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Universitatea "Alexandru Ioan Cuza" Iai

Departamentul de Limbi i Literaturi Strine

Catedra de Limb i Literatur Englez






1. Introductory lecture ........


2. The Anglo-Saxon World: Anglo-Saxon Literature.........


3. Medieval Literature I: Anglo-Norman Literature..........


4. Medieval Literature II: The Fourteenth Century..........


5. Medieval Literature III: Geoffrey Chaucer, Medieval

Drama, Thomas Malory.........


6. The Renaissance I. Generalities. Prose Writing....


7. The Renaissance II. Poetry. Drama.......


8. William Shakespeare: Introduction..........


9. William Shakespeare: The Comedy ........


10. William Shakespeare: The Historical Play.........


11. William Shakespeare: The Tragedy ......


12. William Shakespeare: Late Plays, Romances, Tragicomedies,

Problem Plays ......





MIDDLE AGES (adj. MEDIEVAL): is a period of European history extending broadly

over a period of 1000 years, from the 5th (476 the year that the last emperor of
the Western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustus, abdicated) century up to the 15 th
century. Different writers accept different endings for this period, such as
Gutenbergs printing press (1455), or the Battle of Bosworth (1485) which marks
the end of the War of the Roses and the beginning of the Tudor Dynasty. The
name designates what the Italian Humanists of the 14 th century refer to as an
intermediary age, in their desire to return to the values of the Antiquity.




The period extends from the 5th century, marking the beginning of the AngloSaxon invasion up to the Norman Conquest (1066).

Important events:

449/459: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions Hengest and Horsa, Anglo-Saxon

chieftains, called by King Vortigern for help. This event is the beginning of the
Anglo-Saxon invasion.

597: Augustine is sent by the Pope to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity.

He becomes the first Bishop of Canterbury

The Danish invasions: starting at the end of the 8 th century. Their invasion was
stopped by Alfred the Great. In the 10th century, the English had to pay gold to
the Vikings to stay away.

THE MEDIEVAL PERIOD (from the Normal conquest to 1500)

I. THE NORMAN CONQUEST (1066: The Battle of Hastings): The Norman

Kings and the Plantagenets

The conquest of England by William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy who

established a dynasty that ruled Britain up to the War of the Roses. This marks
the beginnings of the feudal system in England, based on the relationship
between the King and his vassals. The basis of the system was the possession of
land, so that every man had a lord (the Kings lord was God) and every lord had

The society was structured like a pyramid, all the members being connected. The
lord, being given land by his higher lord, had to pay him in products and serve
him (provide him with an army) in times of war. The freemen paid rent and
military service while the serfs were bound to the land, being a little more than
slaves. England was organized according to the feudal system, so the land was
divided among King, Church and his lords, leaving the poor population subjected
to the power and control of the nobility.

The kings of England up to John Lackland were also Dukes of Normandy, which
made them vassals to the King of France. During Henry IIs reign (1113-1189),
the possessions of the King of England in France were more extended than those
of the King of France, which led to continuous struggles between France and
England. There were also conflicts between the Kings and the Church in the
formers' attempt to dominate England (a famous example is the fight between
King Henry II and Thomas Beckett [1163-1170]).

MAGNA CARTA (1215) was a charter signed by the king of England (King John)
and the nobles and it limited the rights of the king, marking the decline of the
feudal system. Since then, the relationships between the English kings and the
Parliament (an organism that was started first in a revolutionary attempt to seize
the power of the King, in 1258) have been tense.


This conflict marks the end of the French domination in England as well as the
loss of all claims of England on French territories
The Black Death (1348-1350)

It was one of the most severe pandemics in European history. The disease killed
almost half of the population in England bringing important changes in politics,
demography, economy, human relations and art.

IV. The Peasants Revolt (1381) was caused by the continuous increase in the
taxes enforced on the population by King Richard II (1367-1400). The main leader
was Watt Tyler who called for fair treatment of Englands poor people: We are
men formed in Christs likeness. The main call of the people was When Adam
delved and Eve span / Who was then the gentleman?

THE WAR OF THE ROSES (1455 - 1485)

The conflict, ensuing as a result of dynastic struggle between the House of York
and the House of Lancaster. It ended in 1485 with the Battle of Bosworth won by
Henry Tudor of Lancaster who became King Henry VII and started the Tudor


The Renaissance is a cultural period manifest in Italy as early as the 14 th century,

spreading all over Europe. It placed at the center of its interests the MAN and its
main interest was the recovery of the cultural values of the Antiquity.


King Henry VII

King Henry VIII and the ANGLICAN Church

The REFORMATION (16th century): Martin Luther and John Calvin

The struggle between Catholics and Protestants

1436: Gutenbergs printing press

Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)


King James I (1603-1625)


The English Language belongs to the Germanic branch of languages (the West
Germanic sub-group) of Indo-European languages. There were several Germanic
influences: a) the Anglo-Saxon; b). the North Germanic (Old Norse); c) the

Before the Anglo-Saxons, there were the Celts, whose language (Celtic) is still
preserved in parts of Wales, Cornwall and Scotland. Latin influenced the English
language in several stages, as well. The Roman conquest did not leave too many
traces in the English language. A higher influenced was exercised by the Latin
that came through the religious environment, Latin being the language of the
Church and the language of the educated classes. Another Latin influence came
from the contact with the French after the Norman conquest.


OLD ENGLISH (5th century 11th century) is the name given to the language
spoken by the various Anglo-Saxon tribes that invaded Britain and settled on its
territory. It was not a unified language, but rather a number of dialects, out of
which, four were distinguished: the Northumbrian, the Mercian, the Kentish and
the West Saxon. Old English, an inflected language in comparison to Modern
English, would be virtually incomprehensible today, except

for a number of words. Up to the conversion to Christianity, which brought about

the introduction of the Latin alphabet, the runes were used. Old English was also
influenced by Old Norse, after the Danish invasions in the 9 th and 10th centuries.

RUNE (OE, ON run whisper, mystery): a cryptic sign signifying something

mysterious, secret, pertaining to the hidden lore. It consisted of 24 letters.

syan reordberend reste wunedon! uhte me t ic gesawe syllicre treow

Translation in Modern English

Lo! I will tell of the best of dreams, what I dreamed in the middle of the


after the speech-bearers were in bed. It seemed to me that I saw a very

The Dream of the Rood wondrous tree Hwt! Ic swefna cyst secgan wylle,

hwt me gemtte to midre nihte,

MIDDLE ENGLISH (1100-1500).

After the Norman conquest there was a great confusion due to the coexistence of
the older forms with the language of the new conquerors (a form of Old French).
For a while, there was a language cleavage between the language spoken by the
commoners and that of the upper classes, the new conquerors. Out of this
process, a new language emerged: Middle English, which simplified the
inflected, Old English forms and changed the stress. Great changes also occurred
in vocabulary with a higher input of French words.

Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales

Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote

The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour, Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Adaptation by Michael Murphy

When that April with his showers soote [its showers sweet]

The drought of March hath pierced to the root And bathed every vein in such
liquor [rootlet / liquid]

Of which virte engendered is the flower;

MODERN ENGLISH (1500 - present)

The stage known as "modern English" does not refer to a coherent, unified and
unchanged language, but, even in its early stages, it is easily understood by
modern readers. The historical/cultural period studied in this course of lecture
basically overlaps with what is generically known as "Early Modern English"
which lacked uniformity, especially in spelling that was fixed in by dr. Samuel
Johnson's dictionary (1755). The editors of the famous texts of the period, like
Shakespeare's, interfered in the plays to make them accessible to the public and
they often had difficulties in deciding over one word or another, one of the
causes being the problem of the unfixed spelling.







Heroic poems Lyrical poetry: Elegies Charms and riddles

A.2. RELIGIOUS POETRY The Dream of the Rood Caedmon




Why study the Anglo-Saxon culture nowadays? How can it be illuminating for our
current situation, if it is the case?

The Anglo-Saxon world is fascinating in itself, with its customs and traditions,
with its literature and history, with its exquisite artifacts and illuminated
manuscripts that disprove the name of Dark Ages given to this period. But, for
the modern student, they are more than an old, dead and forgotten society, the
traces of the Anglo-Saxon thought being found in the formation of the English
identity (British and American included), in the shape of the British monarchy up
to the name of the country, changing from BRITANNIA to AENGLA-LAND. The
Anglo-Saxons were brought to the peoples attention in the Protestant

Reformation polemics, in Thomas Jeffersons proposal to place Hengest and

Horsa on the

American seal, in the Victorian renewed interest in the Anglo-Saxon world up to

the Nazi theory of race purity, or to modern discussions and polemics about the
English identity and the English language. The contemporary world is much more
familiarized with the Anglo-Saxons than we are willing to admit, through
J.R.R.Tolkiens books and the subsequent movies, and not only. Tales of heroism,
loyalty, courage and honor, the eternal battle between good and evil, against the
monster outside and within, all these have traces in the Anglo-Saxon mentality.

No other European state remained within the same boundaries for such a long

Few other European cultures have literary specimens that are so old.

Most European powers were broken up by war, internal strife or conquest.

England survived the Norman Conquest and was never broken up.

No other European culture has such a rich collection of vernacular literature.

Christianity was more influenced by the Anglo-Saxon society than by the

Romano-Christian artistic repertoire as it happened on the continent.


PREHISTORY: Before the Anglo-Saxons: the British Isles were inhabited by a

population called the Iberics (probably the builders of Stonehenge). We know that
the islands had been inhabited from the oldest times, but little remains of those
times, and is still enshrouded in mystery. In the 6 th and 7th centuries BC, the Celts
arrived and they soon controlled the islands. From 55BC to 43 AD, the Romans
tried to conquer this outpost that had been causing serious problems in their
rebellious continental colonies. The Roman occupation was much looser than in
continental Europe and lasted till the 5th century. However, there are no
outstanding lasting marks from that period, either in literature, or

in language. At the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, the Celtic Britons withdrew in

Cornwall and Wales, preserving there their language and culture.

THE ANGLO-SAXONS were tribes of GERMANIC origin. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

tells the story of the Anglo-Saxon invasion, stating that in 449, Hengest and
Horsa (probably one person) were called by King Vortigern to help him fight
against the Picts and they were given land. This marks the beginning of the
invasion of England by the three Anglo-Saxon tribes: the ANGLES , the SAXONS
and the JUTES. In this period (the second half of the 5 th century), historians place
the reign of a king who tried to stop, for 50 years, this invasion and who might
have stood at the basis of King Arthurs legend.




The Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes formed smaller kingdoms some of whose
names still remain in the names of the counties in England (Essex, Sussex,
Wessex). By the middle of the 7th century, Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex
became more powerful. Even if they had kings, they were elected by a Council
(WITAN). This principle of elective kingship is evident in Beowulf. They divided
the country in shires ruled by an administrator: shire-reeve sherif. At the
beginning they were a rather egalitarian society, grouped according to kin bonds.
Of great importance was the great hall the mead-hall where the men/
warriors gathered. It was the center of their society and the dwelling place of the

A well-ordered hall is the sign of a wealthy society, hence the importance of the
hall in Beowulf and the most disturbing fact that the attacks, in this poem, were
within the hall, at the very core of the society. The Anglo-Saxons were pagan,
having the same deities as all the other Germanic tribes.



In 597, Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory to convert the Anglo-Saxons.

Christianity, therefore, was spread in the British Isles from two directions. The
earlier conversions were made by Welsh and Irish missionaries, suggesting the
fact that, even before the Anglo-Saxon invasion, there were Christians in the
British Isles, but they was not a centralized religious force. The second
conversion was done by missionaries sent from Rome. The differences between

the Roman and the Irish church were regulated in 664, at the Council of Whitby
that ruled in favor of the Roman Church.

