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Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
Private: BA English
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Old English and Middle English Periods

Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of the unit, the learners will be able to:

  1. acquire a general insight into the historical evolution of English literature
  2. familiarise themselves with some of the linguistic developments of the period
  3. identify some of the major literary features of the period
  4. familiarise themselves with some of the major writers and works of the selected periods


The recorded history of England starts with a mass migration known as the Anglo-Saxon conquest. From the fifth century onwards, a large group of Germanic settlers started to arrive and settle in various parts of England. This migration, which went on till the sixth century, is regarded as one of the most significant events in British history. This period subsequently came to be known as the Anglo-Saxon period. Later, the term ‘English’ was applied to this group of settlers. The dialects spoken in England during this period were known as Old English – the earliest and unrefined form of the English language.

Middle English, which came much later, was characterised by some major changes in vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar of Old English. The change in literary background followed by the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the introduction of printing in 1476 gave this language its distinctive features. Surprisingly, Middle English has more words in common with Latin and French than with Old English. One of the reasons is that during this period, English was replaced with French, which soon became the official language of the church and aristocracy. Thus, there appears to be a clear lack of literary output in English during this time. By the time it reappeared, English had undergone major changes due to its affiliations with French and Latin.

Modern English or the English language that we use today has been the language spoken in England since the 14th century. After the Great Vowel Shift that took place during this period, the English language crystallised into a standardised form, with only minor variations at times.

Every language evolves with time and it brings innumerable changes to the socioeconomic climate of a land. The literary and linguistic evolution of English – the standard language of communication in the modern world – from Old English and Middle English is particularly interesting.

Key Words

Old English, Middle English, Modern English, History of language


2.1.1 The Old English/Anglo-Saxon Period (450-1066 CE)

The origin of the English language can be traced back to the migration of the Germanic tribes, such as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes into various parts of Britain in 449 AD after the fall of Rome. This mass migration, known as the Anglo-Saxon conquest, is one of the most crucial events in the history of Britain. It had such far-reaching consequences that, in its aftermath, the native Britons were reduced to a mere minority and had to flee to other places for survival.

Moreover, the Anglo-Saxon conquest is the first recorded event in English history. This slow and steady arrival of a diverse group of tribes and their settlement into the Roman provinces of Britain began during the mid-fifth century and lasted till the sixth century. By the next century, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had almost completely covered the areas of modern England. Their impact was so huge that by this time, there were no traces left of the Celtic language that was used in Britain till then. The Angles and Saxons were natives of Germany, but the Jutes came from even farther North.

Many researchers regard the people, language, and culture of England during this time to be Anglo-Saxon. However, historians and linguists now prefer the name “Old English” since it emphasised the link and continuity from this period to present times.

In fact, the term ‘England’ is derived from Anglia – which means ‘land of the Angles’. Previously, the Romans had named it Brittania during their occupation of the island for four centuries. However, the Angles, Saxons, and the Jutes who later conquered England renamed it after themselves. After the Saxons battled and conquered regions of native Britain to the south of the Thames, they were re-named Sussex, Wessex, Essex and Middlesex.

Gradually, they developed into the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England:

  1. Northumbria
  2. Mercia
  3. East Anglia
  4. Essex
  5. Sussex
  6. Kent
  7. Wessex

Similarly, the Angles occupied regions like East Anglia, Norfolk and Suffolk in the mid and northern parts of England. Meanwhile, the Jutes were mostly concentrated in the south-east of England – what we call today, Kent. The native Celts who lost their home-land had to flee to places like Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Since the Angles, Saxons and Jutes were illiterate, they produced little written output – only oral compositions were available at the time. However, the Christian clerics who later recorded these compositions have endowed most of these works with their Christian values. This is particularly clear in the case of Beowulf, the epic which narrates the heroic adventures of the eponymous Germanic hero, Beowulf, who is embellished as the classic representative of Christian values.

