History of Literature
A BRIEF HISTORY OF
The Middle Ages Literature
The Middle Ages Literature
"St. Bede the Venerable"
Sir Thomas Malory
Arthur and of his Noble Knights"
Gawain and the Green Knight"
"The Legends of King Arthur"
Illustrations by Lancelot
De Troyes Four Arthurian Romances:
"Erec et Enide",
"Cliges", "Yvain", "Lancelot"
Chansons de geste
"The Ring of the Nibelung" illustrations by Arthur
Bédier "The Romance of Tristan and Iseult"
Hall Brownell "The Wagnerian Romances"
Geoffrey Chaucer "The Canterbury Tales"
Montaigne "The Essays"
BOOK THE FIRST,
BOOK THE SECOND,
BOOK THE THIRD
Sir Thomas Wyatt
Sir Thomas More
Tapestry by Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898)
The Attainment of the Holy Grail by Sir Gallahad and Sir Percival, 1898
(from left to right): Sir Perceval, Sir Bors, Angels, Sir
Galahad, Grail Chapel and the Holy Grail
The Middle Ages Literature
As the Roman Empire declined and 'civilised'
Greco-Roman culture was overcome by a diversity of
'barbarian' counter culture, so literature was lost to what
has become known as the 'Dark Ages'. With the end of
classical culture European thought had lost its central
focus of Rome and scholarship was left to the many emerging
The Dark Ages is seen as a cultural step backwards, however
this was a time of gradual fusion between the largely
Christian Roman civilisation and heathen practices. Despite
the lack of literary profusion during the Middle Ages a
strong oral tradition was maintained and stories from these
mysterious times have inspired many writers. Eventually
works from all over Europe did emerge and had a great
influence on the evolution of literature with the writings
of such luminaries as
Dante still being studied
in schools today.
The decline of the Roman Empire was an
immensely long and complicated process. In
spite of the name sometimes given to the
succeeding centuries, not all knowledge of
Roman civilization was lost in the 'Dark Ages',
and the Empire itself survived in Byzantium, in a
form increasingly alienated from the West. But
Rome itself fell into ruins and large parts of the
former Roman Empire were occupied by tribes
who were not only pagans but also illiterate.
Among them were the Germanic tribes known as
the Anglo-Saxons who occupied lowland Britain,
extinguishing the culture of the Romano-Celts, despite the
efforts of the legendary
and his knights.
Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, is the oldest form of our
language. Modern readers, unless they have studied it,
cannot read it any more than they can read classical Greek,
but the language is not the only problem. It is much easier
to relate to the ancient Greeks than to the Anglo-Saxons
with their grim gods and bloody, beleaguered heroes. Life in
an Anglo-Saxon village is more remote to us than life in
classical Athens. We would feel more at home dining in some
comfort in an Attic villa while a bard recites
Homer than we
would in the draughty hall of some Saxon chief, or even in
the cloisters of a Benedictine abbey listening to the Latin
chants of the monks.
The first page of the Beowulf manuscript.
Beowulf, the first English epic, dates from the 7th century
and runs to about 3,000 lines. It relates the adventures of
a Scandinavian hero and his conflicts with several ghastly
monsters, the last of which proves fatal. Though in verse,
it depends more on alliteration rather than rhyme and, like
all early poetry, was designed to be recited - intoned even.
It is slow-moving, largely due to the rhetorical trick of
describing every object by a metaphorical synonym.
course always referred to the sea (for instance) as 'the
wine-dark sea' (actually a mistranslation, but a happy one),
Beowulf this device is carried to excess, each
mention of the object being followed by a whole string of
gets a mixed reception nowadays. It was defended in
memorable terms by
J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings: 'profound feeling,
and poignant vision, filled with the beauty and mortality of
the world, are aroused by brief phrases, light touches,
short words resounding like harp-strings sharply plucked'.
On the other hand, the late Brigid Brophy put it top of her
list of 'works of literature we could do without'.