There is the beautiful story of Paulinus converting King Edwin of Northumbria to

Christianity. One of the kings councilors is said to have uttered the words that
convinced the king to become a Christian, words that say a lot about their Pagan
beliefs and the way in which they saw life:

Great king, said he. Imagine that you sit in the hall of your palace, surrounded
by your lords at supper, while a storm rages without. And then a sparrow flies in
from the darkness and the cold. It tarries a little by the fire, then it flies out again
into the darkness and the unknown.

So appears the life of man, who comes in from one door and leaves by another,
coming from no one knows where and going out into the unknown on a winters
night. If the new faith of Paulinus can tell us anything of this strange mystery, let
us follow it.

(The story is told by Bede)

Consequences of the conversion to Christianity:

A sense of unity of the English people fostered by Canterbury.

The development of a vernacular literature coming from the interest of the

bishop in the possibilities of the English language. This interest is due to
Theodore, a Greek coming from the Eastern church which was more interested in
the native languages and cultures than the Western Church.

Unlike other cultures, England and Ireland (because of the Irish Christian Church)
were still celebrating the old heroes, which explains the survival of such poems
as Beowulf. Secular heroic poetry reflects the lifestyle and values of the warriors
(the aristocracy) and they were not easily relinquished as the Church needed the
support of the aristocracy.


THE GOLDEN AGE OF ANGLO-SAXON CULTURE (the end of the conversion

Vikings raid on Lindisfarne in 793)

The Golden Age occurred due to a combination of factors, from weather and the
wealth of the land to the conversion to Christianity that led to great enthusiasm
about monastic life and to a period of relative political stability that allowed
monasteries to accumulate wealth over several generations. This wealth,
unfortunately, drew the envy of the predators, the Norseman from Denmark (the
Vikings), who started raiding the monasteries. There are some great figures that
are distinguished in this period. One is Aldhelm, monk and scholar and poet,
though his works, prose and poetry are in Latin.

The most impressive figure of the period is The Venerable Bede

The Venerable Bede (672-735) was a Benedictine Monk who spent most of his life
teaching and writing. Though the amount of writing is remarkable, he is most
famous for Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastic History of the
English People)

Book 1: Britain and its history from the invasion of Julius Caesar to 603

Book 2: The Death of Pope Gregory the Great to 633 it is important as a

document regarding the conversion of Northumbria to Christianity.

Book 3: The history of the Celtic vs. the Roman Church.

Book 4: Events from 664 to 698 (including the story of Caedmon) Book 5:
Continues to 731.

His style is direct and straightforward and he relies a lot on examination and
investigation of sources, stating where he believes his sources to be unreliable.
He is an importance source of information for a period in the history of England
and the life of the English people before Alfred the Great. Bede gives the
impression of a united kingdom which was not the case in his time when the
territory was divided among different chieftains or kings. The problem, however,

is solved by the word ecclesiastical (religious unity). He is nowadays

considered the father of English history

Autobiographical note at the end of the history

I, Bede, servant of God and priest of the monastery of St. Peter and St. Paul
which is at Wearmouth and Jarrow, have, with the help of God and to the best of
my ability, put together this account of the history of the Church of Britain and of
the English people in particular, gleaned either from ancient documents or from
tradition or from my own knowledge. I was born in the territory of this
monastery. When I was seven years of age I was, by the care of my kinsmen, put
into the charge of the reverend Abbot Benedict and then Ceolfrith, to be
educated. From then on I have spent all my life in this monastery, applying
myself entirely to the study of the Scriptures; and, amid the observance of the
discipline of the Rule and the daily task of singing in the church, it has always
been my delight to learn or to teach or to write. At the age of nineteen I was
ordained deacon and at the age of thirty, priest, both times through the
ministration of the reverend Bishop John on the direction of Abbot Ceolfrith. From
the time I became a priest until the fifty-ninth year of my life I have made it my
business, for my own benefit and hat of my brothers, to make brief comments
from the works of the venerable fathers on the holy Scriptures, and also to add
my contribution to their formulations of understanding and interpretation.



The Raids of the Vikings (Norwegians and Danes) started in 789. At first they only
raided the country, but, little by little some of them settled.



The Vikings conquered most of the country until one king, ruler over Wessex,
organized the defense of the Anglo-Saxons, managing to be victorious over the


This king was Alfred the Great (859-901), whose influence was not only military
and political but also cultural. Politically, King Alfreds influence was extremely
important. Through clever tactics, he


managed to organize the army (fyrd) and navy in order to protect his country.
Most importantly, he was the first king of all England, uniting the English under
his rule. Culturally, King Alfred was a great scholar whose efforts led to the
revival of the Anglo-Saxon culture. He was convinced that learning should not be
neglected and so his efforts went in two directions:

Improving the Latinity of the country: he called scholars from Europe to teach
Latin and write in Latin

Encouraging writing in English: he started a program of translation of key texts

from Latin into English. The following translations were produced:
Gregory the Greats Pastoral Care and the Dialogues

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

The History of the World Against the Pagans by Orosius

Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede

The Soliloquies of St. Augustine

A prose version of the first fifty Psalms

He also provided Prefaces written in English in which he explained why they were

It was in his time that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was started and it was
continued by different writers up to 1154. It is the oldest vernacular history
except for the Irish chronicles.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

878 In this year in midwinter after twelfth night the enemy came stealthily to
Chippenham, and occupied the land of the West Saxons and settled there, and
drove a great part of the people across the sea, and conquered most of the
others; and the people submitted to them, except the king Alfred. He journeyed
in difficulties through the woods and fen-fastness with a small force


Due to renewed raids of the Danes, the English king, Aethelred, decided to pay
tribute to keep them away, a tribute known as the Danegeld. In addition, he
made a treaty to the Duke of Normandy to help each other against the common
enemies and married his daughter. The result was that the descendants of the
Duke of Normandy, more precisely William, would claim the throne of England, on
account of their family relationships with the kings of England. In 1014, England
had a Danish king, Cnut, who was, however, a good king who tried to keep
England safe. He opened the period of the reign of the Danish Kings. The last
Anglo-Saxon king was Edwards the Confessor who died without leaving direct
heirs, thus causing the Norman invasion.


A. ANGLO-SAXON POETRY: general presentation

Few specimens from the literature of the Anglo-Saxon survived the passage of
time, as they were copied in manuscripts, saved from fire and plunder, surviving
at random. They came to us in copies, second or third hand, since no original is
now available to modern readers.

Anglo-Saxon poetry was at first oral, transmitted by minstrels (scops) who used
to travel from one court to the other and entertain the people with poems that
were usually sung. With the conversion to Christianity and the development of
monastic culture, the texts were written and included in manuscripts. These
manuscripts did not record only Christian literature, but also pagan literature.

The techniques and rhetorical devices are proper to this oral tradition:
alliteration, kenning, repetition of sentence elements, use of mnemonic devices.

The poems did not have names (the names were given later, by critics and
scholars) and they were mostly anonymous.

The poems were not rhymed, but alliterative, based on the repetition of the same
sounds. The long lines of the poems were divided in the middle by a breathpause or caesura and united by alliterations that made them musical. In order to
fulfill the requirements of alliteration, the poems appealed to kennings,
metaphorical compounds that employed figurative language in the place of a
more concrete depiction.

There are four manuscripts in which the poems, pagan or Christian, were


The Junius Manuscript: religious poetry, Old Testament paraphrase and lyrics on
Old and New Testament themes.

The Vercelli Book: six religious poems and homiletic prose

The Exeter Book: a collection of poetry, both religious and secular

The Beowulf Manuscript: monster tales

It is difficult to decide why certain texts were included in the manuscripts. For
instance, by taking into consideration the religious content and the larger format
of the Junius Manuscrips, critics suggested that it might have had some liturgical
use. The Exeter Book, on the other hand, including both religious and secular
texts might have been made for a rich patron. The variety of manuscript contexts
in which the poems survive adds to the difficulty of determining anything of their
origin and transmission.


A.1.1. HEROIC POEMS telling of battles and deeds of valor, out of which we can
distinguish the spirit of the Anglo-Saxons, a warrior culture that valued courage
in battle and heroism. Out of these poems, the modern reader learns of a society
organized around its leader (King), chosen from among the worthiest warriors
(see Beowulf) and to whom the lords (thanes) pledge loyalty. The duty of the
warriors is to serve their King, be brave in battle, be truthful and honorable. The
Anglo-Saxons hated treason which was unjustly punished. Thus, revenge is one
of the main rules of the society.

EPIC: a long narrative poem, about the deeds of warriors and heroes. It incorporates
myth, legend, folklore and history. Often, epics are of national significance.

primary= oral or primitive, they belong to the oral tradition and were written down much
later. Gilgamesh, Iliad, Odyssey, Beowulf, the lays of Elder Edda, the epic cycles of the
South Slaves

Secondary or literary: Virgils Aeneid, Lucans Pharsalia, the Song of Roland, Miltons
Paradise Lost, Hugos La Legende des Siecles.

Beowulf is the great epic of the English world, telling of heroes and battles,
human and non-human characters. Researchers have tried to pinpoint the
moment of its creation, suggesting that Hengest, the Jute, who is mentioned in a
secondary story in Beowulf, could be the one who came to England in 449. The
poem opens with the mention of Scyld the Scylding, the founder of the Scylding
Danish dynasty (c. 400) or a mention of the Merovingians, and indeed, around
700, the king of the Francs was Merovingian. Therefore, though it deals with the
battle against fantastic creature, the poem supplies a wealth of historical names.

Another problem appears in judging the religion depicted in the text. The scribe
of the text was most likely Christian, but the only religious elements found are
the references to Cain and Abel, showing the importance of kinship and loyalty to
your own kin, highly valued in the Anglo-Saxon world.

The poem is short compared to other world epics, only 3182 lines, and was found
in a 10th century manuscript. Most critics argue that it may have been composed
two centuries earlier and refers to events that took place before the Anglo-Saxon


The events of the story, according to historical references, might have occurred
somewhere in the 5th 6th century.

Date of creation probably a few centuries later, maybe in the 7 th or 8th centuries,
when there was a period of cultural bloom in England.

Copied, probably by a monk and inclyded in a 10 th century manuscript

Shorter than other world epics, only 3182 lines.

The poet seems to have a very good command of Germanic literature and
mythology as well as of Germanic history, giving a sense of authenticity by
including many historical figures and events.



Introduction: the origins of the Danish dynasty, the glorious reign of Hrothgar and
the building of Heorot

1. the battle with Grendel

Heorot is attacked by a troll-like creature, Grendel, envious of sounds of feasting

in the meadhall, at

King Hrothgars court. Beowulf comes from Geatland to offer his help. He tears
off Grendels arm who runs to his cave in pain. (Feasting and celebration)

2. the battle with Grendels mother

Grendels mother comes to revenge her sons death and kills Hrothgars chief
counsellor. Beowulf follows her to her underwater den and kills her with a sword
forged by the giants. He decapitates

Grendels corpse and brings the head. (Feasting and celebration)

3. the fight with the Dragon

Beowulf becomes king and rules for fifty years until the country is attacked by a
dragon. The dragon is stirred by a fugitive who steals a gold cup. While fighting
against the dragon, Beowulf is left by his retainers except for a young relative,
Wiglaf. He eventually kills the dragon but is injured to death himself. A dooming
fate is predicted for the Geats who deserted the king. Beowulf is burnt on a pyre
and then interred in a tumulus with the dragons treasure, although he asked
Wiglaf to use the treasure for the people.

