1518, is the first masterpiece of English historiography. Though never finished, it influenced succeeding historians. William Shakespeare is indebted to More for his portrait of the tyrant.

The “Utopia.” In May 1515 More was appointed to a delegation to revise an Anglo-Flemish commercial treaty. The conference was held at Brugge, with long intervals that More used to visit other Belgian cities. He began in the Low Countries and completed after his return to London his Utopia, which was published at Louvain in December 1516. The book was an immediate success with the audience for which More wrote it: the Humanists and an elite group of public officials.

Utopia is a Greek name of More's coining, from ou-topos (“no place”); a pun on eu-topos (“good place”) is suggested in a prefatory poem. More's Utopia describes a pagan and communist city-state in which the institutions and policies are entirely governed by reason. The order and dignity of such a state provided a notable contrast with the unreasonable polity of Christian Europe, divided by self-interest and greed for power and riches, which More described in book i, written in England in 1516. The description of Utopia is put in the mouth of a mysterious traveler, Raphael Hythloday, in support of his argument that communism is the only cure against egoism in private and public life. Through dialogue More speaks in favour of the mitigation of evil rather than its cure, human nature being fallible. Among the topics discussed by More in Utopia were penology, state-controlled education, religious pluralism, divorce, euthanasia, and women's rights. The resulting demonstration of his learning, invention, and wit established his reputation as one of the foremost Humanists. Soon translated into most European languages, Utopia became the ancestor of a new literary genre, the Utopian romance.





Career as king's servant

On May 1, 1517, a mob of London apprentices attacked foreign merchants in the city. More's role in quenching this Evil-Mayday riot inspired a scene, attributed to Shakespeare, in Sir Thomas More, a composite Elizabethan play. More's success in the thorny negotiations with the French at Calais and Boulogne (September to December 1517) over suits born of the recent war made it harder for him to dodge royal service. That year he became a member of the king's council and from October was known as master of requests. He resigned his City office in 1518. While yielding to pressure, he embraced the chance of furthering peace and reform. The lord chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, now looked ready to implement some of the political ideas of the Christian Humanists.

Between 1515 and 1520 More campaigned spiritedly for Erasmus' religious and cultural program—Greek studies as the key to a theology renewed by a return to the Bible and the Church Fathers—in poems commending Erasmus' New Testament. More's Latin poems were published in 1518 under one cover between his Utopia and Erasmus' Epigrammata; they are extremely varied in metre and matter, their main topics being government, women, and death.

Erasmus offered his London friend as a model for the intelligentsia of Europe in letters to the German Humanist Ulrich von Hutten (1519); the Paris scholar Germain de Brie (1520), with whom More had just engaged in a polemic; and Guillaume Budé, whom More had met in June 1520 at the Field of Cloth of Gold, the meeting ground, near Calais, between Henry VIII and Francis I. According to Erasmus, simplicity was More's mark in food and dress. He shrank from nothing that imparted an innocent pleasure, even of a bodily kind. He had a speaker's voice and a memory that served him well for extempore rejoinders. “Born for friendship,” he could extract delight from the dullest people or things. His family affections were warm yet unobtrusive. He gave freely and gladly, expecting no thanks. Amid his intense professional activity, he found hours for prayer and for supervising his domestic school. Most of his charges weregirls, to whom he provided the most refined classical and Christian education.

In 1520 and 1521 More took part in talks, at Calais and Brugge, with the emperor Charles V and with the Hansa merchants. In 1521 he was made undertreasurer and knighted. His daughter Margaret married William Roper, a lawyer. For Henry VIII's Defense of the Seven Sacraments, More acted as “a sorter out and placer of the principal matters.” When Martin Luther hit back, More vindicated the king in a learned, though scurrilous, Responsio ad Lutherum (1523). In addition to his routine duties at the Exchequer, More served throughout these years as “Henry's intellectual courtier,” secretary, and confidant. He welcomed foreign envoys, delivered official speeches, drafted treaties, read the dispatches exchanged between the king and Wolsey, and answered in the king's name. Often he rode posthaste between the cardinal's headquarters at Westminster and Henry's various hunting residences. In April1523 More was elected speaker of the House of Commons; while loyally striving to secure the government's ends, he made a plea for truer freedom of speech in Parliament. The universities—Oxford in 1524, Cambridge in 1525—made him their high steward.

