The Middle Ages are usually held to begin in Europe with the sack of Rome, but in England it begins conventionally with the Norman Conquest (1066-87) and ends with the Reformation (1533-59). In terms of the literary output, this lime-span could be divided into three periods. In the first period, up to 1250, religious writings predominate, in the second (1250-1350), romances. In the third period we have Chaucer, Langland, Gower, the Pearl poet and so on.
In 1066 William, the Duke of Normandy, invaded England claiming the English throne as the next of kin to Edward the C:onfessor and defeated his rival, Harold, at the Battle of Hastings. In the next four years, the English nobility was virtually wiped out, and the new king’s French supporters constituted the new aristocracy in England. Before the Norman Conquest, Latin was the language of divine worship and learning while English (that is, Old English) was widely used in other spheres. The Normans introduced the French language into England as the language of the ruling classes. But the English language continued to be spoken by the uncultivated masses. Thus the initial effect of the Conquest was no doubt damaging to the vernacular literature. But it never died out because while Anglo-Norman French increasingly became a special and fashionable accomplishment (as in the case of Chaucer’s Prioress), the oral nature of English kept it alive among the largely illiterate people. Understood by all, it had a clear metrical shape and held the listener’s attention by clever appeals to him and summarizing the content from time to time. This non-private character of Middle English literature fitted neatly into or grew out of crowded communal life in households and religious communities. Above all, the language survived as the popular medium of preaching.
After England lost Normandy in 1204 and the nobility was no longer allowed, in 1244, to possess lands in both England and France, the tide turned in favor of English. After 1250, there is a substantial increase in the number of French words in English, indicating clearly that a people or class, used to French, was switching over to English. In fifty years, from 1250 to 1300, the language of the governing classes changes back to English. Thus ultimately the Norman influence was not wholly negative. The Normans imported the French literature and literary standards of the twelfth-century Renaissance: these provided the models for a new native literature of politeness and urbanity. English vocabulary was enriched with many French words which made the language more cosmopolitan and literary. Further, the old Teutonic alliterative measure was largely replaced by French syllabic verse, standard in Europe. Actually the Conquest resulted in a fusion of Teutonic (northern) and Romance (southern) traditions. Subsequently, literature in England was written in three languages: Latin, French and English. The imitation of French works like the Songs of Roland gradually produced an upper-class English literature. Even the British legend of King Arthur reached English romance not directly from Celtic traditions but through the French romances of Chretien de Troyes and his successors.
All medieval literature offers a sharp contrast to modem literature in its impersonality, religious feeling and didactic content. Much of this literature is in fact anonymous, and the conditions of publishing and book reproduction (before the printing press) give it a communal character. The medieval author also did not place value on originality as we now understand it: an old and authoritative source only heightened the appeal of literature. As narrative poetry moved out of the mead-hall into the castle, the presence of women in the audience produced an important stylistic change: instead of the heroic (Beowulf), we have the courtly (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Even where the writing was not religious, a deep moral concern located the secular in a sacred framework.
The fertility and variety of literature around Chaucer’s time-romance, lyric, drama, mystical meditation-are evident also in the alliterative revival of the fourteenth century. This meant primarily the revival of the old four-beat alliterative measure of Old English poetry, of Beowulf, for instance. The twenty odd poems written in this older meter in Middle English mostly came from the north and the north-west of England, although Piers Plowman originated in the west Midlands. From the west also came four poems in the north-western dialect contained in a single manuscript. Originally untitled, they are now identified in the order in which they appear, as Pear, Purify, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
The similarities among them suggest some common ground, perhaps even a common author. Pearl is the important religious poem in the collection, describing in elevated mystical language the vision of a father whose child has died. Even if the poem is not taken in autobiographical terms, the allegory of the pearl reveals an ethical concern for purity. The poem handles the theme of salvation in the framework of a personal elegy, using time-honored medieval conventions of dream and debate. What strikes the modem reader is the deep personal feeling and sensuous description controlled with artistic restraint by considerable metrical skill. Purity shows similar ethical preoccupations with uncleanness and grace, and Patience tells the story of Jonah and the whale in realistic detail.
Sir Gawain is perhaps the most complex verse romance in Middle English literature. Courtly in tone, it is the finest Arthurian romance in English dealing without didactic considerations the theme of knightly courage and truth. It combines two stories ‘ found separately either in Celtic or Old French romances: a) Gawain’s encounter with the Green Knight and the three blows exchanged with the latter, b) the three temptations held out by the host’s wife at Bercilak’s castle. The three blows match the three temptations, and the plot is well-knit. But the modem reader is moved by the color, energy and vivid detail that make it a veritable tapestry. The freshness of observation is reflected in dialogue (between Gawain and the lady of the castle) and above all we are given a sense of multiple actions moving simultaneously. The Gawain poet belongs to the north-west Midlands, probably south Lancashire as indicated by the landscape and local allusions. He has a good knowledge of moral and theological problems and his vocabulary contains a large French element.