Elements pertaining to the heroic world

the overpowering Fate (the poem is interspersed with pessimistic forebodings,

such as the burning of Heorot and further dynastic strife as well as the loss of the

gifts Beowulf received from the Danish queen in a battle in which the King of the
Geats is killed.

The belief in the fleeting life, for instance, the fifty years of Beowulfs reign are
presented in a few lines.

Belief in monsters, witches coming from the nightmarish visions of the

Norsemen and from the Germanic mythology. However, only monsters have
supernatural powers. Beowulf is very strong, but there are limits to his powers
and physical strength.

Care for weapons.

Elements pertaining to the Germanic culture: feasting, the giving of rewards,

vengeance, burning the dead, reading omens.


Grendel is a descendent of Cain, cursed by God like his ancestor, and so, he is a
true manifestation of evil (on the other hand, though, he belongs to the Northern
Allusions to the events of the Old Testament such as the Flood, Cain and Abel.

There is, however, a clear-cut distinction between the characters, who are pagan
and never allude to Christian elements and the poet who intersperses his story
with Christian allusions. However, in spite of the presence of numerous pagan
elements, the poem does not depict prayers to Wotan or other Germanic gods, or
other pagan rites that would have shocked Christian readers. References to the

Germanic gods are vague: the almighty (se celmibtiga), the ancient creator
(ealdmetod) or the ruler (wealdend).

It may be seen as an exploration of our primal selves, suggesting the curiosity
of the Christian

Anglo-Saxon poet about the remote origins of his people.

A pessimistic vision on life, controlled by FATE

Contrast between HUMAN SOCIETY and the WILDERNESS

Fight between the INDIVIDUAL and the UNKNOWN/ TIME/ DESTINY

HEROIC VALUES: the ideal warrior and the ideal king

The self-sacrificing hero (the Christian intrusion)


The Battle of Brunanburh depicts a battle in which the English won a victory over
the armies of the Welsh, the Irish and the Scots in 937
Here King Athelstan, Lord of earls

Ring-giver to warriors and his brother Edmund also Won life-long glory in battle,
by the edges of swords, around Brunanburh.

Those heirs of Edward split the shield wall

Hewed the war-shields with the leavings of hammers Because their nobility came
to them from their ancestors, They defended the land against each of enemies,
Protected the treasure, and the homes.

The Battle of Maldon depicts a battle fought against the Danes in 991.

The mind must be the firmer, the heart must be the braver, the courage must
be the greater, as our strength grows less. Here lies out lord all cut to pieces, the
good man on the ground. If anyone thinks now to turn away from this war-play,
may he be unhappy forever after.


The spirit of the Anglo-Saxons was a melancholic one, the hardships of their lives
and the unfriendly weather, the perils of their times and the violence and
insecurity surrounding them left their mark on their spirit, and consequently, on
their poetry. Their lyrical poems are mostly elegies, united by common themes,
such as uprootedness, solitude, sadness and lamentation, exile or social
disgrace. They lament a life of isolation, exile, emptiness and solitude, the
transitory character of life and glory.

They saw their lives dominated by an unforgiving fate or wyrd (Fate remains
wholly inexorable in

The Wanderer; Fate goes ever as she shall! in Beowulf). Most of these poems
are to be found in the Exeter Book, an old manuscript copied at the end of the
10th century, though there is still a debate over where it was copied from.

Widsith (The Far-Traveler) is a poem about a scop who travelled long and wide,
was welcomed by kings and given gifts. It is interesting to notice the fact that
art, mainly poetry, was valued at the time. Similarly, we can devise, from
Widsiths story, the fact that the people in the early Middle Ages were not
isolated, but continuously in contact with the world.

Deors Lament is the lament of a minstrel replaced by a rival.

The anxious, grieving man deprived of joy,

Lives with a darkened min; it seems to him His share of sorrows will be everlasting;

Once I was a minstrel of the Heodenings, Dear to my patron, and my name was
Deor. I held for many years a fine position

And loyal lord, until Heorrenda now, That skilful poet, has received my lands, Which
once my lord and master gave me.

That passed away, and so may this from me.

The Ruin is a poem of sad contemplation of the ruin of an ancient burg which
allows for a meditation on the flow of Time, destroyer of glory and splendor.

The Wanderer is the story of a man who lost his lord, being now alone, prone to
dangers from the outside, and sadness due to lack of friends and comfort.

The Seafarer describes the perils of those who travel the sea, but the main idea
is that solitude and exile are good for the soul, when they are embraced
voluntarily, making a willing sacrifice for the love of God..

A man who is happy on the land will not understand how I, wretched and
miserably sad, have for years followed the exile path on the ice-cold sea,
deprived of my kin, hung all about with rime-ice. Hail fell in showers.


At times I only heard the roaring sea, the ice-cold wave. At times the song of the
swan came to me instead of peoples laughter, the gannets cry and the curlews
song in place of the mead-drinking.

The Wifes Lament is a story of a woman separated from her husband by the evil
relatives, being one of the extremely few poems about women in Anglo-Saxon

I force out this song, tell about my sorrowing self. I can tell what miseries, new
and old, I have endured since I grew upnever more than

now. Always I have sufered torment in my exile-paths.

First my lord departed away from his people, over the play of the waves. I had
sorrow at dawn about where my lord was, and so I went wandering, to seek a
following, and my mans kin schemed secretly to separate us so that we two
must be miserably apart in the world. And I longed for him.




God's servant,

find those cattle,

and fetch those cattle,
and take those cattle,
and keep those cattle,
and bring those cattle home.
So he have no land
to lead them of to,
nor solid ground
to stand them up on,
nor any house

in which to hide them.

If any should do so,
may it get him nowhere.
Within three nights
I will know his might,

his strength and his skill, and his style of protection. May he be withered as wood
is consumed,

as frail as a thistle,

he who devises to drive of these cattle,

or thinks to steal anything of mine.

Amen. (Charm for the Theft of Cattle)


I am a lonely being, scarred by swords, Wounded by iron, sated with battle deeds,
Wearied by blades. Often I witness war, Perilous fight, nor hope for consolation, That
any help may rescue me from strife

Before I perish among fighting men. (A Shield)


This type of poetry drew its sources from the Bible, the lives of saints, visions
coming upon people. Although they are rewritings of Biblical stories, the main
preoccupations of the Anglo-Saxons still pervade the religious poetry that focuses
on courage, military conflicts and battle victories. Christ himself becomes a
warrior fighting the forces of darkness (Christ and Satan), whereas Judith (Judith)
is a fierce female warrior fighting the Grendel-like monster, the invader
Holofernes. In the Genesis, Adams fall is depicted as a transgression not unlike
the betrayal of a thane to his lord.

The Dream of the Rood (The Vercelli Book) is considered one of the most
exquisite poems in Anglo-Saxon literature. It tells the story of the rood, the cross
on which Christ was crucified using the trope of prosopopoeia (the inanimate
object speaks, in this case, the cross tells its story). It is interesting to notice how
the Christian story was made to fit the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture. Therefore,
the cross is the thane and Christ is the lord, and so, the cross has to protect and
obey the lord. However, the lord asked the cross to assist him in his death. Christ
is seen like a valiant warrior courageously embracing his


death, whereas the cross is, alternatively, an object bedecked in jewels and an
instrument of torture covered in blood.

Caedmon (second half of the 7th century), according to Bede, was the first known
Anglo-Saxon poet. He was a simple, uneducated man who could not sing. During
a fest, he received a vision from an angel of God who told him to sing and praise
the Lord. We do not know for sure what poems were his. Critics connected the
manuscripts they found in the Junius Book having the same subjects Bede said
Caedmon wrote about (Genesis A and B, Exodus, etc.).

Now we must praise the Protector of the heavenly kingdom

The might of the Measurer and His mind's purpose,

the work of the Father of Glory, as He for each of the wonders, the eternal Lord,
established a beginning.

He shaped first for the sons of the Earth heaven as a roof, the Holy Maker;
then the MiddleWorld

mankind's Guardian, the eternal Lord, made afterwards, solid ground for men,
the almighty Lord.

Cynewulf (? 750-? 825) almost certainly wrote The Fates of the Apostles and
Elene in the Vercelli Book, and Christ and Juliana to be found in the Exeter Book,
since all these four poems share the same stylistic and thematic characteristic.
He is the first to sign his poems by adding runes in the text that was written in
Latin alphabet. If one extracts the runes from a text, the name of poet appears.
While Caedmon was more interested in Biblical subjects, Cynewulf wrote poems
on the events of the calendar. Unlike typical Anglo-Saxon poetry, he is not
interested in depicting deeds of valor and battles, whereas his female characters,
saints and martyrs, are more prominent, taking into account the fact that women
generally lack from Old English poetry.

Mankind/Cynewulf will pass sorrowing away. The king, the giver of victories, will
be wrathful when stained with sins, the sheep (Cynewulf) await what he wills to
decree to them according to their deeds as reward for their life Cynewulf will
tremble and temporize, miserably anxious.(from Christ, example of a signed text)

The prose writing in the AS period was mostly religious or historical.

The Venerable Bede (672-735)

King Alfred the Great (859-901)

Translations from Bede, Pope Gregory the Great, Orosius, Boethius from Latin into

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The king is considered to have had a great influence
on this chronicle.

Aelfric- wrote religious writings in prose, such as The Homilies (990-4) and Lives
of Saints (993-6). He wrote in Old English the meaning of the first seven books of
the Bible, in an alliterative style still considered one of the best in Old English.

Edmund the Blessed, King of East Anglia, was wise and worthy, and exalted
among the noble servants of the almighty God. He was humble and virtuous and
remained so resolute that he would not turn to shameful vices, nor would he
bend his morality in any way, but was ever-mindful of the true teaching: If you
are installed as a ruler, dont puf yourself up, but be among men just like one of
them. He was charitable to poor folks and widows, just like a father, and with
benevolence he guided his people always towards righteousness, and restrained
the cruel, and lived happily in the true faith. (Alfrics Life of Saint Edmund)





The world of the Middle Ages is much more active and fascinating than it might
appear at first sight, and so it definitely disproves the name of dark ages.
Major changes occurring up to the 13th century:

Stability of political conditions;

Development of trade and agriculture, development of towns and the gradual

rise of the bourgeoisie;
Chivalry, the knights code, courtly literature with a taste for luxury and

Gothic architecture;

New religious orders coming with a new religious sensibility (esp. expressed in
the cult of the Virgin Mary);

Revival in the taste for classical literature (the 12 th century Renaissance);

Development of education in cathedral schools and later in the first universities

(Paris, Oxford);

The Mediterranean Sea becomes more open to the Europeans (the beginning of
the Crusades) who become acquainted to the Muslim world and, through them,
with the Greek world, resulting in the rediscovery of Aristotle and the start of the
age of scholasticism.



The Medieval period in England stretches from the Norman period (1100-1150) to
the end of the War of the Roses (1487). The Norman Conquest was a conquest of
the land but also one of the arts. The language of the Anglo-Saxons, especially in
the realm of politics, administration, law and culture was replaced by the French
language spoken by the new king and his lords and by Latin, the language of the
church. As a result, for several centuries, literature was trilingual, as French, Latin
and English were used. In the domestic world, many families were, at least for a
while, bilingual, as they needed to learn the language of the conquerors while
they kept their own dialect.