Here is a sample of Old English prose from Homily on St. Gregory the Great by Aelfric. Can you identify any similarities between this language and modern English? “Eft he axode, hu ðære ðeode nama wære þe hi of comon. Him wæs geandwyrd, þæt hi Angle genemnode wæron. Þa cwæð he, Rihtlice hi sind An-gle gehatene, for ðan ðe hi engla wlite habbað, and swilcum gedafenað þæt hi on heofonum engla geferan beon.”

You can read the translation of the text into modern English here:
“Again he asked what might be the name of the people from which they came. It was answered to him that they were named Angles. Then he said rightly are they called Angles because they have the beauty of angels, and it is fitting that such as they should be angels’ companions in heaven.”

Notice how certain words like axode, engla and heofonum closely resemble modern English. As you might have deduced from the translation, these words mean ‘asked’, ‘angels’and ‘heaven’ respectively. However, such instances of modern English retaining the words from Old English are few and far between. Most of the Old English words have been replaced with completely different ones in our modern vocabulary due to the influence of a later development in English known as Middle English.

Some of the major writers of the Old English period were:

  • Cynewulf (c. 800 – 825)

    Not much is known of this poet except his name. Cynewulf is associated with four religious poems in Old English: “The Fates of the Apostles” and “Elene” from the Vercelli Book, and “Christ II” and “Juliana” from the Exeter Book. All these poems are based on Latin compositions and are attributed to him due to the runic letters of his name spelt out in the epilogues.

  • King Alfred (c. 849 – 899)

    King Alfred, the King of Wessex, is known as the greatest among the Anglo-Saxon Kings. It is because of his strong influence that the kingdom of Wessex grew extremely powerful. Moreover, the West-Saxon dialect soon became superior to the three other dialects of Old English – namely Northumbrian, Mercian and Kentish.
    King Alfred, a poet and translator himself, led almost all the translation works during this period and it was in his court that the written English language originated. He also brought Mercian scholars to his court to translate numerous prose works into English. In addition, he co-authored the national history, The An-glo-Saxon Chronicle, which traces the history of England till the ninth century.

  • Venerable Bede (c. 673 – 735)This monk is known as the father of English history due to his masterpiece The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The major historical record on the Old English period, this work was translated from Latin to En-glish by King Alfred. Bede is credited with the modern method of dating history – AD (Anno Domini). Furthermore, he is the only English writer mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
  • Caedmon (c. 657 – 684)He is generally regarded as the first English poet whose works have survived to date. In the work, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Venerable Bede has narrated an account of how Caedmon got inspired to write poetry for the first time. According to Bede’s account, Caedmon was an illiterate farmhand who was struck by a vision to sing poetry praising the Almighty’s creations. This eventually led to his work Caedmon’s Hymn.
  • Aldelhm (c. 639 – 709)Aldelhm is the earliest known English poet. Unlike Caedmon, none of Aldelhm’s English works have survived. However, the surviving Latin works of this saint-poet, such as the Carmina Ecclesiastica are highly regarded for their literary value. Aldelhm’s poetry was highly valued by King Alfred. Furthermore, Bede has also written in praise of Aldelhm’s style and erudition. Old English Verse

Similar to all literature across the world, poetry came before prose in Old English as well. The travelling poets and performers of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom were known as the scops (wandering minstrels). They were invited to recite poetry in front of the courts with an ac-companying string instrument – most often a harp. The scop composed poems to praise the victories of heroes or to mourn their valiant death.

Beowulf is the longest and most important Old English poem, consisting of around 3182 lines. Though its poet and original date of composition remain anonymous, it is said that the Beowulf manuscript was written by two scribes and it is around 1000 years old. However, this fascinating poem had been found only centuries before. Beowulf is a testament to the past times, during which the concept of a singular poet did not exist. Instead, it is a fascinating form of oral poetry, passed down from one generation to the next, and which has changed its form accordingly. Thus, poetry during the Old English period was not considered an individual pursuit or original creation, but rather a form of collective memory and shared inheritance.

The oldest epic poem, Beowulf is divided into three sections: the first is about Beowulf’s duel with Grendel the monster, the second is on his duel with Grendel’s mother, and the third part ending with the hero succumbing to death after fighting and defeating a dragon. Beowulf remains significant because this poem is the only remaining clue to the social and courtly lives of the Anglo-Saxons and their elaborate customs, adventures and lifestyle.