The author of
Beowulf is unknown, and although a number of
Old English poems have been preserved, the names of only two
poets have come down to us. In the case of
Caedmon (late 7th
century), a monk of humble origins, who is said to have
translated parts of the Bible into English verse, it is
little more than a name, since only one poem can definitely
be ascribed to him.
Cynewulf, who lived later, about the
early 9th century, has had many poems on religious subjects
ascribed to him, but modern scholars accept only four, to
which his name was attached in runic characters, as
Beowulf - heroic poem, the highest
achievement of Old English literature and the
earliest European vernacular epic. Preserved in
a single manuscript (Cotton Vitellius A XV) from
c. 1000, it deals with events of the early 6th
century and is believed to have been composed
between 700 and 750. It did not appear in print
until 1815. Although originally untitled, it was
later named after the Scandinavian hero Beowulf,
whose exploits and character provide its
connecting theme. There is no evidence of a
historical Beowulf, but some characters, sites,
and events in the poem can be historically
The poem falls into two parts. It opens in
Denmark, where King Hrothgar's splendid mead
hall, Heorot, has been ravaged for 12 years by
nightly visits from an evil monster, Grendel,
who carries off Hrothgar's warriors and devours
them. Unexpectedly, young Beowulf, a prince of
the Geats of southern Sweden, arrives with a
small band of retainers and offers to cleanse
Heorot of its monster. The King is astonished at
the little-known hero's daring but welcomes him,
and after an evening of feasting, much courtesy,
and some discourtesy, the King retires, leaving
Beowulf in charge. During the night Grendel
comes from the moors, tears open the heavy
doors, and devours one of the sleeping Geats. He
then grapples with Beowulf, whose powerful grip
he cannot escape. He wrenches himself free,
tearing off his arm, and leaves, mortally
The next day is one of rejoicing in Heorot. But
at night as the warriors sleep, Grendel's mother
comes to avenge her son, killing one of
Hrothgar's men. In the morning Beowulf seeks her
out in her cave at the bottom of a mere and
kills her. He cuts the head from Grendel's
corpse and returns to Heorot. The Danes rejoice
once more. Hrothgar makes a farewell speech
about the character of the true hero, as
Beowulf, enriched with honours and princely
gifts, returns home to King Hygelac of the Geats.
The second part passes rapidly over King
Hygelac's subsequent death in a battle (of
historical record), the death of his son, and
Beowulf's succession to the kingship and his
peaceful rule of 50 years. But now a
fire-breathing dragon ravages his land and the
doughty but aging Beowulf engages it. The fight
is long and terrible and a painful contrast to
the battles of his youth. Painful, too, is the
desertion of his retainers except for his young
kinsman Wiglaf. Beowulf kills the dragon but is
mortally wounded. The poem ends with his funeral
rites and a lament.
Beowulf belongs metrically, stylistically, and
thematically to the inherited Germanic heroic
tradition. Many incidents, such as Beowulf's
tearing off the monster's arm and his descent
into the mere, are familiar motifs from
folklore. The ethical values are manifestly the
Germanic code of loyalty to chief and tribe and
vengeance to enemies. Yet the poem isso infused
with a Christian spirit that it lacks the grim
fatality of many of the Eddic lays or the
Icelandic sagas. Beowulf himself seems more
altruistic than other Germanic heroes or the
heroes of the Iliad. It is significant that his
three battles are not against men, which would
entail the retaliation of the blood feud, but
against evil monsters, enemies of the whole
community and of civilization itself. Many
critics have seen the poem as a Christian
allegory, with Beowulf the champion of goodness
and light against the forces of evil and
darkness. His sacrificial death is not seen as
tragic but as the fitting end of a good (some
would say “too good”) hero's life.