By the second half of the fourteenth century the fusion between the Normans
and the English was already completed and English became the official language
of the court and parliament. In 1362, for instance, the Parliament opened its
session in English. The increasing use of the English language also comes as a
result of the growing hostility between England and France. However, even if
during the reign of Richard II (1372-1398) English gained equal literary
importance to French, there was still no fixed English standard. The great writers
of the period, namely William Langland, Geoffrey Chaucer and the Gawain poet,
wrote in three dialects: the Worcestershire English, the London dialect and that of
the Stafford-Cheshire border, respectively. There were also other dialects in use.
Even London English was a mixture of dialects. The introduction of the printing
press in 1476 helped spread a literary standard, that of the London English,
under the Tudors (1485-1603). The Kings English was disseminated through
religious books, such as the authorized version of the Bible (King James Bible,
1611), but the spelling was fully standardized only after Dr. Johnsons Dictionary
of 1755.

The Norman Conquest brought about a change in literary tastes as well. The new
aristocracy preferred a different type of literature, thus widening the cultural
borders of the Anglo-Saxon world towards a modern literary model shared by
other European cultures. There are formal changes as well as thematic changes.
Among the formal changes, the most evident is the replacement of the old
alliterative style with rhymed patterns, whereas the aristocratic character of
literature becomes evident in a different choice of themes and characters,
replacing the heroic and elegiac spirit of the Anglo-Saxons with a courtly
literature, romances of chivalry, whose focus is on love and adventure, or
allegories, in the search of deeper meaning, of a moral or spiritual sort, under the
surface of things.

For a long time, especially during the Anglo-Norman period, literature was written
mainly in French or in Latin, since literature was either produced for the court,
where French was used, or in monasteries and religious centers, in which case
Latin was favored.

It does not mean, however, that the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition disappears
completely. The Anglo-Saxon prose tradition represented by Aelfric and Wulfstan
influenced the writing of the Ancrene


Wisse and the alliterative poetry is still present in Layamons Brut, for instance.
The Anglo-Saxon tradition survived, but it no longer occupied the central



The early Middle Ages in England are marked by the coexistence of the AngloSaxon culture with the Norman culture. It is usually referred to as the AngloNorman period, stretching from the

Norman Conquest to the beginning of the Hundred Years War (1337) a period of
transition that is still extremely important because of: a) the language change
and the passage from Old English to what is known as Middle English, clearly
influenced by the contact with the French language spoken by the conquerors
and with the Latin used by the Church; and b) the change in artistic taste, again
clearly influenced by the Norman and French aristocracy, with a stressed impact,
in literature, on the transformation of style, language, tone, themes and


The Vikings had not attacked only England, but also France. They had already
occupied the territory of upper Normandy, and the Franks had to give them
control over more land in present-day France. Their king was converted to
Christianity (912) and he adopted the language, customs, laws, religion, political
organization and war methods of the Franks. These Vikings started being,
henceforward, known as THE NORMANS, men of Normandy the land of the
Nordmanni or the Norsemen. They were those who, a century later, would
conquer England, subdue the Anglo-Saxons, and exert a tremendous influence on
all cultural, social and political aspects, from language and literature to laws,
administration, or social structure. When they conquered England, the Normans
already had a hierarchical feudal system and a well-organized army.


After the conquest, William was careful not to make the same mistake the King of
France had made, namely, give too much land to the noblemen without keeping
any of it to himself. The result of the French King's actions was that the lords,
such as the duke of Normandy, were extremely powerful and the King found it
hard to control them. So, William divided the land of the territory he conquered
between his lords and the Church, keeping also land to himself. The political
system that he introduced was relatively similar to the Anglo-Saxon system,
since the feudal allegiance of the vassal to his lord was in many ways similar to
the loyalty pledged by the thane to his lord.

The medieval system was a hierarchical system, the society being divided in
oratores, bellatores and laboratores, namely the clergy, the noblemen / warriors
and those who work. This division of the society and the justification for the
unequal separation of people in social groups is given with the help of religion,
regarding social inequality as part of Gods hierarchical ordering of the universe
from Him down to angels, men, women, animals, plants and minerals. In this
system, the King is the most important person, having the loyalty of this subjects
and the support of the Church that has the power to

ordain him.

The feudal system introduced by the Norman conquerors is such a hierarchical

system based on two rules: 1. the ownership of land; and 2. the loyalty of
vassals. The king was connected, as if through a

chain to all his people since, at each level of the society, a man had to promise
loyalty and service to a lord. This homage meant that, in return of the land
given by the lord, the vassal promises service and goods, consisting of military
service or rent and products. The group of people situated the lowest in society
were the serfs, who did not have any land and were bound to the land of their
lord, being little more than slaves.

William wanted to know exactly who owned the land and he had a complete
economic survey made regarding the ownership of land, the number of people,
the livestock, and so on. This document was called the Doomsday Book and is a
valuable source of information about England at that time.

The Anglo-Norman kings strengthened their power, keeping the noblemen under
control and they consolidated their influence in France as well, where they
acquired even more territories, through


conquest, inheritance or marriage, up to the point when King Henry II controlled

more land in France than his lord, the King of France. Unfortunately, his followers
were less worthy, and his son, John Lackland, lost his fathers French possessions,
including even Normandy. He was also forced to sign, in 1215, the document
called Magna Carta, through which the noblemen restricted the absolute
authority of the king marking the decay of the feudal system.


The culture and mentality of the time were dominated by a number of

institutions: a) the King and the noblemen, b) the Church and c) the Universities.

The Kings court as well as the courts of some powerful noblemen became
centers of culture. The kings commissioned artists, poets, musicians to their
court. Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122 or 1124 1204 ), king Henry IIs wife or Richard
II (1357 1400) were rulers who encouraged art, their courts becoming cultural
centers setting the trend in literature and art. The kings and the noblemen
became patrons of art and artists could create under their support and

The Church was, however, the most influential institution in the promotion of
literature and art. The growth of literacy was dependent on the schools founded
by monasteries, so learning was mostly religious. Other branches of art such as
architecture, sculpture, wood-carving, wall-painting, stained glass, enamel,
jewelry, embroidery, book production, writing, illumination and music developed
under the patronage of the church. Medieval drama developed from the
performances destined to various church celebrations and they were
reenactments of biblical tales meant to spread the gospel to the laity. The
chronicles were written by monks, keeping the record of the historical events of
their time. There is no wonder, therefore, that some of the best writers and
writings of the time were religious, such as Langlands Piers the Plowman, or
Julian of Norwich.

Starting with the 12th century, the intellectual initiative passes to Universities.
Oxford university was founded in 1167 and Cambridge around 1284.




The chronicles preserve their importance from Anglo-Saxon times. The AngloSaxon Chronicle, for instance, was still updated in the 12th century, in 1154. The
Benedictine chroniclers were the most active in writing chronicles, at least until
the end of the 13th century. Though many remain unknown, history still preserves
some names such as that of William of Malmesbury (c.1196/96 c.1143), author,
among others, of the Gesta Regum Anglorum (449-1127). The chronicler sees
himself as a continuator of Bede, of whom he appears to be a great admirer and
takes into consideration, in writing his chronicle, both written sources and other
types of evidence, such as visual proof, material remains, architecture.

Another example is that of Matthew Paris (c. 1200-1259), who gave ample details
about contemporary life (he lived during the reign of Henry III: 1207-1272) in his
Chronica Majora, though imbued with his own personal ideas, which makes him
rather unreliable, at times.

The last great Benedictine chronicler was Thomas Walsingham (d. 1422),
covering mostly the events connected with the reigns of Richard II (1367-1400)
and Henry IV (1366-1413). In spite of a biased attitude, he is still the major
source of information on important events such as the Peasants


Probably the most famous chronicler was Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100 - 1154),
especially with his Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain),
an extremely famous history of England though, today, considered unreliable.
This chronicle is rather a compilation of various sources gathered by the cleric
and imbued with his own fantasy and not a translation of an ancient book in the
British language as the author pretends. Whatever it might be and however
unreliable it may be considered nowadays, this text stands at the basis of other
literary works that drew inspiration from it (like those of Gorboduc, Lear and
Cymbeline, for instance). His greatest influence, however, remains in the creation
of the Arthurian myth, of the Round Table and of Merlin as well as of the legend
that the founder of Britain is Brut, a descendent of Aeneas.



The idea of courtly love was a widely-spread conception of the Middle Ages and it
envisaged the love between the chevalier / the knight and the mistress as being
led by a set of complicated rules.

In an aristocratic world in which marriage had nothing to do with love, being often
more influenced by politics, the fulfillment of these emotions would be possible only
between unmarried individuals.

The complicated behaviors required by courtly love are connected with the behavior
accepted within the feudal system between the lord and the knights. In other words,
the relationship of loyalty and obedience established between the lord and his
knight is transferred to the relationship between the knight and the lady he loves,
the latter having the superior position of the lord. The knight, therefore, has to
demonstrate that he is worthy of the ladys love through honorable and courageous
deeds, and by doing whatever is required of him. The texts combine love with the
spirit of adventure. As far as the English literary context is concerned, the Arthurian
legends are the most popular texts connected to the spirit of love and adventure
required by courtly literature.

Henry IIs wife, Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, was the one who brought this
conception to the English court, by encouraging the presence of poets and
troubadours to sing these love romances. It is very likely, therefore, that French
writers such as Marie de France and Chretien de Troyes might have written some of
their texts in England. Marie de France wrote one text explicitly referring to the
Arthurian cycle, entitled Lanval, whereas Chretien de Troyes Yvain, Lancelot,
Perceval or Le Conte du Graal became so famous that they were translated in
English and influenced later writers of the Middle Ages, such as Chaucer, Gower, or
Thomas Malory.

The English romances are visibly influenced by the literary conventions brought to
England by the Norman and French noblemen and their artists, but the most famous
are connected to stories about the birth of the nation: the legendary king Brutus,
descendant from Aeneas and founder of Britain and King Arthur and his knights.


ROMANCE. In OF romaunt/ roman meant approximately, 'courtly romance in verse' or any

popular book'. Thus romances in verse (and to start with most of them were in verse) were
works of fiction, or non-historical. In the 13th c. a romance was almost any song of adventure
story be it of chivalry or of love. Gradually more and more romances were written in prose.
Whatever else a romance may be (or have been) it is principally a form of entertainment. It
may also be didactic but this is usually incidental. It is usually concerned with characters
(and thus with events) who live in a courtly world somewhat remote from the everyday. This
suggests elements of fantasy, improbability, extravagance and naivety. It also suggests
elements of love, adventure, the marvelous and the 'mythic'. For the most part the term is
used rather loosely to describe a narrative of heroic or spectacular achievements, of chivalry
of gallant love, of deeds of derring-do.

In medieval romance there were three main cycles:

the matter of Britain, which included Arthurian matter derived from Breton lays;
the matter of Rome, which included stories of Alexander, the Trojan wars and Thebes;

the matter of France, most of which was about Charlemagne and his knights.
(J.A. Cuddon, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms)

The genre of romance is resistant to definition, nowhere more so than in its manifestation in
medieval England.

Gestes, if the term refers to epic narratives, can be seen as too heroic, the layes of the
Breton tradition too lyrical. It is not the purpose of this chapter to adopt any demarcation
that excludes such important contributions to the narrative literature of the period; rather we
will work with a recent definition that is also one of the simplest, the principal secular
literature of entertainment of the Middle Ages. (The Cambridge History of Medieval English

LAY/ LAI. A short narrative or lyrical poem intended to be sung. The oldest narrative lays are
the Contes of Marie de France (c. 1175). They were stories of romance believed to have been
based on Celtic legends. The lyric lays were Provencal and usually had love themes. The
term 'Breton lay' was applied to 14th c. English poems with a Breton setting and similar to
those by Marie de France. A dozen or more are extant in English, the best known being Sir
Orfeo, Haveloc the Dane, Sir Laanval and Chaucer's Franklin's Tale.) (J.A. Cuddon, The
Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms)

The Lais of Marie de France were economically enigmatic tales of love and magic, focusing

female action. They created in the Breton lai an alternative to the long narratives of war and
chivalry. (The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Literature)

The preference for romance characterizes the passage from the Anglo-Saxon
world, with its heroic epics to the Norman civilization. The epic describes heroic
battles and the heroes need to fight monsters to save their
kingdoms/communities. The idea of the hero includes that of savior of his nation
or tribe or clan. He needs to be valiant, skilful, honorable, just and loyal and he
fights because he must; there is no other choice to save his nation. The
romances pertain to a more refined age in which the quest, the adventure and
the danger in facing supernatural beings is a matter of choice not of instinct of
survival. The romance is a form of entertainment of the aristocracy, and the hero
no longer fights for his nation, but for an ideal.