The Dream of the Rood
Widely known as ‘the choicest blossom of Old English poetry,’ this poem was mistakenly attributed to Caedmon and Cynewulf in the past. The Dream of the Rood centres around the poet’s dream in which the Holy Cross narrates its tale to him.

Features of Old English Verse

Old English poetry is generally unrhymed, and each line contains alliteration. There are no regular stanzas and the writing style is found to vary highly across the work. The use of compound words/ kenning and metaphorical phrases is another key feature of Old English works.

  • Regular alliteration in every line.
  • Each line is divided into two halves.
  • Use of kenning/ compound words.

The use of a figurative compound word/phrase in place of a common noun is known as Kenning. Examples include:

  • ring-giver for king
  • battle-light for sword
  • whale-road for sea
  • bone-house for body

Old English poetry is strikingly similar to Old German and Old Norse poetry with its heroic and narrative themes. However, despite being traditional heroic poetry, the growing influence of Christianity can also be found in these works – the best example being Beowulf. Old English Prose

Arguably, Old English prose remains far inferior to Old English poetry. Following are the major prose works of the period:

  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by King Alfred – is considered the first great work in English prose and the first historical narrative in English.
  • The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Venerable Bede – One of the key texts on Old English history, it traces the history of England beginning with Julius Caesar’s invasion in 55 BCE. Written in a simple and pedestrian style, the work focuses on the evolution of Christianity in England.
  • Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius – The central philosophical work of the Middle Ages. Composed while being imprisoned for treason, this work is written in the form of a series of dialogues between the writer and the personification of philosophy called ‘Lady Philosophy’.
  • The Seven Books of History Against the Pagans by Orosius– written as a counter-narrative to the pagan histories by other writers, this work is an explicitly Christian take on ancient history.

From these few examples, it becomes clear that Old English was rich in both poetry as well as prose.

2.1.2 Middle English Period (1066-1475)

Similar to how Old English came into being with a historical process called the Anglo-Sax-on conquest, it found its decline too with an-other historical event – the Norman Conquest of 1066. William, the Duke of Normandy invaded England and defeated Harold, the King of the Anglo-Saxons during the battle of Hastings in 1066. This event brought irrevocable changes to not only the socio-political and economic lives of the people but to their language and culture as well. Thus, it signalled the birth of a new era known as the Middle English.

Middle English is the period that lasted from 1066 to about 1500, when the literary language became standardised due to the influence of the London dialect and grew closer to the modern English we use today. Moreover, French took over as the language of the court for the subsequent two centuries, putting an end to four centuries of English reign.

As the use of Norman French became a symbol of prestige and status, English started to gradually decline. It was barely spoken and even little was written during this period. As it resurfaced later in the form of Middle En-glish, it had lost most of its connection to Old English and resembled Norman French more. During the beginning of the Middle English period, there was no significant literary out-put. It is only towards the mid-thirteenth cen-tury that we see this trend slowly beginning to change.

Salient Features of Middle English:

  • Rise of standard English
  • Simplified grammar
  • A large number of loan words from French and Latin
  • Loss of inflectional endings
  • Focus on courtly love and romance

The socio-political background of the age is important as it witnessed many significant historic events, such as the Black Death, Peas-ant’s Revolt and the Enclosure Movement.

  • Black Death (1348-1349): The deadly plague outbreak that cost the lives of nearly two-thirds of the English population.
  • Peasant’s Revolt (1381): The first great revolt in England against the heavily- imposed poll tax of 1381.
  • Enclosure Movement: With the Enclosure Acts, the government took over the ownership of private farmlands and reallocated them to different farmers.

In general, Middle English society was centred around wealth and status. It was the age of knighthood and chivalric values. Merchant guilds were formed by tradesmen to control trade as well as politics. Women’s position in society became even more inferior com-pared to the Old English period. Education and scholarship were also at one of the lowest points during this time.

There was a general sense of spiritual barren-ness, yet the church remained powerful and highly influential in society. The period witnessed the moral degeneration of society at large and the clergy in particular. This wide-spread corruption in the church led to major revolts by the Lollards, a Christian group led by John Wycliffe.

