Middle English


Middle English
(ca. 1100–ca. 1500)
   The Middle English period is essentially a transitional period in the history of the English language between the basically Germanic character of OLD ENGLISH and the language of the earliest printed books that record what is essentially modern English in the early 16th century. It was a period of tremendous change in the language, sparked by developments that had begun in late Old English times (particularly the influence of Old Norse) and new, cataclysmic transformations brought by the Norman Conquest of 1066. It was also a period of tremendous variety of creative activity in literature, as writers drew from the influence of French and Latin texts as well as from the old native tradition. When considering anything as fluid as the history of a language, precise dates separating one “period” from another must be somewhat arbitrary. However, when William the Conqueror, the duke of Normandy, defeated Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king, at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and brought to England a new French-speaking noble class, it began a period of significant developments in the language of the conquered English. A huge influx of French vocabulary was the most obvious direct result of the conquest. The grammar of English also underwent major changes, when the vowels of unstressed final syllables— whether a, e, o, or u—all came to be pronounced in the same way, as an unstressed schwa ( ). Thus the distinct inflections of Old English were lost, and ultimately inflected endings disappeared almost completely in Middle English, leaving a number of words with an unstressed final –e. English became a language that depended more on word order and function words like prepositions than on word endings or inflections, as it had in the Old English period. Other extensive changes occurred in pronunciation: A process known as the “Great Vowel Shift” took place at the end of the Middle English period, through which the vowels of English lost their former “European” pronunciation, and came to be pronounced as we say them in modern English. By the time the Middle English period ended—after the Tudor monarchs established a strong central government and William CAXTON had brought the printing press to England in the late 15th century—the language would have been unrecognizable to King Harold. After the Norman Conquest, England was in effect a trilingual country, with the nobility speaking their dialect of French (called Anglo-Norman), the clergy speaking the Latin characteristic of the medieval church, and the common people speaking English. Since for the most part the nobility and the clergy were the literate classes, written literature in English all but disappeared for some time, though a native English literary tradition must have been kept alive orally. A few English texts appear in the 13th century, but the 14th century saw a great outpouring of literary texts in English. By this time, the Hundred Years’War (begun in 1337) was loosening the English ties to France and creating more of a sense of English nationalism, so that by the early 14th century, most of the noble class was bilingual, and by mid-century children of the nobility and the merchant class were studying French as a second language. The BLACKDEATH, which killed nearly half the English population, created a labor shortage that the nobles tried to counter by keeping wages at preplague levels, ultimately causing the PEASANTS’ REVOLT of 1381. International trade was increasing at the same time, giving the merchant class more income and therefore more power, and King EDWARD III, to fund his French war, found himself having to negotiate with the House of Commons to enact taxes—and addressing Parliament in English by 1363. The reformer John WYCLIFFE, questioning some of the secular powers of the church in a manner that foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation, was responsible for an English translation of the Bible by 1384.
   The time was ripe, therefore, for an upsurge of literature written in English. At the court, Geoffrey CHAUCER (ca. 1342–1400), the most important and influential poet in medieval England, established English as a courtly language,writing at first in imitation of French poets like Guillaume de MACHAUT and JEAN DE MEUN, but later influenced by the great Italian poets of the 14th century— DANTE, PETRARCH, and especially BOCCACCIO, who inspired Chaucer’s great love story TROILUS AND CRISEYDE (1385). Chaucer’s friend John GOWER (ca. 1330–ca. 1408), whose first two major poems had been in Latin and in French, chose to write his CONFESSIO AMANTIS in English, in part at least because of Chaucer’s success in the medium. The influence of Chaucer and of Gower on poets of the 15th century was profound and enduring, so that John LYDGATE and Thomas HOCCLEVE, for example, are to a large extent imitators of Chaucerian verse, and the “Scottish Chaucerians” like HENNRYSON and DUNBAR, though more admired by modern readers, are no less inspired by the court poetry of Chaucer and Gower.