The French chanson de geste stands at the basis of the later English romances.
The chanson de geste (song of deeds) describes the adventures of the
Carolingian noblemen, their wars with the Saracens or among themselves,
intrigues and rebellion. They are all based on a code of chivalry reflecting the
ages conception of the ideal relationship between the lord and the knights
connected with both social and religious duties. The medieval romances are
closely connected with the chansons de geste, and are stories of adventure or
of love including real and supernatural elements.

The first Middle English writing to discuss the legend of King Arthur and the
Knights of the Round Table is Layamons Brut (c. 1200). Layamon, an English
clergyman, was influenced by the French Roman de Brut composed by the
Norman poet Wace, who, in turn, based his text on Geoffrey of Monmouths
History of the British Kings. The poem is named after the legendary Brutus of
Troy, grandson of Aeneas and, allegedly founder of Britain, named after him. A
part of the poem is dedicated to the life and exploits of King Arthur, a courageous
and noble warrior, defender of Christianity, of law and order, generous, courteous
and sensible, with a wondrous birth and a mysterious death.

Layamon tries to unite the old and the new, adapting the sound of the Old
English verse to the new requirements of rhyme and rhythm. He retains the Old
English tradition being also, the first one to make extensive use of the French

In general, however, English romances, which are, in general, translations,

adaptations, rewritings and copies of French romances are simpler and more
direct. They are closely connected to the French lays. The first one that survived
the test of time is King Horn (c. 1225), followed by Floris and Blanchefleur (early
13th century), Haveloc the Dane (c. 1300), Bevis of Hampton, Guy of Warwick and
Sir Orfeo.

Four texts are attributed to a poet whose name is not known, but who seems to
have composed four exquisite works: Pearl, Purity or Cleanness, Patience and Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight. Nothing is known of the life of the poet, but his
works are considered some of the finest English literary pieces of the period,
Pearl, an elegy, Purity and Patience, verse homilies or religious meditations and
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a romance belonging to the Arthurian cycle.
Due to his knowledge of aristocratic literary conventions as well as details of the
life of the noblemen, from clothing, armors and weapons, architecture, dishes
and entertainment such as hunting, hawking or chess, it is believed that he
might have been close to a noblemans court. He also knew the Bible and was
familiar to the language of the lawyer, courtier, priest, or lover. The imagery that
he uses in his poems is complex and sophisticated, sometimes employing
concrete images for abstract ideas (like the hunted animals in Sir Gawain as
symbolic for the three qualities of his souls). He also alludes to allegory, drawing
on the allegorical religious writings. His symbols are sophisticated and complex,
like Gawains shield that does not point only to Gawains virtues but calls to mind
the virtues of chivalric life and the conflict between Christian virtues and love
depicted in the poem. There are several conjectures about his profession, from
priest or chaplain to lawyer, but nothing is certain except the fact that he had a
daughter who died and which prompted the writing of the poem Pearl.

The poems belong to the alliterative renaissance, which was a fourteenth century
revival of the old Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetic tradition. In fact, the scarcity of
manuscripts or other types of proofs from the period after the Norman Conquest
to the fourteenth century might suggest that the alliterative poetry might have
never disappeared in the oral tradition in the Midlands (Northeast) and it was
only in the 14th century that such alliterative texts were written down. In other
words, the very existence of such poems is seen by some critics as a proof of the
continuation of the Anglo-Saxon tradition. The existence of other alliterative 14 th
century texts suggests that the alliterative conventions used by the Gawain-poet
are not unique, but part of the wider tradition. However, his works also testify of
a remarkable talent


and subtlety, his poetry ranking among the finest pieces not only of the period
but also of English poetry in general.

Sir Gawain, King Arthurs nephew is, probably, alongside Perceval, the most
famous knight in the Arthurian cycle. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he
appears as an ideal knight, an embodiment of chivalric values, loyal, honest and
courteous. During the story, Sir Gawain needs to past through a series of trials
that test different virtues that a knight is supposed to possess.

The story begins with Gawain proving his loyalty to king Arthur, by accepting, in
the place of his king, a game set by a mysterious Green Knight and thus save the
kings life while putting his own in danger.

Would you grant me the grace,

To be gone from this bench and stand by you there, If I without discourtesy might
quit this board,...

I am the weakest, well I know, and of wit feeblest; And the loss of my life would
be least of any; That I have you for uncle is my only praise;

My body, but for your blood, is barren of worth; And for that this folly befits not a
And 'tis I that have asked it, it ought to be mine,

And if my claim be not comely let all this court judge, in sight. (Norton

This is the first glimpse of his character, in which he demonstrates his loyalty to
the lord as well as his modesty.

The year passes quickly and saddened by the prospect of going to death, he
takes his horse and armor. He is given a shield: on the outside it has a fivepointed star, the Pentangle, or endless knot, a symbol perfectly appropriate
for Gawain. Each point represents five virtues: he is faultless in his five senses,

unfailing in his five fingers, devoted to Christs five wounds (received on the
Cross), and supported by the five joys of Mary, and he is a master of five virtues
generosity, good fellowship, purity, courtesy, and charity. (The pentangle is also,
traditionally, a symbol used to ward off black magic.) On the inside of the shield
he has an image of the Virgin, who gives him strength in battle. The shield
becomes one of the controlling symbols of the poem, the outside representing
the "visible" virtues that the knight shows to the world, namely his duty to
defend the social and religious order, while the inside of the shield is a reflection
of his inner self, the humility that he needs to preserve.

He roams the country in search of the Green Chapel and he fights monsters and
foes, though the worst foe is winter as he needs to sleep in his armor. He prays to
the Virgin Mary to guide him to a resting place and soon he sees a castle on a
hill. It is strange and mysterious, all white as if cut from a piece of paper. He is
welcomed by the lord of the Castle, given clothes and invited to the table. He
also meets the two ladies of the castle: one is extremely beautiful and the other
is very ugly. The old ugly lady is a witch (Morgan le Fay) and the young is the
castles lady, Lord Bercilaks wife. Bercilak tells him the

Green Chapel is nearby and he can stay till the New Year. In the meantime, being
tired, Gawain can remain in the castle to keep the ladys company while Bercilak
rides out to hunt. However, he has to accept a game of exchanging gifts with
Bercilak whatever each wins in his adventures must give it freely to the other.
There are three days and tests, and while the host hunts deer, boar and fox, the
lady tempts Gawain. First, lured by the lady, receives a kiss, then two, then three.
When the host returns, he exchanges the kiss(es) but does not tell how he got it.
As the test is continued, the advances of the lady are bolder. Gawain resists out
of respect for the host and concern for his good name (obeying the knightly
virtues). The lady persuades him to accept a gift, a magical sash or green girdle
supposed to protect the wearer. Even if he swore to exchange gifts, Gawain does
not give Bercilak the green girdle, thus failing to keep his oath. There is a
parallelism between the three hunted animals and Gawains behavior, first he is
scared like a deer, then he is bold like the boar in resisting the lady, and then he
is cunning like the fox.

On the New Years Day, Gawain leaves the castle to go to the Green Chapel. He
wears the girdle not out of vanity, but to save his life. If the shield symbolized his
virtues, the girdle symbolizes the fall, because it is a constant reminder of his
failure to keep his oath. The Green Knight does not cut his throat, but only
scratches his skin. Eventually, Bercilak reveals himself as the Green Knight and
says that the girdle was his property. However, he forgives Gawain for failing the
test, saying that he is,


after all, an honorable man and that he was only trying to do whatever he could
to save his life and did not keep the girdle for glory. However, Gawain is
devastated and ashamed, feelings that are deepened when he learns that the
whole trick was planned by Morgan le Fay, the old lady, who wanted to frighten
lady Guinevere by sending the Green Knight to Camelot.

Upon his return home, King Arthur and the other knights do not condemn him for
this failure, considering that he emerged victorious from the tests. However,
Gawain holds the standard of knightly perfection extremely high, and he is
unable to forgive himself and to be rid of the sense of shame and of failure. The
green girdle that he received as a sign of Bercilaks forgiveness for his
trespassing is, for him, a symbol of his failure:

"But your girdle, God love you! I gladly shall take And be pleased to possess, not for
the pure gold, Nor the bright belt itself, nor the beauteous pendants,

Nor for wealth, nor worldly state, nor workmanship fine, But a sign of excess it
shall seem oftentimes

When I ride in renown, and remember with shame the faults and frailty of the
flesh perverse,

How its tenderness entices the foul taint of sin;

And so when praised and high prowess have pleased my heart, A look at this
love-lace will lower my pride.

But one thing would I learn, if you were not loath,

Since you are lord of yonder land where I have long sojourned With honor in your
house-may you have His reward

That upholds all the heavens, highest on throne! How runs your right name?-and
let the rest go."

In the readers eyes, this failure is only meant to make him more human. The
Gawain poet, however, does not make him err beyond pardon, since his mistake
is not committed for lust, but for the love of life, the less, then, to blame. In the
end, he alone is the one who cannot forgive himself, and, upon his return home,
he presents the girdle as a sign of shame, thinking that the sin once committed,
will never be forgiven.

It is interesting to notice how the story is drawn in such a way as to question the
validity of ready-made ideals and constructions. The real test for Sir Gawain is
not the test that one knight would expect, a test in courage and valor; he would
have passed such a test. It is a test of his virtues, a moral dilemma that he needs
to solve: remain true to the promise made to his lord or honor the requests of the
noble lady, both being rules in the chivalric code that he is supposed to obey. His
failure suggests the frailty of human constructions, Sir Gawain being disillusioned
not only by his own reactions and mistakes, but also learning that everything was
a ruse set by Arthurs step-sister and enemy, Morgan le Fay, who created a test
for King Arthurs court. So, in the end, everything was a game, but that game
revealed to himself his weakness and made it impossible for him to forget his
own transgression. By losing his blind trust that the chivalric code will always
support him and help him find a solution to any danger or dilemma, Gawain loses
his innocence. The laughter of the King and of the knights at the end, when he
presents the girdle and confesses his sin as well as their decision to all wear
green girdles sound rather ironic and seem to contradict Gawains sincere
distress and loss of faith in his own worth.


Poetry was the genre in which the linguistic change as well as that in artistic
taste was the most evident. The old alliterative style was replaces by regular
lines, containing a precise number of syllables and an end-rhyme.

As far as the tone and atmosphere are concerned, the somber, melancholic
vision of the Anglo-Saxons was replaced by a more joyful spirit, a brighter view of
life indebted to the French love and adventure poems.

The hundreds of poems that remained in manuscripts can be only roughly dated,
but the authors are unknown. In general, they are popular songs and poems on
different topics

The poem The Cockoos Song (c. 1250) is believed to be the earliest English lyric
and it is a good example of the shift in tone and atmosphere from Anglo-Saxon
poetry to medieval lyrics.