But, there were some significant changes taking place in the field of literature in the Middle English period. For example, the revolutionary introduction of printing by William Caxton helped in the standardisation and stabilisation of English orthography. Moreover, the language used by Oxford and Cambridge universities has begun to be considered standard English.

Some anonymous poems in Middle English are:

  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – known as the most accomplished chivalric romance of Middle English, this anonymous work narrates the adventures of Sir Gawain, a knight of King Arthur’s court.
  • Layamon’s Brut (1205) – com-posed of 30,000 lines by the English priest Layamon, this is one of the major works in Middle English on British history.
  • The Pearl – this allegorical poem on spiritual vs human life, also attributed to the anonymous Ga-wain poet, narrates a dream vision full of religious symbolism.
  • The Owl and the Nightingale –this humorous poem describes a debate overheard by the poet between the two birds, regarding numerous earthly matters such as love and marriage. The major writers of the period:

  • Geoffrey Chaucer (1340 -1400)

    Chaucer is known as the father of English poetry. He is the poet who elevated the English language to its current prosperity. His major works were The Canterbury Tales, The House of Fame, The Legend of Good Women, The Book of the Duchess and Troilus and Cressida.

    The Canterbury Tales is the earliest master-piece in English literature. Its realism, detailed characterisation, subtle humour and pervasive humanity continue to captivate modern readers even today. The poem centres on 30 pilgrims on their way to visit the shrine of St Thomas Beckett in Canterbury, narrating tales to each other to ward off their boredom. The detailed portrait of characters drawn from all walks of life, including the Knight, the Wife of Bath, and the Pardoner provides a fascinating view of Middle English society. In his Preface to the Fables, Dryden famously remarked on the work: ‘here is God’s plenty.’

  • William Langland (1332-1400)
    A 14th-century English poet who is best known for his masterpiece, Piers the Plow-man. It is a religious satire composed of over 15,000 lines in simple, unrhymed, and alliterative verse, delivering a scathing criticism of the moral degeneracy of the aristocracy and the clergy. Langland’s allegorical poem narrates a series of spiritual dreams of a peasant. Here, Piers represents the moral, hardworking and spiritual peasant who lives by the values of truth, duty and love.
  • John Gower (1332-1408)
    A Middle English poet who wrote in three languages, French, Latin and Middle English. His best-acclaimed work, Confessio Amantis, is his only work in English and is composed of 34,000 lines that narrate the didactic tales of the seven deadly sins.
  • Sir Thomas Malory (1415-1471)
    An English writer whose identity is under de-bate. He is best known for his work, Le Morte d’Arthur. The work narrates the legends of King Arthur, the knights of the Round Table, and their quest for the Holy Grail. This compi-lation of French Arthurian romantic tales went on to inspire a great number of poets such as Milton, Spenser, Dryden, Tennyson, and so on. Malory is generally regarded the ‘first great, individual prose stylist’.
  • John Wycliffe (1330-1384)
    Wycliffe is known as ‘the morning star of the Reformation’ for his part in the revolt against the corrupt clergy. Wycliffe also translated the Bible into English to make it more accessible to the common man in another revolutionary move.

Middle English Verse: Features

  • Rhymed verse (exception: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight)
  • Poetry based on French works and their translations
  • Traditional ballads such as “Sir Patrick Spens” and “Chevy Chase”
  • Representative author: Geoffrey Chaucer

Middle English Prose: Features

  • Prose based on French works and their translations
  • However, the new prose was highly original and innovative
  • Realistic and self-critical
  • Representative author: Sir Thomas Malory

2.1.3 Middle English Drama

Drama developed in the Middle Ages mainly through the churches which used it as a vehicle for religious purposes. Initially, dramas were composed in Latin, the official language of the church, and performed exclusively by clerics. The plots were mostly centred on the Old and New Testaments. However, soon this art form grew so popular that it began to be composed in vernacular English. Eventually, it completely broke away from its religious roots and developed into a true art form of the common man.

