|With the completion of the given unit, the learners will be able to:
Middle English Prose of the 13th and 14th
century continued in the tradition of Anglo- Saxon prose: homiletic, didactic, and directed toward ordinary people rather than polite society. The fact that there was no French prose tradition was very important to the preservation of the English prose tradition. A number of sermons, lives of saints and other devotional works appeared during this time. The earliest writings of this kind are known as the Katherine Group, and include the lives of three virgin saints, Katherine, Margaret, and Juliana, and two religious treatises. Written in West Midland dialect, their primary aim is the glorification of virginity and narrate stories of resistance to marriage and ultimate martyrdom. The Ancrene Riwle (Rule for Anchoress) is a manual of instruction intended for three young girls who had decided to become religious women. Written about the year 1200 in West Midland dialect, it became a very popular work and is an interesting historical document
Though there were no abrupt and brilliant imaginative contributions like that of Chaucer or Langland, there was a steady growth in religious prose. The first secular prose appeared around this time which was of a contemplative and often analytical nature. Such prose was represented by Walter Hilton’s Scale of Perfection and Cloud of Unknowing, a mystical work written by an anonymous author of the 14th century. Richard Rolle produced some good mystical tracts like The Commandment, Meditations on the Passion and The Form of Perfect Living.
The mystical tradition continued in the 15th century in different ways by two women
writers who saw visions, namely, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love of Julian of Norwich (written around 1393) is a work of fervent piety. This is believed to be the first book written by a woman in English. The Book of Margery Kempe (1433) is the first substantial surviving English autobiography and recounts the religious experiences of an extreme and sometimes hysterically pious woman. The spiritual focus of her Book is the mystical conversations she conducts with Christ for more than forty years. It records the tension in late medieval England between institutional orthodoxy and increasingly public modes of religious dissent.
The Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ (1410), a translation by Nicholas Love of a Latin text turned out to be a very popular prose work of the 15th century. The Roman Catholic Church also highlighted this work in opposition to the work of Wycliffe. The Lollard movement produced a bulk of secular literature which brought them under the threat of the death penalty by the Catholic Church. For this reason, most of the writings remained anonymous. Langland’s Piers the Plowman was printed in the 15th century for religious reasons by early Protestants. Wycliffe’s English translation of the Bible was read widely in spite of the doctrinal suspicion. It influenced the later translations of the Bible by William Tyndale (1525), Miles Coverdale (1535) and the Authorised Version of King James (1611).
The last quarter of the fourteenth century witnessed the coming of translations and prose compositions of a secular nature. The Gutenberg press imported to England by William Caxton brought a change in literary creations. It transformed the English language into a powerful medium of expression and it became much easier to make books. One of the earliest printed works in English was that of Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur, 1469- 1470), which turned out to be the greatest prose work of the Middle English period carried on the tradition of Arthurian romance, from French sources, in English prose of remarkable vividness and vitality. He loosely tied together stories of various knights of the Round Table, but most memorably of Arthur himself, of Galahad, and of the guilty love of Lancelot and Arthur’s queen, Guinevere and retells them in chronological sequence from the birth of Arthur. The most enduring prose writer of the era, Malory casts the Arthurian tales into coherent form and views them with an awareness that they represent a vanishing way of life. Malory’s account differs from his models in its emphasis on the brotherhood of the knights rather than on courtly love and on the conflicts of loyalty (brought about by the adultery of Lancelot and Guinevere) that finally destroy the fellowship. Caxton, the first English printer, printed Morte d’Arthur in 1485.
The works of Chaucer like Tales of Melibeus, and two of his astronomical translations from Latin- Treasure on the Astrolabe and the Equatorie of the Planets- were secular in nature. It was followed by the work of John Trevisa who translated Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicom, a universal history, and Barthalomeow’s On the Property of Things (an encyclopaedia) from Latin to English. However, the most read among the surviving secular prose was The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandeville. It described the journeys of Sir John Mandeville, the Knight of St Alban through Asia. It is now considered a fictional work. The later phase of the Medieval period saw the consolidation of English prose with more serious themes. The Brut chronicle written by an unknown author became an instrument in fostering national unity and identity. The same was the case with John Capgrave’s Chronicle of England and On the Governance of England written by John Fortescue. Religious controversialists like Reginald Pecock and John Skelton were more eccentric authors who followed the secular style in literature. The transition from medieval to Renaissance embarked on an era of free thinking in all walks of human life. It does in the field of literature too.
3.4.1 Transition from Medieval to Renaissance:
Caxton introduced his printing press into England in 1476 and printed Malory’s cycle of Arthur’s legends in 1485. In the same year Henry Tudor became the first Tudor king under the name Henry VII (Reign from 1485 to 1509) and the year is considered to mark a transition from the Medieval period to the Renaissance in English literature. Alexander Barclay furnished his essays during this period after the fashion of Italian humanist sources. He translated the work of Sebastian Brant, a German satirist into English as The Ship of Fools (1509) and it was a good example of satire on contemporary folly and corruption. The Pastime of Pleasure (1509) by Stephen Hawes was another example of the transitional phase of English literature. The new trend gave importance to the humanist view projecting education and good governance. The works of Sir Thomas Elyot namely The Book Named the Governor (1531) and Roger Ascham’s Toxophilus (1545) and The Schoolmaster (1570) are the best examples cited in this regard. But the most notable work of English humanism was undoubtedly Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), first written in Latin and then translated to English. The title which was derived from Greek meant “no place”, and it referred to an imaginary and perfect state, a place where everyone was equal. The english translation appeared posthumously in 1551 after he was executed by King Henry VIII in 1535 for refusing to accept Henry as the head of the church.
David Crystal explains that in Old English “we encounter a language which is chiefly Old Germanic in its character – in its sounds, spellings, grammar and vocabulary. After this period we have a language which displays a very different kind of structure, with major changes having taken place in each of these areas, many deriving from the influence of French following the Norman Conquest of 1066.” Several changes appeared in grammar, especially in word endings; most of the inflectional endings have been replaced in Middle English by relying on alternative expressions to explain the meanings of relationships. The pronunciation system underwent a lot of changes. Several consonants and vowels altered their quality, and new contrastive units of sound (‘phonemes’) emerged.The way sounds were spelled altered, as French spelling conventions came to be used such as ou for u (house), gh for h (night) and ch for c (church). A lot of prefixes and suffixes were added resulting in countless new words. But by the beginning of the 15th century, as English became the language used by almost all the upper classes, the flow of loan words from French reduced. But the advent of the Renaissance resulted in the growing importance of Latin which emerged as the language of religion, scholarship and science and more Latin words have made their influx into English. The English language as we use today is a rich storehouse of words, at least half of them borrowed from languages such as French, Latin and Danish.
- Later medieval English prose was contemplative and analytical in style. f Advent of some women authors who gave accounts of the life of bourgeoisie women.
- Wycliffe’s English translation of the bible served as a basic text for future translations of the Bible.
- The Caxton’s press gave a new impetus to printing and learning in later medieval England.
- The legend of king Arthur was presented with a mix of chivalric spirit and tragic feelings.
- Social criticism by prose writers.
- Thomas More’s Utopia visualised an ideal community.