SUMER is icumen in,

Summer has come in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Loud sing cuckoo!
Groweth sed, and bloweth med,
Grows seed and blows mead
And springth the wude nu-And blossoms the wood now
Sing cuccu!
Sing cuckoo!
Awe bleteth after lomb,
The ewe bleats after the lamb,
Lhouth after calve cu;
The cow lowes after the calf;
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
The bullock leaps, the buck jumps,
Murie sing cuccu!
Merily sing cuckoo!
Cuccu, cuccu, well singes thu, cuccu:
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well singeth thou, cuckoo:
Ne swike thu naver nu;
Never cease now;
Sing cuccu, nu, sing cuccu,
Sing, cuckoo, now sing, cuckoo,
Sing cuccu, sing cuccu, nu!
Sing, cuckoo, sing, cuckoo, now

The change in the spirit of the poem is evident, the dark view of nature that was
visible in poems such as The Seafarer, is replaced here with the beauty of spring
and of the rebirth of nature, the joy produced by the blossoming of woods and
meadows, the spirit of youth and the energy transmitted through the presence of
playful animals and the regeneration of nature with the mention of sheep and cow
with their babies.

Formally, the drop of inflections allows the possibility of end-rhymes, whereas the
poem is organized in stanzas, with lines of approximately equal number of

The poems had different topics. The Song of the Husbandman (c. 1350), for
instance, is a satire against lords that own the land and impoverish the country. It
was probably connected to the spirit around the Peasants Revolt (1381).

For might is right, Light is night, And fight is fight,

For might is right, the land is lawless, For light is night, the land is loreless, For
flight is fight, the land is nameless.

The Owl and the Nightingale, an anonymous poem from the middle of the 13 th
century (c. 1250), epitomizes the medieval spirit, with its scholastic philosophy,
based on debate and analysis, the preference for allegory and the beast-fable form.
The debate between an owl and a nightingale is a debate between the old and the
new, asceticism and joie de vivre, isolation and social life. However, it is quite
difficult to see it simply as an allegory, since the two sides represented in the poem
are just characters, neither one being placed in a central and commanding position
but merely exposing its side of the story and so they function more like characters
than emblems.

In a valley, in springtime, a poet once heard a quarrel between an own and a

nightingale. The owl, sitting on a bough covered in ivy appears to the nightingale
that sits on a blossomed branch, as an ugly, gloomy, pompous, dirty, nasty
creature with a wretched howling that frightens all the other birds. The poem ends
with the decision of the two birds to find an arbitrator of their dispute, one Nicholas
of Guildford, since the owl refuses to engage in useless verbal attacks against the
nightingale, but the author of the poem breaks of before we manage to find out the
result, so, the dispute remains opened to further debate.


Fundamentally, the ballad is a song that tells a story. They are oral compositions
composed in an unaffected, simple, straightforward style to be enjoyed by the
simpler audiences. The medieval English ballads are popular creations, anonymous
and they were probably accompanied by music. Though ballads have been
composed through centuries, there are some elements that are maintained: a) the
beginning is often abrupt and, in general, they deal with a single episodes, the
events leading to the crisis


adding up swiftly; b) the story is usually dramatic: revenge, murder, war, tragic
love; c) the language is simple, the story is usually rendered through dialogue
and action and there is often a refrain; d) they are usually structured in four-line

There are different types of ballads, but Medieval English ballads can be grouped
in fie main categories:
Ballads of love and jealousy (The Nut-Brown Maid)

Ballads bout religious subjects (Judas)

Ballads about the supernatural events (The Wife of Ushers Well)

Ballads about outlaws (the Robin Hood ballads)

Ballads about the rivalry between the English and the Scots - the Border Ballads
(Chevy Chase)




The fourteenth century in Europe is a period marked by plague, economic

problems and famine, wars and natural disaster that ended the long period of
economic growth and cultural expansion in Europe. England as well was marked
by a series of historical events with great influence not only on the political life in
England, but also on English mentality and culture.

Internal Wars. King Edward I (1239-1307) tried to put an end to the continuous
conflict between the king and the barons that had marked the reign of his father
and create a powerful monarchy. He also subjected the Welsh and started a war
against Scotland. His son was unable to maintain his achievements but his
grandson, Edward III (1312-1377) restored the royal authority, started the war
with France and renewed the wars against Scotland. His grandson, unfortunately,
did not prove to be as heroic. King Richard II (1377 1399- deposed by Henry IV)
was more interested in arts and culture, and was far from the martial stature of
his predecessors. Richard II was a firm believer in the royal prerogatives and the
court culture that he encouraged was meant to emphasize the power and dignity
of the king, in a similar way to the treatment of monarchy in the great European
courts. His patronage of literature is extremely important since it was in his time
that the English language took its shape and many of the great writers of the age
thrived at his court. That is why the poetry written in his time receives the name
of Ricardian poetry

The Hundred Years War (1337-1453) had a tremendous influence over the way in
which both the English and the French nations started defining their national
identity, after a period of dynastic struggles and claims. The military conflict
enhances the idea of Englishness and English nation in a country that had
long been influenced by the French language and culture. This War also marks
the beginning of the end of chivalric warfare, due to the introduction of new
weapons and tactics, such as the English longbow in front of which the knights
heavy armours were practically inefficient. The fact that the previously
undefeatable knights could be killed by the peasants in the infantry, without the
honour of the knight to knight single combat changed the rules of chivalry
and the laws governing wars. Several English victories mark this period. The first
one is Edward IIIs victory at Crecy (1346) followed by the 1356 victory at
Poitiers. Unfortunately, the line of heroic kings and princes to win battles on the
French front ends with the death of Edward III and of his son The Black Prince.

The Black Death (1348-1350). The plague in Europe decimated the population of
the Middle Ages drastically altering the structure of the society through radical
diminution and dislocations within the medieval structure and agricultural
depression caused by the lack of land-workers, the ruin of much of the
aristocracy and peasant revolts. The plague, represented by successive outbursts
of epidemic dominated the medieval mind that was obsessed with illness and
death. It produced profound changes in the means of production, in the social
structure, in the life of people in general and in their mentality and the manner in
which they viewed life and death, and their relationship to God.

The Peasants Revolt (1381) led by Watt Tyler signals the decay of feudalism and
serfdom in England. Even though it was a failure, being crushed by the king, it
however led to an increasing awareness of the imperative to reform.

1370: Geoffrey Chaucer, The Book of the Duchess

c. 1377: William Langland, Piers Plowman

c. 1382-5: Geoffrey Chaucer: Troilus and Criseyde

c. 1387: Chaucer begins the Canterbury Tales; John Gower begins Confessio Amantis;
popularity of

Mystery Plays evident from Chaucers Millers Tale c. 1390: The Gawain manuscript

c. 1413: Julian of Norwich finishes the short version of the Revelations c. 1438: Margery
Kempe finished her Book




In a world dominated by the Church, spiritual writings were, naturally, abundant.

The Middle Ages are a period of development of the religious fervour,
encouraged by the construction of monasteries that become centres of culture
and by the foundation of new monk orders. Spiritual writings had existed in
England since The Dream of the Rood, the vision poem being one of the
favourite genres in Anglo-Saxon Christian literature. The influence of writers such
as St. Bernard de Clairvaux (1090 - 1153) or St. Bonaventure (1221 - 1274)
shows that there was a circulation of people and ideas all across Europe, through
books, monks sent to different monasteries or pilgrimages undertook by simple
people as well as by people of the Church. Ailred of Rielvaux (1110 1167),
Richard Rolle (c. 1300 - 1349), Walter Hilton (d. 1379) or the anonymous spiritual
guide of contemplative prayer The Cloud of Unknowing (14th century) are some
examples of spiritual works and writers very popular in England. Spiritual
writings, poems about confession and the dilemmas of the Christian conscience
faced with evil, but aiming towards spiritual fulfilment also mark Ricardian poetry

(poetry written during King Richards reign).


One of the most famous English prose writers of spiritual writings was Julian of
Norwich (c. 1343 c. 1413/1427). Her biography is little known, and the little
information we have comes mainly from her texts. She confesses she had her
Revelations during a very serious illness when she was thirty. Her work, Sixteen
Revelations of Divine Love, is an expanded version of the three visions of Jesus
Christ she received during her illness. Nowadays, she is considered one of the
finest mystic writers before George Herbert. She is called a mystical theologian
because she does not give us an autobiographical account of the way in which
she started her spiritual journey, neither does she offer a lesson, or solution, or
path to follow for salvation. Instead, her Revelations are dense and emotional
encounters with the mystery of God. It is only deep faith that can lead people
towards an understanding of Gods mystery that is not immediately evident since
the human world is fallen and, therefore, limited in its perception of Gods plan.
According to the mystic theologians, therefore, redemption or understanding of
God cannot come through simple human effort, but only if the human being is
subjected to extraordinary forms of prayer or contemplation (such as private
revelations or visions).

During her illness, she prayed God for three things: These Revelations were
shewed to a simple creature unlettered, the year of our Lord 1373, the Thirteenth
day of May. Which creature [had] afore desired three gifts of God. The First was
mind of His Passion; the Second was bodily sickness in youth, at thirty years of
age; the Third was to have of Gods gift three wounds. (trans. by Grace
Warrack). In other words she wants: 1. remembrance of His Passions some
feeling in the Passion of Christ, or a more intense knowledge of the bodily pains
of Jesus and of the compassion of His Mother, to suffer with him; 2. a terrible and
painful sickness to hasten her union with Him and to help her understand Jesus
pains and receive grace; 3. contrition, compassion and longing for Him, seen as
three wounds to be received from God. She receives these revelations, or, as she
calls them, showings, in the form of visions of Christ, of the Virgin Mary, of the
blood of Christ falling from the skies, like raindrops, etc. She has an optimistic
vision, in the sense that she believes that God is love, and everything He does is
out of love. Even human suffering, illness and pain are nothing but tests for the
love of God and the apparent disorder and chaos of human life (she lived during
the Black Death and the Peasants Revolt) are only a matter of wrong perception,
beyond them laying the great mystery of God, based on love: And in this love he
hath don all his werke; and in this love he hath made all things profitable to us;
and in this love our life is everlestand.

Julian of Norwich was visited in 1413 by Margery Kempe (c. 1373 after 1438), a
housewife from Kings Lynn who received a vision after the birth of her first baby.
More is known about her than about Julian of Norwich. She belonged to a
prosperous family, she was married and had fourteen children and she travelled
widely, on pilgrimages and other spiritual journeys. Her book, The Book of
Margery Kempe, can be considered the first autobiography in English literature,
being also included in category of spiritual writings or writings of council for
women. In fact, according to the medieval tradition, the purpose of a book was to
educate, to be of some use to the readers, and so, she talks about her life, her
struggle to fight off sin and the lures of life, her pilgrimages and her visions.


these stories she actually attempts to teach her readers how to control the
emotional damage that can be produced by feelings uncertainty, unworthiness
and despair (Cambridge Companion to Medieval

Literature). Her text also gives us important insight into the life of a medieval
middle-class woman. The very beginning of the text is indicative in this direction.
Her first pregnancy was complicated and painful with a difficult delivery followed
by post-natal depression. All these elements lead the reader into a space of
domestic life that is usually ignored, that pertaining to the life of women. Women
are, in

Margery Kempes mind, the intended recipients of her book and she established
a connection with her reader by appealing to elements familiar to them: illness,
pain, depression, the dangers of childbirth. The second connection she makes
with the reader is on account of an unconfessed sin, which she feels she should
confess before dying, but fails because of shame and fear of damnation as well
as because of the harsh attitude of the priest. The medieval writer might have
identified with her fear of confessing a hidden sin, shame and fear of the priests
attitude. Lying on her deathbed, Margery has a vision of a tender Jesus who tells
her she should never be ashamed to open her heart to Him.



