Course Content
Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
Private: BA English
About Lesson

Unit 3 Middle English Language and Literature

Learning Outcomes

After the successful completion of the unit, the learners will be :

  • introduced to the background of Middle English Literature.
  • able to Identify the features of the literary works of renowned medieval writers.
  • able to discern the factors that influence literary and cultural achievements of a given age.
  • able to compare and contrast the features of Middle English literary achievements with that of the English literature of succeeding centuries .


Medieval England became a knowledge society with the establishment and growth of universities and the spread of education. The common public who were educated were supplied with new reading experiences through literary works of several men of letters like John Gower, Langland and Chaucer. Their works led the public to that unexplored world of reading experiences. Works like Canterbury Tales gave birth to reading habits and prepared the people for future literary developments. The following unit will uncover the growth of language and literature in Medieval England.

Old English, Middle English, Medieval Romances, Langland and Chaucer

The period in English history that roughly falls between 450 AD when the earliest settlements were made in the island of Britain by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes and 1066 AD when William of Normandy conquered England is usually identified as the Anglo- Saxon period. This period is also referred to by the term Old English, especially when one talks about the history of the English language and literature. The English language has undergone considerable changes in its transition from Old English to the English that we use today. Old English may look like a completely different language. The Anglo- Saxons had a body of literature which was superior to any that existed in Europe at the time of the Norman Conquest. Special mention must be made of Beowulf, the epic poem of 3183 lines about the exploits of the Scandinavian hero Beowulf. One must also note the intensity of passion that is there in the elegiac religious lyrics of the time. Only two names of poets- Caedmon and Cynewulf – have survived and much of the work has remained anonymous. The prose works that must be mentioned are Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the translations that were undertaken by King Alfred the Great.
The second stage in the history of both the English language and literature began with the Norman Conquest. The Middle English period is usually identified from 1066 AD to 1500 AD and is noted for the extensive influence of the French language on English. After the Norman Conquest, most of the Anglo- Saxon nobles were dispossessed and a new French-speaking aristocracy supplanted them in power. This event acted as a significant setback to the English language and literature. French language and culture replaced English in polite court society and had lasting effects
on English culture. The blow was greater for the literature than the language. English which had edged out Latin as the official language by the tenth century was demoted in favour of the French language. But the native tradition survived, although little 13th-century, and even less 12th-century, literature in English is in existence, since most of it was transmitted orally.
English continued to remain as the language spoken by the majority, most of whom including the former Saxon nobles who lost their lands, were treated as serfs. The English people who were required to be in touch with their Norman masters for their livelihood were forced to adapt and learn some French words for communication. The Norman aristocracy who had to communicate with their English servants were also forced to learn some English words. As the Norman men, especially from the lower ranks, settled in large numbers in England after the Conquest, they entered into inter-racial relationships with Saxon women. When King Henry I (Reign from 1100 to 1135), fourth son of William the Conqueror, became the king, he entered into a marriage with Princess Matilda, a princess who descended from the royal family of Wessex, in order to fortify his relationship with the people. Thus a bilingual situation emerged gradually in England. Latin, which was the language used by the Church and higher learning also continued to be used and enjoyed a higher status than either the French or English language.
Old English fragmented into several dialects and gradually evolved into Middle English, which, despite an admixture of French, is unquestionably English. The loss of Normandy by the English in 1204, and the royal decrees in both England and France in 1224 making it illegal for anyone to hold land in both countries, must have been a factor in the reemergence of the English language among the upper classes. By the 14th century, when English again became the chosen language of the ruling classes, it had lost much of the Old English inflectional system and had undergone certain sound changes. It had also enriched its vocabulary by adding thousands of French words. By the mid-14th century, Middle English had become the literary as well as the spoken language of England.
As a result of the Norman Conquest, Wessex lost its political and cultural importance, and its dialect, West Saxon, which had established its supremacy as the literary language lost its prestige. The dialects of the other parts of the island were restored to their former positions of equal authority and this resulted in the development of three groups of dialects, the Southern, Midland (divided into East and West) and Northern, all differing among themselves in forms and even in vocabulary. It was only towards the end of the 14th century that East Midland, the dialect of London which under the Norman kings replaced Winchester as the capital city and seat of the Court and Parliament, emerged supreme. This happened partly also through the influence of the two Universities, Oxford and Cambridge, which gradually grew up during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and attracted students from all parts of the country. This victory of the East Midland form was marked by, though it was not in any large degree due to, the appearance in the fourteenth century of the first great modern English poet, Chaucer.