By 1524 More had moved to Chelsea. The Great House he built there bore the stamp of his philosophy, its gallery, chapel, and library all geared toward studious and prayerful seclusion. In 1525 he was promoted to chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, which put a large portion of northern England under his judiciary and administrative control.

On More's return from an embassy to France in the summer of 1527, Henry VIII “laid the Bible open before him” as proof that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who had failed to produce a male heir, was void, even incestuous, because of her previous marriage to Henry's late brother. More tried in vain to share the king's scruples, but long study confirmed his view that Catherine was the king's true wife. After being commissioned in March 1528 by Bishop Tunstall of London toread all heretical writings in the English language in order to refute them for the sake of the unlearned, he published seven books of polemics between 1529 and 1533—the first and best being A Dialogue Concerning Heresies.


Years as chancellor of England.

Together with Tunstall, More attended the congress of Cambrai at which peace was made between France and the Holy Roman Empire in 1529. Though the Treaty of Cambrai represented a rebuff to England and, more particularly, a devastating reverse for Cardinal Wolsey's policies, More managed to secure the inclusion of his country in the treaty and the settlement of mutual debts. When Wolsey fell from power, having failed in his foreign policy and in his efforts to procure the annulment of the king's marriage to Catherine, More succeeded him as lord chancellor on Oct. 26, 1529.

On Nov. 3, 1529, More opened the Parliament that was later to forge the legal instruments for his death. As the king's mouthpiece, More indicted Wolsey in his opening speech and, in 1531, proclaimed the opinions of universities favourable to the divorce; but he did not sign the letter of 1530 in which England's nobles and prelates, including Wolsey, pressured the pope to declare the first marriage void, and he tried to resign in 1531, when the clergy acknowledged the king as their supreme head, albeit with the clause “as far as the law of Christ allows.”

More's longest book, The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer, in two volumes (1532 and 1533), centres on “what the churchis.” To the stress of stooping for hours over his manuscript More ascribed the sharp pain in his chest, perhaps angina, which he invoked when begging Henry to free him from the yoke of office. This was on May 16, 1532, the day when the governing body (synod) of the church in England delivered tothe crown the document by which they promised never to legislate or so much as convene without royal assent, thus placing a layperson at the head of the spiritual order.

More meanwhile continued his campaign for the old faith, defending England's antiheresy laws and his own handling ofheretics, both as magistrate and as writer, in two books of 1533: the Apology and the Debellacyon. He also laughs away the accusation of greed levelled by William Tyndale, translator of parts of the first printed English Bible. More's poverty was so notorious that the hierarchy collected £5,000to recoup his polemical costs, but he refused this grant lest it be construed as a bribe.


Indictment, trial, and execution

More's refusal to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn, whom Henry married after his divorce from Catherine in 1533, marked him out for vengeance. Several charges of accepting bribes recoiled on the heads of his accusers. In February 1534 More was included in a bill of attainder for alleged complicity with Elizabeth Barton, who had uttered prophecies against Henry's divorce, but he produced a letter in which he had warned the nun against meddling in affairs of state. He was summoned to appear before royal commissioners on April 13 to assent under oath to the Act of Succession, which declared the king's marriage with Catherine void and that with Anne valid. This More was willing to do, acknowledging that Anne was in fact anointed queen. But he refused the oath as then administered because it entailed a repudiation of papal supremacy. On April 17, 1534, he was imprisoned in the Tower. More welcomed prison life. But for his family responsibilities, he would have chosen for himself “as strait a room and straiter too,” as he said to his daughter Margaret, who after some time took the oath and was then allowed to visit him. In prison, More wrote A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, a masterpiece of Christian wisdom and of literature.