William Langland was a married cleric of the minor orders who composed and
repeatedly revised his dream poem, included in 52 manuscripts and having four
versions. The poem, centred on the dream-vision of the narrator, is structured in
a number of sections, called passus, varying from the one version to the other.
The final version contains 22 passus and a Prologue. These sections represent
dream-visions and they are written in alliterative meter.

The convention of a narrator who has a vision or a dream was widely used in the
medieval period, but Langlands visionary narrator is neither the courtly lover,
nor Dantes wanderer in the fantastic setting of the outer-world. Williams vision
does not take him far away from the real background of England, mingling the
realistic setting bustling with daily life and disorder with the divine miracles.

The element that unites all the parts is the presence of the dreamer-narrator,
named Will. The name can be taken both as an allegorical name (moral will) as
well as self-referential, referring to the name of the writer and thus, to a more

personal search for grace, salvation and meaning in life. The poems hero is
Piers, a simple and devout ploughman who manages to keep his faith and
integrity in a world dominated by moral and official corruption. He also
undergoes a transformation, a passage from the simple life of a field-worker to
one involving a deeper commitment to religious meditation.

The dream-journey leads the reader into a fascinating world people by a variety
of characters since it is meant to represent the passage of the Christian through
life in search of spiritual fulfilment and redemption, but, threatened, at every
step, by sin. These two contraries of Christian life are represented by the vision
of the Tower of Truth and the Dungeons of Hell.

The first part, containing the Prologue and the first four passus, is the vision of
the field full of folk and it is meant as an attempt to understand the contradiction
between Englands religious and social life. Will, the narrator falls asleep and he
dream of a field full of folk, the Tower of Truth on a hill and the Dungeons of
Wrong/Hell in a valley below. The first vision is that of the crowd, offering not only
a perspective upon the medieval society and its members, but also a satire
against pretenses and fake images. Thus, in Wills vision, the reader sees,
journeying in front of his eyes, the rich and the poor, the saints and the sinners:
false beggars, lubbers, vagrants, wasters and lazy people, friars and pardoners
profiting from ignorant believers, corrupt priests and lawyers. This is not a static
tableau, but a living and breathing world, lively with sound and activity, as
Langland clearly celebrates those who work and contribute to the well-being of
the society.

Then began I to dream a marvellous dream, That I was in a wilderness wist I

not where. As I looked to the east right into the sun,

I saw a tower on a toft worthily built;

A deep dale beneath a dungeon therein,

With deep ditches and dark and dreadful of sight A fair field full of folk found I
in between,
Of all manner of men the rich and the poor,


Working and wandering as the world asketh. Some put them to plow and
played little enough, At setting and sowing they sweated right hard And won
that which wasters by gluttony destroy.

Some put them to pride and apparelled themselves so In a display of clothing

they came disguised.

To prayer and penance put themselves many, All for love of our Lord living
hard lives,

In hope for to have heavenly bliss.

I found there friars of all the four orders, Preaching to the people for profit to
themselves, Explaining the Gospel just as they liked,

To get clothes for themselves they construed it as they would. Many of these
master friars may dress as they will,

For money and their preaching both go together. (Transl. by Donald and Rachel

This attitude will resonate throughout the poem, Piers and his wife also being
identified as workers, people who work for a living and do not accept another
type of behavior, unwilling to give up their integrity and honor. The failure in
plowing (Piers wants to plow his lot before setting to pilgrimage) signals the fact
that the society has become lazy and is, therefore, under the threat of famine.

The second part, occupying passus VVIII, is the vision of Piers the Plowman and
the crowd of penitents whom he leads in search of Saint Truth. He is chosen by all
the others to lead the way

The third part, occupying passus IXXII, is a vision in which the dreamer goes in
search of Do-well, Do-better and Do-best and finds it difficult to know exactly
who and what they are. Do-well is the meek, honest labourer; Do-better is he

who to honesty adds charity and the preaching of sufferance; Do-best is above
and holds a bishops crosier to punish the wicked. Do-well and Do-better have
crowned a king to protect them all and prevent them from disobeying Do-best,
says Thought, while Witt argues that Duke Do-well dwells in a castle with Lady
Anima, attended by Do-better, his daughter, and Do-best. Do-well destroys
vices and saves the soul. Do-better is the fear of the Lord, and Do-best is the fear
of punishment. Study says that Do-well is love, but Do-better and Do-best
represent secular science and they were created only to deceive. Clergy and his
wife tell the dreamer that Do-well is the active life, Do-better is charity and Dobest is the clergy with benefices and power to help and possessions to relieve the

The ending is tragic for the dreamer as he is attacked by hunger and fever and
dies before his quest is accomplished.

His vision is a didactic allegory of mans passage through life, tempted by sin and
taught by virtues. Though the form was widely used in the Middle Ages,
Langlands style is new and fresh, the virtues and vices such as Meed,
Conscience, Reason, Love, Wisdom, Law or Wrong and the Seven Deadly Sins are
not, as it was the custom, simple personifications of good and evil, statically
presenting their ideas. On the contrary, they are involved in situations, just like
real-life characters. The presentation is objective, the narrator only rarely
interfering with his own comments or feelings.

Though they were a common genre in the Middle Ages and even later, allegories
are not easy to read and grasp and they need to be translated. Allegory is a
story with a double meaning and it can be read, understood and interpreted in
two ways, each one pertaining to either the surface, or primary meaning, or to
the deep/ secondary meaning. Scriptural allegory was based on the vision of the
universe divided between the physical world and the spiritual world, both
corresponding because they are both

Gods creation. The visible world is a revelation of the invisible, but the revelation
can be brought about only by divine action. In understanding Scriptural allegory,
therefore, one must not search for the hidden, secondary meaning and ignore the
primary meaning, since no real meaning can be drawn without a thorough
understanding of the first level. Participation in the act of understanding needs to
be complete. The same occurs with non-scriptural allegory. In a novel, for
instance, the meaning arises naturally and unobtrusively, from the world of the
fiction. In the allegory, the meaning comes from


understanding both levels. In Langlands allegory, the virtues and vices are
personified: they are embodiments of human qualities or flaws such as Patience,
or Conscience, or Wrong. However, they are not real, novel-like, complex
characters. The constituents of the human nature are broken into pieces and
these personifications represent a single facet of the human personality. The
meaning of these allegories does not come simply from a static presentation, but
rather from their interactions. They move, speak and react to one another,
making their purpose clear and visible. The usefulness of such methods, actually,
lies in the fact that people, by following such simplified schemes of human
behavior, are able to understand the allegory by breaking it into easilyidentifiable constituents. This is didactic allegory, the purpose being not to
entertain, but to assist the Christian in his spiritual journey towards redemption.
Thus, in this relationship between two levels or modes of meanings, the reader
should always relate to a literal one, of a predictable and coherent kind,
connected, through individual correspondences, to a set of related allegorical

SIR JOHN MANDEVILLE seems to be an invented name, just as his tales.

Presumably, the author of The Voyage and Travels of Sir John Mandeville (13571371) was an English knight who undertook a series of travels to Jerusalem and
the East in the first half of the 14th century and then set out to tell the story of his
adventures. In reality, his book, written in French, is a compilation of travel
accounts taken from various sources: pilgrimage narratives, romances,
encyclopaedias, etc. In spite of his dubious truthfulness, the book was extremely
popular at the time, quickly translated in English and Latin, and passed to us in
no less than 250 manuscripts. This great popularity might be explained by the
fact that it is the first book to describe an exotic reality through journeys far away
from the English borders. However, there are many exaggerations and a lot of
fantasy in his descriptions of foreign lands, people and their customs, so that it
appears to be more a fantastic account than a realistic travel story.

And between the Red Sea and the sea Ocean, toward the south is the kingdom
of Ethiopia and of Lybia the higher, the which land of Lybia (that is to say, Lybia
the low) that beginneth at the sea of Spain from thence where the pillars of
Hercules be, and endureth unto anent Egypt and toward Ethiopia. In that country
of Lybia is the sea more high than the land, and it seemeth that it would cover
the earth, and natheles yet it passeth not his marks. And men see in that country
a mountain to the which no man cometh. In this land of Lybia whoso turneth
toward the east, the shadow of himself is on the right side; and here, in our
country, the shadow is on the left side. In that sea of Lybia is no fish; for they
may not live ne dure for the great heat of the sun, because that the water is
evermore boiling for the great heat. And many other lands there be that it were
too long to tell or to number. But of some parts I shall speak more plainly

And in Sicily there is a manner of serpent, by the which men assay and prove,
whether their children be bastards or no, or of lawful marriage: for if they be
born in right marriage, the serpents go about them, and do them no harm, and if
they be born in avoutry, the serpents bite them and envenom them. And thus
many wedded men prove if the children be their own.

This isle of Chana the Saracens have won and hold. In that isle be many lions and
many other wild beasts. And there be rats in that isle as great as hounds here;
and men take them with great mastifs, for cats may not take them. In this isle
and many other men bury not no dead men, for the heat is there so great, that in
a little time the flesh will consume from the bones.

After that isle men go by the sea ocean, by many isles, unto an isle that is clept
Nacumera, that is a great isle and good and fair. And it is in compass about,
more than a thousand mile. And all the men and women of that isle have
hounds heads, and they be clept Cynocephales. And they be full reasonable and
of good understanding, save that they worship an ox for their God. And also
every one of them beareth an ox of gold or of silver in his forehead, in token that
they love well their God.

And in another isle be folk that go always upon their knees full marvellously. And
at every pace that they go, it seemeth that they would fall. And they have in
every foot eight toes. (From Sir John Mandelville)


JOHN GOWER (c. 1330 1408)

Contemporary and friend of Chaucers, who dedicates his Troilus and Criseyde to
him, John Gower is considered a master in eloquence, narrative skill and stylistic
richness, though little is known of his life, education and any court employment
he might have had. His three most famous texts, Mirrour de lOmme, Vox
Clamantis and Confessio Amantis are written in three different languages:
French, Latin and English. His works were extremely popular, Confessio Amantis,
for instance, surviving in fifty manuscripts, more than Chaucers Troilus and
Criseyde. The elegant illuminations added by the court painter Herman Scheerre
to some of his manuscripts was an honour only rarely granted to Chaucer.

William Caxton printed Chaucers Canterbury Tales in 1478 and Gowers

Confessio Amantis in 1483, these being among the first works printed by the
famous English printer and editor, suggesting their popularity for the English

He is most famous for the didactic poem written in French and entitled Mirour de

(Mirror of Mankind) (1376-9), for the Latin Vox Clamantis (The Clamouring Voice)
(started in 1377) and for the English Confessio Amantis (The Lovers Confession),
dedicated to King Richard II and Chaucer, but revised later, after Richard IIs
deposition, when he removes the praises to Richard II and adds a prologue
dedicated to the new king Henry IV.

Mirour de lOmme is a didactic poem that recommends penitence and prayer to

the Virgin Mary to right the corruption and the wrongs of the society. The same
line of thought is presented in the Latin Vox Clamantis in which he also expressed
his preoccupation with corruption and vice and his interest in good governing. He
insists on the God-given social order, having a vision of farmyard animals
behaving like ravenous beasts and upsetting the right order:

When a poor man is elevated in the city through an unexpected fate, and the
unworthy creature is allowed to reach the height of honour, then nature suddenly
groans at the changed state of things and grieves at the unaccustomed rarity.

The Peasants Revolt in 1381 that made a strong impression on Gower seems to
come as a fulfilment to the prophecies he made in Mirour de lOmme, and though

he sees all the layers of the society being diseased and touched by corruption, he
seems, eventually, to side more with the aristocracy.