   The theme of COURTLY LOVE apparent in Chaucer’s Troilus was one of the most important general influences on Middle English literature. A significant number of ROMANCES, usually dealing with a knight who proves himself worthy of his beloved by accomplishing a quest of some kind, often to save his lady, abound in Middle English literature. Some of these texts may have been written for the provincial courts of English-speaking nobles; others (in particular those called TAILRHYME ROMANCES) were part of the repertoire of traveling MINSTRELS, and so may have been intended for a middle-class audience.Many such romances are concerned with the court of King ARTHUR, and often have the traditional English hero GAWAIN as their protagonist, rather than a French knight like Sir LANCELOT. Ultimately these romances culminate in the late 15th-century text of Le MORTE DARTHUR by the knight Thomas MALORY (and published by Caxton in 1485), though for the most part Malory relied on French sources for his definitive compilation of the medieval legend of King Arthur.
   One of the most significant literary developments of the late 14th century was the phenomenon known as the ALLITERATIVE REVIVAL: a movement in the west and north of England to create poetry in the old Anglo-Saxon style of ALLITERATIVE VERSE—a tradition that must have been kept alive orally through the years. Some of these texts also dealt with Arthurian subjects, like the ALLITERATIVE MORTE ARTHURE, a poem on the tragic downfall of Arthur that was one of Malory’s sources. William LANGLAND’s PIERS PLOWMAN, which exists in three versions and scores of manuscripts, was the most popular of all these texts: It is a poetic ALLEGORY that ranges across the social and religious landscape of the late 14th century and depicts the turmoil of Langland’s society. But generally the most admired poet of the alliterative revival is the “Pearl poet,” author of the four poems of the Cotton Nero A.x. manuscript (including SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT and PEARL). The poet’s technical virtuosity, brilliant detail, and thematic emphasis on “courtesy” in both its chivalric and moral senses make this author the alliterative poet most admired among modern readers. It is essential to remember that religion, specifically the Roman Catholic Church, was at the center of people’s lives throughout the Middle English period, and that the majority of writers were in some way connected professionally with the church. Therefore much of the literature from this period is religious in tone and substance. The middle to late 14th century was a period of flowering for the English mystical tradition, and a number of mystical writers flourished during this time, including Richard ROLLE, Walter HILTON, JULIAN OF NORWICH (the first known woman writer in the English language), and the anonymous author of the treatise The CLOUD OF UNKNOWING. Margery KEMPE, the author (or narrator) of the first autobiography in English, was also active at this time (late 14th and early 15th centuries) and speaks of herself as a mystic. The cycle of MYSTERY PLAYS, produced by craft guilds for the common citizens of English cities in the late 14th and 15th centuries, were also religious in intent, depicting the story of human salvation from Creation to Doomsday. MORALITY PLAYS, more likely professional dramatic productions,were concerned with salvation within the individual human psyche, and were often presented in the form of an allegorical PSYCHOMACHIA. These dramatic productions formed the foundation from which developed the great English dramatic tradition of the Renaissance.
   There were five dialects of Middle English: Northern (spoken north of the Humber River), East Midland (the area that included East Anglia, Essex, and bordering areas to the west),West Midland (essentially the western half of what had been called Mercia in Old English times), Southern (corresponding to ALFRED THE GREAT’s kingdom of Wessex), and Kentish. The reader ofMiddle English literature will note that Middle English authors all wrote in their own dialects, so that, for example, Langland and the Pearl poet write in the West Midland dialect, while John BARBOUR, author of The BRUCE, writes in a distinctly Northern dialect.The author of the ANCRENEWISSE composes in a Southern dialect, while Dan Michel of Northgate’s AYENBITE OF INWYT is in Kentish. The so-called “London standard”— the East Midland dialect—did not become standard English until the end of the Middle English period, probably because it was the language of the country’s largest population center, of the center of government, and of the two major seats of higher learning (Oxford and Cambridge). The fact that Chaucer, the greatest writer in the language, had written in the East Midland dialect was probably no coincidence.
   Bibliography
   ■ Benson, Larry D., ed. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1987.
   ■ Burrow, J. A., and Thorlac Turville-Petre. A Book of Middle English. 3rd ed. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2004.
   ■ Dalrymple, Roger.Middle English Literature: A Guide to Criticism. Malden,Mass.: Blackwell, 2004.
   ■ Horobin, Simon, and Jeremy Smith. An Introduction to Middle English. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
   ■ Iglesias-Rabade, Luis. Handbook of Middle English. Munich: Lincom, 2003.
   ■ Lambdin, Laura Cooner, and Robert Thomas Lambdin. A Companion to Old and Middle English. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.
   ■ Machan, Tim William. English in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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