The three major forms of drama produced during the Middle Ages were: Mystery plays, Miracle plays and Morality plays

Mystery Plays

These picturesque religious dramas, also known as cycle plays, depict a series of events from the Bible – mainly the mysteries of God. Mostly produced by merchant guilds, these were highly popular during the time, per-formed annually in major towns, and drew huge crowds.

  • The Second Shepherds’ Play –With a blend of comedy and sat-ire, this play narrates the events during the birth of Christ.

 Miracle Plays

These plays dealt with the real or fictitious accounts of the lives of saints – mostly on the Virgin Mary or St. Nicholas. It usually involved deus ex machina (god from the ma-chine), a dramatic technique where a character of divine power is lowered onto the stage using a mechanical contraption to resolve the plot. There are few surviving miracle plays in English since King Henry VIII perceived them as a threat to his church and banned them during the sixteenth century.

  • St. John the Hairy – In this play, the eponymous character murders a princess, but after he con-fesses and revives her, he is ac-quitted of his crime and becomes a bishop.

Morality Plays

As its name indicates, morality plays are aimed at teaching morality by depicting the actions and characters of ordinary people. There is less focus on religion and more focus on the internal conflicts of the character, who has to go to either heaven or hell by the end of the play. This moral conflict between the good and the evil forces – the highlight of these allegorical plays – is achieved through the dramatic personification of virtues and vices. The good forces (represented by the good angel and the virtues) and the bad forces (bad angel and the vices) are depicted as constantly battling for the human soul.

  • Everyman (1510) – The titular character who represents hu-mankind is forced to face death and confront the choices and decisions of his life. The archetypal characters of this drama such as Death, Beauty and Strength can be seen as a precursor to the Elizabethan stage – especially to classics like Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. More-over, among medieval morality plays, this drama is considered the closest to modern English.


  • Anglo-Saxon conquest is the first recorded event in English history
  • Old English – the earliest form of English language
  • Beowulf- Old English epic which narrates the adventures Beowulf
  • Scop, the travelling poets and performers of Anglo-Saxon Kingdom
  • Kenning is a figurative compound word or phrase
  • Norman Conquest- the 11th century invasion of England by Duke of Normandy
  • Influence of Norman French caused the decline of Old English language
  • Black Death, Peasant’s Revolt, Enclosure Movement
  • Chaucer is known as the father of English poetry
  • Mystery, Miracle and Morality plays

Objective questions

  1. What is the origin of the term ‘England’?
  2. Who was the king of Wessex?
  3. Who is the only English writer mentioned by Dante?
  4. Which is the oldest extant epic in English?
  5. Give a few examples of kenning.
  6. Name the first historical narrative in English.
  7. In which year did the Norman Conquest take place?
  8. Which language had the biggest influence on Middle English?
  9. What is the plague outbreak in England during 1348-49 known as?
  10. Who is known as the father of English poetry?
  11. Name the work Dryden was referring to when he remarked “here is God’s plenty”
  12. Who translated the Bible into English?
  13. What are the major types of drama in Middle English?


  1. Anglia.
  2. King Alfred.
  3. Venerable Bede.
  4. Beowulf.
  5. Swan-road, Bone-house.
  6. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
  7. 1066.
  8. Norman-French.
  9. Black Death.
  10. Chaucer.
  11. The Canterbury Tales.
  12. John Wycliffe.
  13. Mystery, Miracle, and Morality play.


  1. Why is the Anglo-Saxon conquest significant in the history of England? Write a short note substantiating your reasons.
  2. Explain Norman Conquest.
  3. Write a brief note on the contributions of Middle-English writers.
  4. Write a brief note on the representative genres of each literary period.
  5. Write short notes on Mystery, Miracle and Morality plays.

Suggested Readings

  1. Daiches, David. A Critical History of English Literature, Volume 1: From the Beginnings to Milton. Mandarin, 1994.
  2. Baker, Peter. Introduction to Old English. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
  3. William Machan, Tim. English in the Middle Ages. Oxford University Press, 2003.
  4. Nevalainen, Terttu. An Introduction to Early Modern English. Oxford University Press, 2006.