His trial took place on July 1, 1535. Richard Rich, the solicitor general, a creature of Thomas Cromwell, the unacknowledged head of the government, testified that the prisoner had, in his presence, denied the king's title as supreme head of the Church of England. Despite More's scathing denial of this perjured evidence, the jury's unanimous verdict was “guilty.” Before the sentence was pronounced, More spoke “in discharge of his conscience.” The unity of the church was the main motive of his martyrdom. His second objection was that “no temporal manmay be head of the spirituality.” Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn, to which he also referred as the cause for which they “sought his blood,” had been the occasion for the assaults on the church: among his judges were the new queen's father, brother, and uncle.

More was sentenced to the traitor's death—“to be drawn, hanged, and quartered”—which the king changed to beheading. During five days of suspense, More prepared hissoul to meet “the great spouse” and wrote a beautiful prayer and several letters of farewell. He walked to the scaffold on Tower Hill. “See me safe up,” he said to the lieutenant, “and for my coming down let me shift for myself.” He told the onlookers to witness that he was dying “in the faith and for the faith of the Catholic Church, the king's good servant and God's first.” He altered the ritual by blindfolding himself, playing “a part of his own” even on this awful stage.

The news of More's death shocked Europe. Erasmus mourned the man he had so often praised, “whose soul was more pure than any snow, whose genius was such that England never had and never again will have its like.” The official image of More as a traitor did not gain credence even in Protestant lands.


Assessment

Though the triumph of Anglicanism brought about a certain eclipse of Thomas More, the publication of the state papers restored a fuller and truer picture of More, preparing public opinion for his beatification (1886). He was canonized by Pius XI in May 1935. Though the man is greater than the writer, and though nothing in his life “became him like the leaving of it,” his “golden little book” Utopia has earned him greater fame than the crown of martyrdom or the million words of his English works.

Erasmus' phrase describing More as omnium horarum homowas rendered later as “a man for all seasons” and was given currency by Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons (1960). Monuments to him have been placed in Westminster Hall, the Tower of London, and the Chelsea Embankment, all in London. In the words of the English Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton, More “may come to be counted the greatest Englishman, or at least the greatest historical character in English History.”

The Rev. Germain P. Marc'hadour
 



The most distinctive voice in the poetry of the time was that of John Skelton, tutor to Henry VII’s sons and author of an extraordinary range of writing, often in an equally extraordinary style. His works include a long play, Magnificence (1516), like his Bowge of Court (c. 1498) an allegorical satire on court intrigue; intemperate satirical invectives, such as Collyn Clout and Why Come Ye Not to Court? (both 1522); and reflexive essays on the role of the poet and poetry, in Speak, Parrot (written 1521) and The Garland of Laurel (1523). The first half of the 16th century was also a notable period for courtly lyric verse in the stricter sense of poems with musical settings, such as those found in the Devonshire Manuscript. This is very much the literary milieu of the “courtly makers” Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, but, though the courtly context of much of their writing is of medieval origin, their most distinctive achievements look to the future. Poems such as Wyatt’s They flee from me and Whoso list to hunt vibrate with personal feeling at odds with the medieval convention of anonymity, while Surrey’s translations from the Aeneid introduce blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) into English for the first time, providing an essential foundation for the achievements of Shakespeare and John Milton.

 


Sir Thomas Wyatt


born 1503, Allington, near Maidstone, Kent, Eng.
died Oct. 6, 1542, Sherborne, Dorset

poet who introduced the Italian sonnet and terza rima verse form and the French rondeau into English literature.

Wyatt was educated at St. John’s, Cambridge, and became a member of the court circle of Henry VIII, where he seems to have been popular and admired for his attractive appearance and skill in music, languages, and arms. During his career, he served a number of diplomatic missions and was knighted in 1537, but his fame rests on his poetic achievements, particularly his songs. His poems are unusual for their time in carrying a strong sense of individuality. They consist of Certayne Psalmes . . . drawen into Englyshe meter (1549); three satires, and Songes and Sonettes, published in Tottel’s Miscellany (1557); and songs identified in manuscript, published in 19th- and 20th-century editions.
 

