Updated date:

Characteristics of Middle English Literature

Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a master's degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

Characteristics of Middle English Literature

Characteristics of Middle English Literature

Middle English Literature

"Middle English literature" refers to literature in English that developed during the roughly 300-year period from 1150 CE to around 1450 after the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes (aka the Anglo-Saxons) settled in England in the later part of the fifth century and eventually gave the country its name and language. During this unique period, English gained widespread popularity among people in every strata of society. Gradually, the language gained maturity, and by the late 1300s, Chaucer’s poetry made English the perfect medium for literature.

A Summary the Features of Middle English Literature

  • Impersonality/Anonymity
  • Derivative Stories
  • Religiosity
  • Oral Quality
  • Courtly Love
  • Chivalry
  • Romance
  • Infra-Literary

Below, each of these features of the literature will be fully explored.

Characteristics of Middle English Literature

Impersonality/Anonymity

One of the most important characteristics of Middle English literature is its impersonality, by which I mean that most of its literature was anonymous, and we don’t know the names of those who wrote it. The reason is partly that then, people were interested in the poem rather than in the poet. The medieval author was at a disadvantage compared with popular writers today in having no publisher interested in keeping his name before the public. Reproduction of books by hand gave them a communal character, where a text might change due to both unconscious alteration and conscious change. The medieval scribe was as likely as not to assume the role of editor or adapter, so that different manuscripts of a work often differ greatly from one another.

Derivative Stories

Originality was not a major requirement of medieval authors. Story material, in particular, was looked upon as communal property and the notion of intellectual property did not yet exist. To have based one’s work on an old, authoritative source was a virtue. It led Geoffrey of Monmouth and other great writers to claim such a source when none existed. It is not surprising that this attitude raised translation to the level of original creation.

The reader of Middle English literature must be prepared for a less personal or individual quality than is expected in modern literature. It is common to find that the original author of a work is not named.

Religiosity

Religion occupies an important place Middle English literature, as it was an important element of social life in medieval ages. It is said that then, men and women looked upon religion as a means to the next life. They lived in constant fear of hell and its torments and were vitally concerned with the salvation of their souls. That’s why religious writing forms a greater part of Middle English Literature.

De Quincey says, “In the Middle Ages, the literature of knowledge and the literature of power are often close together if not much the same thing.” Lyric poetry veers from ecstasy to warning, and in narrative, the will to delight is often partnered with the will to teach. Due to the church's authority over the lives of people, Middle English literature is absolutely didactic in nature, full of teachings and warnings instead of entertainment.

Oral Quality

Another important characteristic of Middle English Literature is its oral quality. Most of the Middle English literature was meant to be listened to rather than read. As there were no printing facilities in those days, most of the literature was memorized. People used to memorize and retell poems or stories instead of reading. One of the things that hindered the spread of literature among the general public was the unavailability of books, which were so expensive that common people could not afford to buy them.

As a result, verse is the normal medium for most forms of Middle English literature. Much that would now be written (prose, history, instruction, etc.) was put into verse, as that form made the words more memorable and more pleasant to listen to.

Courtly Love

In 1883, Gaston Paris was the first person to popularize the phrase "courtly love," which is a code of behaviour that determined the relationship between aristocratic lovers in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. There were rules and requirements for love, elaborated upon in Ars Amatoria (The Art of Loving) by Ovid, the Roman poet.

According to the conventions mentioned in the The Art of Loving, a knight who was in love with a married woman of high rank or high birth was required to prove his heroic deeds and present love letters to his beloved without disclosing his identity. Courtly love was a secret affair between the lovers. It was tantamount to adultery.

Chivalry

Chivalry is a prominent feature of Middle English literature. The term came to mean the gallantry and honour expected of knights and a general sense of courtesy. Middle English poetry is mostly concerned with heroic deeds of knights. Look at the tales of Chaucer, wherein he gives full-fledged accounts of chivalry. It was the mains subject for authors of the Middle English Literature. Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, and The Arthurian Legends dwell upon the heroic deeds of knights.

Romance

Romance is another important characteristic of Middle English literature. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Horn, Athelston, Gamelyn, Sir Orfeo are best examples of medieval romance.

Infra-Literary

One must say a word here about the artistic quality of medieval literature. And we must admit that, judged by modern standards, much of medieval literature (continental as well as English) is infra-literary (lowbrow). This does not mean that there are no great works of the imagination in the Middle Ages. There are some, but poems like the Divine Comedy are rare in any age.