The Middle English literature of the 14th and 15th centuries is much more diversified than the previous Anglo-Saxon literature. A variety of French and even Italian elements influenced Middle English literature, especially in southern England. In addition, different regional styles were maintained, for literature and learning had not yet been centralised. For these reasons, as well as because of the vigorous and uneven growth of national life, the Middle English period contains a wealth of literary works which cannot be easily classified.
Medieval Romance is a literary form, usually characterised by its treatment of chivalry that came into being in France in the mid-12th century. The concept of chivalry in the sense of “honourable and courteous conduct expected of a knight” was perhaps at its height in the 12th and 13th centuries and was strengthened by the Crusades. A knight’s love for a lady was known as courtly love (amour courtois), a philosophy of love and code of lovemaking that flourished in France and England during the Middle Ages. The term romance usually carries implications of the wonderful, the miraculous, the exaggerated, and the wholly ideal and many medieval romances are set in distant times and remote places with its motifs of the quest, the forest, the test, the meeting with the evil giant and the encounter with the beautiful beloved. Medieval Romance may be defined as a story of adventure – fictitious and frequently marvellous or supernatural – in verse or prose. At its best, as in the work of the French writers Marie de France and Chretien de Troyes, romance could analyse the connection between a refined inner life and the demands of society.
The subject matter of medieval romance is usually divided into three categories: matter of France, matter of Rome and matter of Britain. The matter of France deals with the activities of Charlemagne (Charles the Great [742-814], king of the Franks from 768 until his death and considered the first Holy Roman Emperor) and his knights and finds its greatest expression in Chanson de Roland, which tells of a desperate story of a courageous fight against hopeless odds, ending with the hero’s death. The matter of Rome deals with the ancient classical civilizations of Greece and Rome and includes the stories of the Trojan war, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. The matter of Britain is concerned with the Arthurian stories introduced by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kingdom of Britain, 1137). Geoffrey’s work was based on Celtic sources in Welsh language but the main source of the Arthurian portions may have been Geoffrey’s own imagination. King Arthur was a legendary hero who was believed to be the leader of Celtic Britons in the battle against Saxonian invaders in the 5th and 6th centuries.
It is not certain whether the legend is based on an actual historical person but it has been a profitable legend for medieval romances. It is possible to identify a fourth group of romances – matter of England, which deals with legends celebrating popular English (Anglo-Saxon) heroes.
The French romances dealing with the matter of Rome and matter of Britain combined adventure and sentiment, the latter deriving from the elaborate conventions of courtly love. In the matter of Britain there is a certain amount of material ultimately based on the belief—probably Celtic in origin—in an otherworld into which men can penetrate, where they can challenge those who inhabit it or enjoy the love of fairy women. Such themes appear in a highly rationalised form in the lays of the late 12th-century Marie de France, although she mentions Arthur and his queen only in one, the lay of Lanval. Marie de France is considered the first female French poet though she is believed to have written most of her works in England. But nothing is known with certainty about her.
With Chrétien de Troyes, a 12th-century French poet who wrote five romances dealing with the knights of Arthur’s court, the Arthurian theme reached its highest perfection in the Middle Ages. His Perceval contains the earliest surviving literary version of the quest of the Holy Grail. It is not known whether he lived in England at any point of time but his works were very popular in England during the medieval period. One of the best medieval romances written in verse in English is ‘Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight’ by an anonymous poet which appeared around 1370. This romance deals with a weird adventure that befell Sir Gawain, nephew of King Arthur, who is portrayed as the model of an ideal knight. Against a background of chivalric gallantry, the tale of the knight’s resistance to the temptation of another man’s beautiful wife is narrated. The vigour of the Anglo-Saxon, the polish of the French, and the magical folk strain of the Celtic combine successfully in the poem. Other English romances in verse that have survived include ‘King Horn’ and ‘The Lay of Havelok the Dane’ which deal with Anglo-Saxon tales.