The alliterative revival is marked by poems of social and moral protest: they respond actively to the unrest of the period. The anti-establishment satire is appropriately presented in alliterative verse and not in the conventional courtly measure. The outstanding poem in this respect is The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman. The multiple extant manuscripts show that it was a popular work, and the author’s keen interest in the text is revealed in his three versions. The earliest version or A-text is short (2579 lines) and consists of a prologue and eleven passus (or cantos). The B-text is a revision with a prologue and twenty passus (7241 lines). The C-text revises further (7353 lines) and is divided into twenty-three passus. Beginning with a vision on the Malvern Hills in the west of England of a ‘field full of folk,’ it develops into a comprehensive portrait of fourteenth-century life. Although the multiple visions include familiar allegories like the Seven Deadly Sins, the poem’s strength does lie in the narrative. Lacking in orderliness and logical plan, digressive in impulse, the poem, especially in its A and B texts, offers a powerful contrast to the ironic detachment of Chaucer. It’s realistic and biting satire often reaches the visionary intensity of Dante. Its religious and political message is inseparable from its sanctification of honest labor.
Among the other contemporaries of Chaucer, Gower’s earnestness is conventional and unrelieved by humor; he also lacks Langland’s intensity. But in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Gower was considered equal to Chaucer. His Speculum Meditantis is in French, Vox Clamantis, which has a vivid account of the Peasant’s Revolt, is in Latin, and Confessio Amantis is in English. In the last poem Gower goes beyond mere didactic content to write of love as an unrewarded servant of Venus. But even here the framework of the stories is the seven deadly sins since he confesses to a priest (Genius, the priest of Venus).
Chaucer had many imitators in his time or a little after. Among these, Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate, despite the latter’s Fall of Princes (which anticipates the sixteenth-century Mirror for Magistrates) are not half as successful as the Scottish Chaucerians: the Scottish king, James I, Robert Henryson, William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas. The Kingis Quhair of James celebrates love and its fulfillment through trials and adversities. Dunbar’s Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo was influenced by Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue, while Douglas’s The Palice of Honour shows a debt to Chaucer’s Hous of Fame. Henryson came closest to Chaucer, first in his Fables, but he added a moral. Later he borrowed again from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde in The Testament of Cresseid. His Cresseid, deserted by Diomede, curses the gods and is punished with leprosy. Deeply ashamed, she withdraws into confinement. Here one day Troilus gives her alms without recognizing her. She recognizes Troilus, however, and condemns her own infidelity. Henryson’s vision is grim and sombre in comparison to Chaucer’s forgiving humanity.
As a mature poet Chaucer was able to combine the courtly and bourgeois conventions of literature. The aristocratic, secularized literature, imported from twelfth-century France, is built around the themes of courtly love, courtesy and chivalry. Marvelous adventure becomes the hall-mark of romance, which is written in a new verse form, the octosyllabic couplet. The heroine is traditionally desirable and difficult, and the knight-errant moves through trial to the happiness of requited love. Apart from the refining and chastening test of love, the knight often has to fight dragons and demons. The elements of adventure is soon minimized or rather turned inward as in Roman de la Rose of Guilladme de Lorris: here the allegory takes over and captures the movements of the soul. The setting is often exotic and unworldly. Allegory makes the springtime garden in Roman de la Rose, a conventional setting for courtly love, an earthly paradise.
Allegory is of course a distinctive technique of medieval literature common to courtly romance, alliterative satire and the Miracles and Moralities. A human figure may stand for a vice (Gluttony, Lechery, Idleness and so on in the Seven Deadly Sins) or for an institution like the Church, a thing like a pearl can mean purity and so on. In Chaucer’s Nuns ‘ Priest’s Tale or Parliament of Fowls, animals represent in secular allegories human beings or social classes. The allegorical habit began perhaps from interpreting the Bible for a wide variety of people: this produced the many levels of meaning. Gradually, the literal meaning became a kind of disguise which had to be removed in order to reveal the higher meaning.
In the idealized courtly romances, background, character, speech and action are all static and formal. The ideal courtly lady, for example, has blond hair, white smooth forehead, soft skin, arched eyebrows, grey eyes, a small, round full mouth, dimpled chin and so on. These devices are an aid to idealization, to the movement away from the specifically individual to the abstract idea. Love for a woman is exalted to divine love. No wonder that Dante had been able to combine courtly eroticism with religious ecstasy. What Dante’s Beatrice achieves is paralleled in the Arthurian romance where the comparatively secular search for personal perfection becomes the quest for the Holy Grail.
Gradually the courtly style learnt to include within it its opposite, the realistic style: Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and The Canterbury Tales represent this amalgam. The realistic style can be related to the emergence of the new middle classes. Its commonest genre is the fabliau, the short, humorous verse tale often marked by coarseness; others include the mime, the beast epic, and the fable and so on. The fabliau is characterized by a certain animal vitality and grotesque exaggeration: it is impolite, irreverent, often vulgar and obscene. The fabliau setting is economical and precise. Its world contains peasants and bourgeois, clerks, priests, nuns, jugglers, some knights and ladies. There are some stock formulae, as for example the triangle of the unimaginative, jealous husband, sensual wife and lecherous priest or clever clerk. There is a pattern even to their portraits, although the typical portrait is suddenly brought alive through individual detail of speech, dress and physiognomy, as in The Canterbury Tales.