 

 


Henry Howard, earl of Surrey




born 1517, Hunsdon, Hertfordshire, Eng.?
died Jan. 13, 1547, London

poet who, with Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503–42), introduced into England the styles and metres of the Italian humanist poets and so laid the foundation of a great age of English poetry.

The eldest son of Lord Thomas Howard, Henry took the courtesy title of Earl of Surrey in 1524 when his father succeeded as 3rd Duke of Norfolk. It was Surrey’s fate, because of his birth and connections, to be involved (though usually peripherally) in the jockeying for place that accompanied Henry VIII’s policies. From 1530 until 1532 he lived at Windsor with his father’s ward, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, who was the son of Henry VIII and his mistress Elizabeth Blount. In 1532, after talk of marriage with the princess Mary (daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon), he married Lady Frances de Vere, the 14-year-old daughter of the Earl of Oxford, but they did not live together until 1535. Despite this marriage, an alliance between him and the princess Mary was still discussed. In 1533 Richmond married Surrey’s sister Mary, but the two did not live together because Mary preferred to stay in the country. Richmond died three years later, under suspicious circumstances.

Surrey was confined at Windsor (1537–39) after being charged by the Seymours (high in favour since the king’s marriage to Jane Seymour in 1536) with having secretly favoured the Roman Catholics in the rebellion of 1536. He had in fact joined his father against the insurgents. In 1540 he was a champion in court jousts, and his prospects were further improved by the marriage of his cousin Catherine Howard to the king. He served in the campaign in Scotland in 1542 and in France and Flanders from 1543 to 1546. He acted as field marshal in 1545 but was reprimanded for exposing himself unnecessarily to danger.

Returning to England in 1546, he found the king dying and his old enemies the Seymours incensed by his interference in the projected alliance between his sister Mary and Sir Thomas Seymour, Jane’s brother; he made matters worse by his assertion that the Howards were the obvious regents for Prince Edward, Henry VIII’s son by Jane Seymour. The Seymours, alarmed, accused Surrey and his father of treason and called his sister, the Duchess of Richmond, to witness against him. She made the disastrous admission that he was still a close adherent to the Roman Catholic faith. Because Surrey’s father, the Duke of Norfolk, had been considered heir apparent if Henry VIII had had no issue, the Seymours urged that the Howards were planning to set Prince Edward aside and assume the throne. Surrey defended himself unavailingly and at the age of 30 was executed on Tower Hill. His father was saved only because the king died before he could be executed.

Most of Surrey’s poetry was probably written during his confinement at Windsor; it was nearly all first published in 1557, 10 years after his death. He acknowledged Wyatt as a master and followed him in adapting Italian forms to English verse. He translated a number of Petrarch’s sonnets already translated by Wyatt. Surrey achieved a greater smoothness and firmness, qualities that were to be important in the evolution of the English sonnet. Surrey was the first to develop the sonnet form used by William Shakespeare.

In his other short poems he wrote not only on the usual early Tudor themes of love and death but also of life in London, of friendship, and of youth. The love poems have little force except when, in two “Complaint[s] of the absence of her lover being upon the sea,” he wrote, unusual for his period, from the woman’s point of view.

The short poems were printed by Richard Tottel in his Songes and Sonettes, Written by the Ryght Honorable Lorde Henry Haward Late Earle of Surrey and Other (1557; usually known as Tottel’s Miscellany). “Other” included Wyatt, and critics from George Puttenham onward have coupled their names.

Surrey’s translation of Books II and IV of the Aeneid, published in 1557 as Certain Bokes of Virgiles Aenaeis, was the first use in English of blank verse, a style adopted from Italian verse.
 

 

 
     
       
 

Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

 
| privacy