That is not to say that Beowulf is an optimistic
poem. The English critic J.R.R. Tolkien suggests
that its total effect is more like a long,
lyrical elegy than an epic. Even the earlier,
happier section in Denmark is filled with
ominous allusions that were well understood by
contemporary audiences. Thus, after Grendel's
death, King Hrothgar speaks sanguinely of the
future, which the audience knows will end with
the destruction of his line and the burning of
Heorot. In the second part the movement is slow
and funereal; scenes from Beowulf's youth are
replayed in a minor key as a counterpoint to his
last battle, and the mood becomes increasingly
sombre as the wyro (fate) that comes to all
mencloses in on him. John Gardner's Grendel
(1971) is a retelling of the story from the
point of view of the monster.
Caedmon's poem was preserved in a manuscript by Bede, or
"St. Bede the Venerable", (A.D. 673-735), the great figure of the early
Anglo-Saxon period, who spent most of his life in a
monastery at Jarrow and was known to later generations as
the Venerable Bede. As a monk and a scholar, he wrote in
Latin, and his most famous work, among many on various
subjects, is his History of the English Church and People,
which he completed in about A.D. 731. It describes the
history of Britain from the invasion of Julius Caesar (55
B.C.) up to his own day and, although displaying
understandable bias in favour of the Church and of his
native Northumbrian kingdom - and against the marauding
Vikings, destroyers of monasteries — it is generally both
reliable and perceptive.
Bede's History was translated into Old English as part of
the literary revival associated with Alfred the Great, King
of Wessex (A.D. 871-899). The King himself even translated
some works from Latin for the furtherance of education, and
he encouraged an important venture already in existence, the
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The most important historical source
for the period, the Chronicle was in fact several, produced
in different versions in different towns: the Peterborough
Chronicle is the most famous survivor. It eventually covered
the period from the beginning of Christianity to the
mid-12th century. The records for the early years are merely
a brief register, but from the 5th century the entries
become more detailed, especially for certain events, such as
Alfred's wars against the Danes, and poems are included,
notably one about the Battle of Brunanburh (A.D. 937), best
known in a translation by
Middle English, the language of Chaucer, is easier than
Old English for the modern reader. The transition took place
gradually, but is conveniently dated from the Norman
Conquest (1066). Thereafter the ruling class spoke French
and, inevitably, English absorbed many French words.
fundamental change was the loss of most of the inflections
that, in Old English, indicated the function of a word
within a sentence. Thus, in Old English it was possible to
have a sentence in which, for example, the object preceded
the verb, as in Urne dceghwamlican hlaf sele us todae, or
'Give us today our daily bread'. The suffix -ne (in urne)
indicates the object of the verb sele ('give'). In Middle
(or modern) English, it was necessary for the verb to
precede the object.
Le Morte D'Arthur
Arturian Legend (Pre-Raphaelite's
While the aristocracy spoke and wrote in French, the monkish
chroniclers, such as William of Malmesbury and Geoffrey of
Monmouth. wrote in Latin, the language of the Church.
History of the
Kings of Britain (c.1148) helped
to popularize the legends of king Arthur, and the first
English version of Arthurian legend appeared near the end of
the 12th century in a poetic history, the Brut, by Layamon.
a Worcestershire cleric. It also contained the first English
accounts of Lear and Cymheline.
Arthurian legend, the standard medieval version of which was
Sir Thomas Malory
Arthur and of his Noble Knights" (1470),
James "The Legends of King Arthur",
confined to England, and the story was developed by
De Troyes Four Arthurian Romances:
"Erec et Enide",
"Cliges", "Yvain", "Lancelot"
(late 12th century) and other French writers.
was characteristic of other European peoples. In France, the
Chansons de geste
, dating from the 12th century, recounted
heroic episodes in the time of Charlemagne. They were
similarly infused with a spirit of patriotism and Christian
idealism, dealing in particular with the contest with Islam.
The great Icelandic Sagas, mostly written down in the 13th
century, also recorded the heroic pioneers of earlier times,
such as Erik the Red who colonized Greenland in about A.D.