One of the earliest of the surviving poems in early Middle English is Orrmulam, written probably about the year 1200 by a monk Orm. Layamon’s Brut, written about 1200 is one of the important early Middle English verse chronicles and its source is a French poem Roman de Brut by Anglo-Norman poet Wace written about 1155. Wace’s poem itself is a translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kingdom of Britain. Wace also includes Arthurian stories from other sources, and is the first one to actually refer to the Round Table, and he refers to it thrice in a manner which suggests that it was already familiar to his audience. The interest which Layamon’s Brut possesses for modern readers centres round the Arthurian section. It is the work of the first writer of any magnitude in Middle English, and, standing at the entrance to that period, he may be said to look before and after. He retains much of Old English tradition; in addition, he is the first to make extensive use of French material. And, lastly, in the place of a fast vanishing native mythology, he endows his countrymen with a new legendary store in which lay concealed the seeds of later chivalry.
The Owl and the Nightingale by an anonymous author, probably written around the beginning of the 13th century, is the first example in English of the debat, a popular continental form; in the poem, the owl, strictly monastic and didactic, and the nightingale, a free and amorous secular spirit, charmingly debate the virtues of their respective ways of life. To the medieval mind the poetic associations to the nightingale were invariably those of love. The owl, on the other hand, unmistakably represents a poet of the religious type. The allegory may represent the argument between asceticism and pleasure, philosophy and art, or the older didactic poetry and the newer secular love poetry.
Lyrics written before the 12th century have not survived in English. The great bulk of the lyrics that are in existence are religious. Some of the best religious lyrics preserved in the Harley Lyrics show a new emphasis on the humanity of Christ and the suffering of his mother. Most of these lyrics are either in praise of Mary or describe her sorrows. There is an element of mirth in some of these lovely hymns addressed to Mary and they reveal the influence of courtly love with its exaltation of woman in its courtly sense. The focus on the cult (devotion) of the Virgin was a great humanising force. An element of erotic mysticism is noticeable in the image of the wistful (sad) soul striving for union with the Divine.
The popular ballad had flourished by the end of the Middle English period. It is one type of narrative song with certain clearly marked characteristics which distinguish it from other kinds of poetry. It is composed in simple stanzas, generally of two or four lines, suitable to a recurrent tune. It is usually sung to the accompaniment of a musical instrument. In many ballads there is a refrain, and a frequent characteristic is the habit of repeating a stanza with slight modifications that advance the story. Ballad art is always objective, with no marks of personal authorship and no attempt to analyse or interpret the action or the characters of the story. In general the ballad reflects the simple direct approach to a story characteristic of unlettered people. Though ballads flourished in the late Middle Ages, most of them are unlikely to have been written down and hence may not have survived in its early form. It is possible to say that most of the surviving ballads were written down after 1600. The most popular among the ballads are about Robin Hood, the heroic outlaw.
In the beginning of the Middle English period, the Anglo-Saxon alliterative tradition in poetry was replaced by the rhymed verse of French. But the unexplained reemergence of the alliterative verse form in the 14th century produced some of the best poetry in Middle English. The most popular alliterative poem of the period is The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman, better known as Piers Plowman (around 1362), and it is certainly one of the most significant poems of the Middle English period. It is a long, impassioned work in the form of dream visions (a favourite literary device of the day), lamenting the plight of the poor, the avarice of the powerful, and the sinfulness of all people. It is an allegorical poem which provides a detailed record of late 14th century life, covering all aspects of the political and theological debate and echoing common sentiments in its satire of the corrupt church and the plea for its reformation. The emphasis, however, is placed on a Christian vision of the life of activity, of the life of unity with God, and of the synthesis of these two under the rule of a purified church. The narrator, after undertaking a quest, finds the path to spiritual salvation through Piers, an ordinary man. Piers is the perfect exemplar of Christian life who knows truth through love. The poem is assumed to be written by William Langland about whom very little is known. The poem’s dialect suggests that the poet lived in the West Midlands. It is written in a simple language but its imagery is powerful. The poem has survived in three versions (around 1362, 1377 & 1387), the latter two revisions probably carried out by Langland himself. Despite various faults, this allegorical poem bears comparison in its vivid delineation of scene and the realistic painting of character with the best of medieval allegories, with the French Roman de la Rose or the Italian The Divine Comedy by Dante.
