The Middle Ages

April 6, 2010

The beauty in studying the literature of the Middle Ages is that because so few people were literate and because literacy was primarily a trait associated with the clergy, much of the writing that survives from that time period is religious in nature and thus does not always warrant an intense literary study. Thus, as I approach this time period, I face a much less daunting quantity of writing. However, I also must accept the converse of that pleasantry—that the culture and language is far removed from my own, making the hermeneutic circle even more difficult to penetrate.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature’s introduction to the Middle Ages begins by defining the years of the epoch, which they indicate as beginning around the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century CE to the Renaissance for Europe generally (which began at sundry times for differing countries and according to different scholars), and 1485 for England specifically, an arbitrary but useful date in that it marks the rise of Henry VII, the first Tudor, to the English throne. Though these years provide a useful distinction between this era and those before and after it, the changes that English culture and language underwent during the medieval years hardly make them appear as a cohesive time period.

A brief history of England seems an appropriate place to begin. In the first century CE, the Romans conquered the original inhabitants of England, the people known today as the Celts, and ruled them as an imperial province that they named Britannia after the “Britons” who lived there. After the Romans pulled their people from the island to protect their continental empire from collapse, three tribes—the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes—began to invade the coasts of England. The original Britons were largely eradicated, but some escaped to the western part of the island and speak the language that today is called Welsh. Although the Romans had imposed Christianity on the Britons after the conversion of Emperor Constantine, the invading tribes were pagan and brought with them their respective cultures and spiritualities. However, due to missionary efforts and the conversion of various kings, much of England became Christian again.

The language that we know as English today began as a Germanic language called Old English or Anglo-Saxon, derived from the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes that inhabited the geographic space. This heavily-inflected language changed drastically after 1066 when the Normans invaded and conquered England, adding enormous numbers of French words into English vocabulary and softening the inflection of Old English. The Normans were themselves originally Germanic peoples who had adapted to Christianity and the French language on the continent. During the Anglo-Norman period, the originally Germanic language of Old English received influence from the Latin of the clergy, the French of the aristocracy and political sphere, and the Celtic from the remnant Britons. After a period of wild change and growth of the language, various dialects now known as Middle English arose, the most notable of which was Chaucer’s East Midland dialect, a form still recognizable to speakers of English today though largely variant in spelling and pronunciation from modern English.

Beginning in the late fourteenth century, the English language began to acquire its own clout as a language worthy of poetry and emulation by continental Europeans. Writers like Chaucer, Langland, Gower, the Pearl/Gawain poet and Julian of Norwich began to use English as their primary language of expressing emotion and experimenting with literary form. By the fifteenth century, English was used to write mystery plays, which were cyclical plays based on the Bible, and morality plays, which personify the trials and condition of the everyday Christian in an allegory. Writers such as Lydgate, Hoccleve, Margery Kempe, Henryson, and Thomas Malory continued to further the belief in English as a reputable language worthy of serious students and practitioners. When Caxton introduced the printing press into England in 1476, a new era of reading and writing had arrived, and the Middle Ages had effectively ended.

Old English poetry differs from other poetry in a few marked ways. Lines of Old English poetry typically consist of four accented syllables with as many non-accented syllables as desired by the poet. The four are split into hemistiches of two accented syllables separated by a caesura. Instead of rhyming, Old English poets used alliteration, with typically both of the first two accented words beginning with the same sound as the first accented word after the caesura. Old English poetry is also notable for its dramatic understatement called litotes, its kennings, such as ring-giver for king, and its synecdoche and metonymy. Middle English poetry, such as that of Chaucer, has rhyme in the way that we conceive of it today and treats accents more similarly to our style. Chaucer is arguably the father of iambic pentameter, the most English of all poetic forms.