1000. They are prose narratives, however, in general less
high-flown than French epic and more reliable historically.
The Volsunga Saga, a retelling of the earlier, poetic
the chief source for Norse mythology, provided the material
Wagner's operatic Ring cycle (1848-74),
Hall Brownell "The Wagnerian Romances",
Joseph Bédier "The Romance of Tristan and Iseult".
Most medieval writing was religious, and miracle plays, as
they were called, were dramatizations of miraculous episodes
from the lives of the Christian saints. Later they included
stories from the Bible (first translated in full into
English in the 14th century) and were called mystery plays
('mystery' referred to a craft or trade). They were commonly
performed in the market-place by local craftsmen, often with
much humour, sometimes macabre, and (as in modern pantomime)
with contemporary allusions. Each craftsmen's guild had
responsibility for a particular piece, frequently linked
with the craft concerned. In York, for example, the
Shipwrights performed the story of Noah's Ark.
A later development was the 'morality play', in which the
characters are personified virtues and vices (Beauty, Truth,
"Everyman", originally Dutch,
is the best known. Mystery plays were first recorded in the
13th century; possibly they began as religious pageants
associated with the feast day of Corpus Christi. ('Pageant'
originally meant the stage on wheels on which the plays were
Complete cycles of mystery plays have survived from Chester,
Wakefield and York, but many other towns had them. Some show
considerable literary merit. They were popular in most of
Europe, but in England they were finished off by a
combination of the Reformation (opposed to religious
pageantry), realist drama and professional theatre. They
have been revived in the 20th century and The Passion Play
of Oberammergau, Bavaria, dating from 1633, is still
The two poetic gems of medieval England,
The Vision of Piers Plowman and
"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight".
William Langland, author of Piers Plowman,
and the unknown author of
"Sir Gawain" were contemporaries of
Chaucer, they seem to have belonged to an earlier age,
partly because they used the old technique of alliteration
rather than the syllabic rhyming verse introduced from
France. Piers Plowman, often described as the greatest
religious poem in English, opens with the narrator falling
asleep on the Malvern Hills and dreaming that he sees 'a
fair field full of folk', where he can observe the whole of
society engaged in their tasks. The poem contains episodes
of great imaginative power, unequalled by any other medieval
The subject of
"Sir Gawain" is an episode in Arthurian legend,
"Sir Gawain" overcomes a supernatural opponent, the
fearful Green Knight. Though an impeccable epic hero.
Gawain remains human and fallible, and the poem, about 2,500
lines long, is written in gorgeous and complex language. It
survives in only a single manuscript, which also contains
three other alliterative poems of high quality, 'The Pearl',
'Patience' and 'Purity1 which, though of a completely
different type, are probably by the same poet.
"After sharpe shoures,' quod Pees • 'moste shene [bright]
is the sonne; Is no vveder warmer • than after watery cloudes. Ne
[nor] no love levere [dearer] • ne lever frendes.
Than after werre [war] and wo • whan Love and Pees be
maistres. Was nevere werre in this world • ne wykkednesse so
kene, That ne Love, and [if ] hym luste • to laughynge ne
broughte, And Pees thorw pacience • alie perilles stopped.'
'Truce,' quod Treuth • thow tellcs us soth, bi lesus! Clippe
[embrace] we in covenaunt • and each of us cusse other!'
'And lete no peple,' quod Pees • perceyve that we chydde!
For inpossible is no thying • to him that is almyghty."
Piers Plowman, (B-text) 17, (ed, Alastair Fowler).