To admit that most works written between the Fall of Rome and the Renaissance do not claim a place among the world’s greatest books is not to deny real interest in and importance to the period. To the true humanist, every human effort to express itself is of interest. The child is the father of the man and, in medieval literature, there is much of the simplicity of the child. Beauty is not to be denied on the grounds of immaturity, and simplicity itself is not without charm. With Gaston Paris, we may recognize that it is not always for us to judge and to prove but to know and to understand.

Why Read Middle English Literature?

Medieval writing lacks the immediate appeal of the contemporaneous. There are fewer obstacles to understanding. Differences in language and custom will always limit the enjoyment of early literature to the cultivated few.

But acquaintance with the past brings understanding, and understanding begets sympathy, appreciation, and pleasure.

A modern reader might waive aside the literature of the Middle Ages with the reason that with life so short and art so long to learn, it is better to snatch the pleasure within easy reach. But if so, that reader will not understand how modern literature fits in an historical perspective, and he will miss a body of writings which, sympathetically approached, will be found to contain much of interest and, as Rossetti observed, “beauties of a kind which can never again exist in art.”

Poll:

Old English: The History of Beowulf

  • The Angles brought the oral story of Beowulf with them to England in the sixth century. This was about seventy years about the death of Muhammad (PBUH) and coincided with the beginning of the great Tang Dynasty in China.
  • Three hundred years later, they committed the story to writing, and that manuscript still survives. What happened to it for the next seven hundred years is unknown.
  • In 1706, it was recorded as being in Sir Robert Cotton’s library. Twenty-six years later, a disastrous fire broke out in the library, and the Beowulf manuscript narrowly escaped. The charred edges of its leaves can still be seen in the British Museum.

Beowulf was not the only poem of its time. Two fragments of another poem, Waldere, which may originally have been as long as Beowulf, were discovered in 1960 in the binding of a book in the Royal Library at Copenhagen.

Sources

Middle English by David Crystal at the British Library

Middle English Literature (Harvard Dissertations in Philosophy) by Charles W. Dunn

© 2015 Muhammad Rafiq

Comments

Urooj Khan from Karachi, Pakistan on July 31, 2020:

An amazing and informative hub.

Sabbir on May 02, 2020:

Thanks for ur important information

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on March 11, 2020:

Thanks for your comments!

Ivana Divac from Serbia on March 11, 2020:

Such an informative article! Well done!

Kusuro Eunice on March 09, 2019:

This is work well, thanks!

Sidra kainat on February 28, 2017:

Good!

Lenka on December 12, 2016:

its not clear whether Anglos brought Beowulf to England they believe it was so. It may have been someone else.

Iahaq Hussain on June 05, 2016:

Brief but explicity

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on March 06, 2015:

Thanks Marie Flint for your detailed comments! Angels protect you, Sadness forget you.

Marie Flint from Jacksonville, FL USA on March 06, 2015:

Scorpion, this is a valiant attempt at writing about the characteristics of Middle English Literature. There is so much on the subject, that, perhaps, it is not the best topic for traffic. Yet, you must have a passion for the subject; otherwise, you would not have written this hub.

I had to memorize lines from Chaucer in high school, "Whan that Aprile with his shoures soote . . . (Canterbury Tales). Old English is closely related to Old German, at least phonetically.

If I recall, the Code of Chivalry had at least five points to it--one was to protect women and children. I don't recall all the rest, but the knights did recite prayers to Archangel Michael before going into battle. Perhaps a Google search can clarify these codes.

I wrote a hub on Thomas a Kempis, a 14th century monk; the hub is currently unpublished. The Black Plague scourged Europe during this time period and eliminated about a third of the entire population. Anonymity evidenced Thomas' work, IMITATION OF CHRIST, as there was speculation who actually wrote it (Thomas' brother was another consideration).

The reason for anonymity is uncertain. Perhaps it was simply because the printing press had not been invented until 1440, near the end of the time period associated with Middle English Literature. Another possibility is the Roman Catholic Church's stance on humility. Certainly, this had to have been an influence. Money, too, was scarce among monks, who were predominantly copyists. (What's the point of putting your John Doe to something that wasn't going to pay you anyway?)

As you may have guessed, I was an English major.

Blessings!

Related Articles