John Gower was the best-known contemporary and friend of Chaucer, who addressed him as “Moral Gower,” at the end of Troilus and Criseyde. Each of his three major works, characterised by metrical smoothness and serious moral criticism, was written in a different language. Speculum Meditantis (French), written before 1381 is an allegorical manual of the vices and virtues; Vox Clamantis (Latin), written around 1381 expresses horror at the Peasants’ Revolt led by Wat Tyler and goes on to condemn the baseness of all classes of society. He is mainly remembered for his poem in English, Confessio Amantis (Lover’s Confession 34,000 lines, written around 1390). It is a compilation of 133 stories in octosyllabic couplets skilfully retold from familiar sources. The tales are arranged around the seven deadly sins whose various aspects they illustrate while Genius, the priest of Venus, hears the elderly lover’s confession. The relation between piety and love is explored while discussing love in its widest personal and social contexts. The chief interest of Confessio Amantis for the modern reader is as a collection of stories and many of the stories are originally from the Latin poet Ovid. Despite its great length and considerable achievement in workmanship, Confessio Amantis is a pale shadow compared not only with Canterbury Tales but also with the other poems of Chaucer. Gower is not a great poet but is only an earnest man with a message for his times.
The works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1340 -1400), considered the father of English poetry, mark the brilliant culmination of Middle English literature. The known facts of Chaucer’s life are fragmentary and are based almost entirely on official records. He was born in London and by 1366 he married Philippa Roet, who was a lady-in-waiting to Edward III’s queen. During the years 1370 to 1378, Chaucer was frequently employed on diplomatic missions to the Continent, visiting Italy in 1372–73 and in 1378. From 1374 on he held a number of official positions. The official date of Chaucer’s death is Oct. 25, 1400. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Chaucer was influenced very early by French literature, in particular the Roman de la Rose, one of the most influential works of European culture. Chaucer’s literary activity is often divided into three periods. His chief works during the first period (up to 1370) were based largely on French models and included the Book of the Duchess, an allegorical lament written in 1369 on the death of Blanche, wife of John of Gaunt, and a partial translation of the Roman de la Rose. Chaucer’s second period (up to 1387), is usually called his Italian period because during this time his works were modelled primarily on Dante and Boccaccio. Major works of this period were The House of Fame (about 1379), describing the adventures of Aeneas after the fall of Troy and The Parliament of Fowls, a poem of 699 lines, which tells of the mating of fowls on St. Valentine’s Day and was believed to celebrate the betrothal of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia. Some of the other works of this period included a prose translation of Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae and an unfinished Legend of Good Women which introduced the heroic couplet (two rhyming lines of iambic pentameter) into English verse.
Chaucer’s greatest achievement of this period was Troilus and Criseyde (around 1385), certainly one of the great love poems in the English language. In this poem of 8239 lines, Chaucer perfected the seven-line stanza later called rhyme royal. This psychologically penetrating non-alliterative verse romance is a tale of the fatal course of a noble love, laid in Homeric Troy and based on Il filostrato, a romance by the 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio. Troilus, a Trojan prince (son of Priam and Hecuba), fell in love with Cressida (Chryseis), daughter of Calchas. When she was exchanged for a Trojan prisoner of war, Cressida swore to be faithful to Troilus, but then deceived him. Troilus was killed by Achilles. In this poem Chaucer has not only given us a full and finished romance, but has endowed it with what medieval romance conspicuously lacked—interest of character as well as of incident, and interest of drama as well as of narrative.
To Chaucer’s final period, in which he achieved his fullest artistic power, belongs his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales (written mostly after 1387). This unfinished poem, about 17,000 lines, is one of the most brilliant works in all literature. The poem introduces a group of pilgrims journeying from London to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury. The pilgrims gather at the Tabard Inn and Harry Bailey, the innkeeper who offers to accompany them suggests that each of the 30 pilgrims should tell two stories each on the way to Canterbury and on the way back. The stories are recounted by Chaucer through the mouths of the pilgrims and his plan was to relate 120 stories. In its present form there are only 24 tales, and of these, two are interrupted before the end, and two break off shortly after they get under way. But the unity of the poem is not affected by the fact that the whole poem as planned remains incomplete. It appears that Chaucer had altered his original plan in the course of writing the poem.