THE AGE OF
Geoffrey Chaucer (d.1400) is one of the handful
of great figures like
Johnson whose name alone sums up a literary
age. He was a member of the minor gentry, who
fought in Edward Ill's army as a young man, was
captured in France and ransomed. He enjoyed
the patronage of John of Gaunt, to whom he
was related by marriage, he held several minor
offices at court, and he undertook diplomatic
One of these took him to
Florence in 1373 and he could, conceivably, have
Petrarch. His early writings
show French and Italian influence, and culminate
in Troilus and Criseyde, his most important
The Canterbury Tales, which was
written in 'rhyme royal'
John Gower (d. 1408) was a contemporary and
Chaucer who wrote in three languages, French,
Latin and English. He was responsible for bringing much
classical literature (especially
Ovid) and medieval romance
into the mainstream of English literature. His greatest work
is Confessio Amantis, which contains a series of stories in
verse, rather like
The Canterbury Tales. In fact several of
Gower's stones are echoed in
Chaucer's great work.
THE CANTERBURY TALES
The Canterbury Tales, the framework for the stories is a
group of pilgrims who meet at an inn in Southwark on their
wav to the tomb of Thomas Becket in Canterbury and, for the
prize of a free supper, agree to tell stories to pass the
time. Some of the stories are fables, some are moral, some
romantic, and some comical and coarse (schoolteachers used
to avoid 'The Miller's Tale'). Several are based on
Boccaccio. There are about 30 pilgrims but only 24
stories: the work was unfinished, but it runs to about
17,000 lines, most, in rhymed couplets, some in prose.
Although he could write lovely lines,
Chaucer was not a
great lyric poet. He was a great story-teller, a master of
comedy, the first illustrious name in the great tradition of
English comedy — and he had an understanding of human nature
The form of
The Canterbury Tales is a familiar one. What is
new is the intense realism of the characters.
only had a profound and sympathetic understanding of human
nature, he also seems to have had comprehensive knowledge of
all levels of English society. His characters are the first
in English literature who leap off the page, alive and
kicking and totally believable, their virtues and still more
their vices are all too easily-linked with contemporary
Several portraits of Chaucer appeared in
manuscripts after his death.
'Ful wed she soong the service dyvyne,
Entuned in hir
nose ful semely,
And Frenssh she spak full faire and fetisly,
After the scole
of Stratford attee Bowe,
For Frenssh of Parys was to hire unknowe,"
Canterbury Tales, 'Prologue', 1,122.
Chaucer was widely admired in his own time. Thomas Hoccleve,
a younger contemporary who is sometimes unjustly dismissed
as a mere imitator of
Chaucer (and there were many of
those), called him his 'master dear, flower of eloquence'.
The manuscript of
Hoccleve's De Regimine Principum (The
Regiment of Princes) has a portrait of
Chaucer in the
margin. The poet appears as an elderly, white-haired man:
this is clearly intended to be a likeness, another example
of the dawn of realism. The flowering of English literature
about the time of Richard II (1377-99) was followed by a
comparatively barren period. In Scotland, however, the
flowering came later, during the reigns of the cultured
Stewart monarchs James III and James IV.
The outstanding poets were
Robert Henryson (d.?1506),
(d.?1513) and Gavin Douglas (d.1522), who translated the
Aeneid and was one of the first to emphasize the distinction
between 'Scottis' and 'Inglis'.
Henryson's Testament of
Cresseid follows on from
Chaucer's poem about the same lady.
Chaucer is not always an easy read, even with modernized
spelling, but the dialect of
Henryson's poem, although
written roughly a century later, is harder, which, together
with his powerful, though humane, morality, may explain why
it is not better known.
Dunbar, a sharp satirist with a
ribald sense of humour, is for most moderns a more
attractive figure, although he is best known for a decidedly
doleful work, his elegy on the transitory nature of life,
'Lament for the Makaris', with its haunting Latin refrain,
Timor mortis conturbat me ('The fear of death convulses
me'). Circumstantial evidence suggests that death came to
Dunbar on the terrible battlefield of Flodden.