Together, the pilgrims represent a wide cross section of 14th-century English life. The tales are cast into many different verse forms and genres and collectively explore virtually every significant medieval theme. In its total impression, the Canterbury Pilgrimage of the poem is the procession of human comedy. Characters are both individuals and morally and socially representative types. In the interludes between the tales, these characters are set in action, talking, disputing, and the tales themselves are a livelier extension of their talk. These tales are the entertainment the pilgrims provide for each other and at the same time they are a fuller revelation of themselves, their interests, attitudes, and antagonisms. The stories vividly indicate medieval attitudes and customs in such areas as love, marriage, and religion. The Canterbury Tales probably gives us more information about 14th century English society than any other social document of the time. Through Chaucer’s superb powers of characterization the pilgrims such as the earthy wife of Bath, the gentle knight, the worldly prioress, the evil summoner come intensely alive. His humour is all-pervasive. No other Middle English writer has his skill, his range, his complexity, and his humane outlook. John Dryden comments on The Canterbury Tales: “Here is God’s plenty.” Because of major changes in pronunciation and accentuation that took place in the century and half after Chaucer, his metrical technique was not fully appreciated until the 18th century.
The period also witnessed the popularisation of drama. The plays were mainly of two types: Morality Plays and Mystery Plays. Morality Plays emphasised the need to be moral and just in life while Mystery Plays dealt with stories from the Bible. Morality Plays were allegorical dramas in which characters personified moral qualities (such as virtue or avarice) or abstractions (such as death or youth) and in which moral lessons were taught. The Castle of Perseverance and Everyman are among the most important of the morality plays that have survived.
The term Mystery Play is sometimes used synonymously with the term miracle play. Some literary authorities make a distinction between the two, designating as mystery plays all types of early medieval drama that draw their subject matter from Gospel events and as miracle plays all those dealing with legends of the saints. Miracle plays dealing with the legends of the saints were less realistic and more religious in tone than those concerned with biblical episodes, and were eventually superseded by the latter. Mystery or Miracle plays were long cyclic dramas of the Creation, Fall, and Redemption of mankind, based mostly on biblical narratives. They usually included a selection of Old Testament episodes but concentrated mainly on the life and passion of Jesus Christ. They always ended with the Last Judgement. The cycles were generally financed and performed by the craft guilds and staged on wagons in the streets and squares of the towns. Texts of the cycles staged at York, Chester, Wakefield, and at an unstated location in East Anglia have survived, together with fragments from Coventry, Newcastle, and Norwich. Their literary quality is uneven, but the achievement of the York cycle is greater and consisted of forty eight single plays.
As a development of the morality play, interludes (from Latin interludium) were performed in Europe by small companies of professional actors during the 15th and 16th centuries. The term covers a wide range of entertainment, from simple farces performed on small stages in public places to dramatic sketches performed at banquets in the halls of the nobility. In both cases the plays were purely secular and more concerned with ideas than with morals. Most interludes came from France and England. These pieces usually dealt with the antics of foolish or cunning peasants, exploring the relationship between master and servant or husband and wife. The allegorical characters of the moralities are absent in the interludes which stand midway between the moralities and the regular drama. The Four P’s (1540) by John Heywood is the best known of all Interludes in English.


  • There were two developmental stages for the Medieval English language: the Old English and Middle English periods.
  • The works of William Langland satirised the corruption in the church and can be seen as a protest against social inequalities of the period.
  • Most of the literary works expressed their reflections on society and religion.
  • Geoffrey Chaucer is the towering literary figure of Middle English literature.
  • Medieval Romances which were very popular during the 12th and 13th centuries made effective use of chivalry and courtly love.
  • The subject matter of medieval romance is usually divided into three categories: matter of France, matter of Rome and matter of Britain.
  • Morality plays and Mystery plays were two types of plays.