An equally well-known and evocative verse refrain is Mais ou
sont les neiges d'antan? (But where are the snows of
It comes from a poem Ballade des dames du
temps jadis ('Ballad of the women of olden times') by
Francois Villon, who lived in the mid-15th century and seems
to have spent most of his life dodging the gallows. He
little known outside his own country until the 19th century,
but is now widely regarded as the greatest poet of medieval
History gets more eventful, and change happens faster and
more dramatically, the nearer you approach the present - or
so it seems to us, at the leading edge. In the Middle Ages,
change was so slow that people were hardly aware of it,
there was a sharp quickening in the Renaissance and a
tremendous spurt with the Industrial Revolution, since when
the pace has become ever more frantic. Whatever the truth,
this does not hold for literature.
It could be argued that, for European literature, the two
centuries preceding the Industrial Revolution were more
eventful than the two centuries following, though the
reasons were not all literary. In the Renaissance, there was
a hugely important development - the invention of printing
with movable type, which made books as we know them
possible. The establishment of nation states, especially in
England and France, coincided with the establishment of the
vernacular, a national language, which proved especially
productive in England and France before the bones, so to
speak, had set hard. By the 18th century, every form of
literature was established in, or near to, its modern form,
including the all-important genre of the novel, the one form
of literature of which practically everyone today has some
In the early 16th century, French was becoming established
as a literary language. Poetry, especially lyric poetry,
flourished; no more productive period for French poetry
(excluding drama) would occur until the 19th century.
However, the two greatest French writers of the century,
especially in terms of their influence on literature in
general, both wrote prose, though of totally different
Rabelais (d.1533) is now not often read, partly
because of the difficulty of translating this exuberant
genius. He was at one time a monk, then a wandering scholar,
then a physician, who wrote learned works on medicine in
Latin. But he is remembered for his humorous, ribald,
life-affirming tales of the popular giants
Pantagruel, a vast, bubbling collection of stories and
learning, condemned by some as obscene. Like
bequeathed us the adjectives 'rabelaisian', and
The difference between
been likened to the difference between a pub at closing time
and a quiet public library in mid-afternoon. A scholarly
country gentleman, Montaigne is regarded as the inventor of
the essay. His first volume of essays was published in 1580
and reissued several times with extensive additions. They
reflect the author's changing philosophy and were
increasingly based on his searching analysis of himself.
Amused, tolerant, sceptical,
Montaigne was the first great
master of French prose, a model to later generations and a
pervasive influence on other writers, including
one of his essays was a source for The Tempest.
'There is scarcely any less bother in the running of a
family than, in that of an entire state.
business is no less importunate for being less important.'
Montaigne, Essais, ch. 39.
Little memorable poetry was written in England in the
Chaucer's death, perhaps because everyone was
trying to imitate
Chaucer. As in so many other respects,
English poetry of the early 16th century took its example
Sir Thomas Wyatt, who visited Italy in 1527, wrote
the first English sonnets as well as translating
from whom he learned the art.
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, also wrote sonnets after
Petrarch, but he adopted a different rhyming system, which
became standard for
Shakespeare and other English
sonneteers. He was also the first to use blank verse - in
his translation of the Aeneid. He was executed on an
improbable charge of treason in 1547.
The same lamentable fate befell the admirable
Sir Thomas More in 1535 when, as Lord Chancellor, he could not bring
himself to accept Henry VIII's reformation of the English
Church. Literature was
More's great recreation, and he wrote
"Utopia", an early attempt to describe an ideal
civilization, while he was on diplomatic business abroad.
Prominent literary figures were often to be found at his
house, and some were painted there by Holbein, who was
introduced by another visitor, the Dutch-born
(d.1536), the greatest humanist scholar of the age whose
output was prodigious. It was More who suggested the ideas
Erasmus's most famous work, The Praise of Folly, a
satire aimed chiefly at the leaders of the Church. His
scholarly work on Classical and early Christian writers, and
his translations of the Bible, had an immeasurable effect on
contemporary European culture and encouraged the
Erasmus himself remained loyal to,
though critical of, the Roman Catholic Church.