Confessio Amantis was started in 1386 at the request of King Richard II, who was
worried that not enough literature was written in English. The poem is a
collection of tales treating the issue of courtly love, but there is also a Christian
attitude visible in the advice to accept Christian penitence and try to achieve a
higher spiritual level.

The frame is that of the lover, Amans, complaining first to Venus and then to her
priest, Genius, who takes the lover through the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, Envy,
Anger, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony and Lechery, in a series of tales- examples that
are meant to caution the lover against the dangers posed by these sins. Although
a priest of love, Genius behaves like a true priest and advises the aging lover,
who has long been in the service of love, but without reward, to give up courtly
love in favour of a higher love and wisdom, that coming from God.




Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343 (the early 1340s) - 1400)

Geoffrey Chaucer was named the Father of English Poetry and this fame was
evident even during his lifetime. He had a tremendous influence in the
establishment of the literary English as well as the establishment of a valuable
English literature in accordance to the standard imposed by the other European
cultures, especially French and Italian. In a literary landscape dominated by
French forms, he managed to create a personal style, by adapting the existing
literary forms to the requirements of the English language and the English
setting. His characters come from all the walks of life, giving the reader a rich
and living image of the England of the Middle Ages.

He was born in the house of a wine merchant, in a well-to-do family and must
have enjoyed the benefits of such a birth, visible in his education. Being the son
of a wealthy merchant with court connections he definitely received an education
suitable for a similar career. In accordance to his social status, Chaucers life was
connected to trade, diplomacy and court offices, starting from being a page in
Elizabeth, Countess of Ulsters home, then her husbands (the Duke of Clarence,
Richard IIs uncle) attendant. He was then in the service of John of Gaunt, Richard
IIs other uncle and Henry IVs father. Chaucer had several court jobs: Controller
of Customs, Justice of Peace in Kent or Clerk of the Kings Works. He travelled a
lot in his life: first in France as the Duke of Clarences attendant when he became
a prisoner and had to be ransomed. Probably he learned French and Latin,
especially the type of language used in official writings. He also travelled to Italy,
between 1372-3, to Genoa and Florence where he became acquainted with the
works of Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. In 1378, he went to Milan, where he
came more thoroughly in touch with Petrarchs and Boccaccios writings. The
Italian influence is more clearly visible in the writings belonging to this period.

His works bear the mark of the milieu in which he lived and worked, of his travels
and readings. Life at the noblemens court and at the Kings court as well as the
time spent at the French court or the court of Aquitaine familiarized him with the
artistic tastes of the aristocracy and the literary genres that they preferred, such
as the courtly romance. The travels to France and Italy opened his literary
horizon, introducing Chaucer to the great European literature and literary tastes.
His administrative jobs enlarged his circle of acquaintances, as he met people
from all the walks of life, from aristocrats, wealthy merchants, lawyers to the
simpler people, all of them being vividly presented in his works.

Short Verse. His first short poems are exercises in translation, adaptation and
verse form, especially in conventional forms of composition. He was interested in
copying and adapting the dominant poetic forms of the time. He was the first one
to have adapted the French ballad, which was different from the English folk
ballad. He probably envisaged an aristocratic audience, and such poems were
forms of court entertainment. (To Rosemonde, An ABC, Unto Pity, etc.)

Translations: in the effort to adapt and learn new poetic forms, Chaucer was also
interested in translation.

Le Roman de la Rose is a French allegorical poem written by Guillaume de Lorris

(1237) and continued by Jean de Meun (c. 1280). Since it was widely known in
the 13th and 14th centuries, it provided a source of inspiration and allusion for
other literary works as well as an example of literary style. The Middle English
fragments are known as Le Romaunt de la Rose and they are attributed to
Chaucer because he confessed having translated the text in his Prologue to The
Legend of Good Women. However, the real paternity of the three fragments
found in English is questionable, not all being nowadays thought to belong to
Chaucer. The poem is an allegory of love and a representation of courtly love,
using a convention widely employed later by Chaucer, as well, that of the dream
poem. The narrator is the knight in search of love, the lady is represented by a
rose hidden in a garden, and the knight must reach it. The rose is of immense
beauty, but with thorns that protect it. Allegorical representations are found in
the portrayal of the qualities or shortcomings that grant or prevent the entrance
to the secret garden. From the first category there are: Gladness, Courtesy,


Beauty, Richess, Largesse, from the second, Covetousness, Avarice, Envy,

Sorrow, Age. Jealousy is the enemy who guards the rose after the knight
manages to kiss it.

2. Boethius (c.480-524): De Consolatione Philosophiae (Consolation of

Philosophy). The Roman Patrician, Boethius turned Christian was interested in the
philosophy of Aristotle and Plato. He was imprisoned and then executed on
suspicion of treason. While in prison, Boethius composed De Consolatione
Philosophiae in which he lamented his fate until he is visited by Lady Philosophy
who points out to him the uselessness of his lamentations, since Fortune is
unstable and deceiving, when he should be searching for higher means of
spiritual consolation. Earthly good and treasures are unimportant and man
should try to unite himself with the higher Good. Though Boethius wrote both in
verse and in prose, Chaucer prefers to keep his translation in prose, to make its
meaning more accessible to his readers.

Dream Poems

The Book of the Duchess is an occasional poem written to commemorate

the death of

Blanche, the first wife of Chaucers protector, John of Gaunt. Critics generally
agree that the poem was written before 1371 (Blanche died in 1368). The text is
a dream poem, the vision dream of the narrator, and its main purpose is to
explore the feelings of grief, loss and regret and the desire to remember the
loved and lost one.

The poem is divided in three distinct part, each one exploring, from a different
angle, the general theme.

PART 1 introduces the narrator who is tormented by the lack of sleep provoked by
a sickness which he suffered for eight years. Someone brings him a romance
and, in the attempt to fall asleep, his attention is drawn to the story of Seys
(Ceyx) and Alcyone. Seys, Alcyones husband, loses his life at sea, but his wife
does not know what happened to him and prays for an answer. The dead
husband comes to her in a dream to tell her that she should not weep any longer,
but Alcyone cannot accept the sorrow, and dies as well. The classical story does
not seem much of a consolation for a grieving husband, and there is also the

irony of the narrator who draws from the story only the consolation of the
existence of a God of Sleep who could grant him the rest. Sleep does come to the
narrator, but it also comes with dreams that further explore the theme of loss
and grief.

PART 2: the narrator fell asleep with the book in his hands and wakes up in the
middle of a hunt. Following the hunters, he finds a knight dressed in black, sitting
under a tree and reciting a lament.

PART 3: the knight tells about his love and his lady (named White), finally saying
that his beloved is dead. The sounds of the hunting party mingle with the sounds
of the narrators reality and he wakes up, still holding the book in his hand.

There are several possibilities to see the story. One equates Chaucer with the
dreamer, while the knight in black is John of Gaunt lamenting the loss of his
beloved Blanche (the knights love is named White). Another interpretation
suggests that the dreamer and the knight are one and the same person, the
dream being a pretext for self-analysis. Whatever the true intention of the poet
might have been, it is certain that he was interested in the way in which memory
is supposed to function. The memory of White and of the knight-lover is kept
alive through poem and song, and so remembrance lives in literary or artistic
creations. The mind, therefore, is like a book, in which memory writes the pages,
but it is not a copy of the truth, memory being a re-created process that mingles
the events to be remembered to the rememberers reaction to them.

The House of Fame (around 1379-80) explores again the meaning of memory,
yet not personal memory, as in The Book of the Duchess, but collective memory.

BOOK 1: The narrator-dreamer wakes up in a temple of glass with golden images

depicting the stories of Troy. He dwells mostly on the sad story of Dido, left by
Aeneas. However, the dreamer does not know where he is or who made this
temple, so, he decides to go out and starts looking for a person to tell him more
about the place. Unfortunately for him, he finds himself in the middle of the


BOOK 2: The narrator is taken by Joves eagle, with wings of gold, that takes him
to the House of Fame. There, he will find the answers. The narrator is a writer
who wrote about love and spent his time only with the books, but never fully
experiencing life.

BOOK 3: The House of Fame is a noisy and crowded place presided by the
goddess Fame. All around her there are metal pillars, made not for splendor, but
for use. On these pillars, there are the great poets of all times, from Josephus,
who told the History of the Jews to Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Lollius, Guido delle
Colonne, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and all the scholars who told the deeds of Rome
The narrator realizes that the way in which fame is granted is a matter of chance
and whim rather than merit. Moreover, any kind of memory/fame relies on the
existence of people to tell the story. The narrator is later swept to a spinning
house, full of windows and doors, crowded with people, rumors and gossip. He is
told that there is a man of great authority who has the answers to his
questions, but the poem stops there, before actually meeting this person of
authority who holds the truth.

3. The Parliament of Fowles is thought to have been another occasional poem,

composed to celebrate the wedding of Richard II with Anne of Bohemia, and so
the poem might have been composed between 1377 and 1382.

The narrator, a love poet, dreams of a garden of love, presided by Nature, in

which the birds choose their mates. Birds are arranged according to their diet,
the carnivorous forming the upper classes, followed by worm-eaters, water fowl
and seed-eaters. This arrangement parallels the social classes in human society,
the birds actually behaving in accordance to their hierarchical condition. The
choosing process begins with the female eagle and her three suitors who present
their cases in highly embellished words. The gathering of birds start quarrelling
without reaching a conclusion, and since the choice is difficult and leads to the
discontent of the other birds waiting for their turn, the female eagle is required to
make a choice herself. To everyones surprise, she postpones the decision by one

This poem shows an evolution in Chaucers style whose writing becomes more
flexible, no longer copying artificial French genres, but developing his own
interests and preferences of poetic shape and content.

Troilus and Criseyde, written between 1381 and 1386, is considered by
many critics one of

Chaucers finest works and he pays tribute to the great Italian writers that
influenced his work, such as Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. At the end of the
poem, he pays his respects to the great Ancient writers, placing himself and his
book among them:

Go little book: go, my little tragedy:

let God, to your maker yet, before he die, send the power to make a comedy!

But, little book, do not go in envy, but be subject to all poesy:

and kiss the steps where you see pace

Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Lucan and Stace. (Book V, 1786-1792)

The poem also mentions Gower and another of his contemporaries, Ralph Strode,
as people of importance in the judgment of literary works and shaping the
literary tastes.

O moral Gower, this book I direct

to you, and you, philosophical Strode, to warrant, and where need is, to correct, in
your benignity and zeals good.

And to that true Christ who died on rood, with all my heart for mercy ever I pray,
and to the Lord right thus I speak and say (Book V, 1856-1862)

The poem is highly indebted to Boccaccios Il Filostrato, but it is not a translation

of the Italian poem. It is an independent poem, much longer than the original
and, in the opinion of not few critics, much richer.

Following the tradition of courtly poems, Chaucer preferred a Trojan subject,

dealing with the love between Criseyde, the daughter of the Calchas, the Trojan

priest who defected into the Greek camp, and Troilus, one of Priams sons, and so
a brother of the hero Hector, and the lover Paris.

Troilus has two models to follow, that of the heroic Hector, or that of Paris, the
lover, because of whom


the war started. He, at first, chooses war, despising love until he is smitten by
the sight of the beautiful

Criseyde, and then he becomes a lover. The love story, intermediated by

Pandarus, Troilus friend and, conveniently Criseydes uncle, is only short lived,
because the young woman is reunited with her father in the Greek camp in an
exchange of prisoners. Losing the hope of escaping to go back to her lover,

Troilus, she accepts Diomedes advances. Suffering and disappointed, Troilus

throws himself into battle and is killed. The poem ends with Troilus ascending to
the eighths sphere where he laughs at his love and life, which seem to him
superficial and futile. While Troilus oscillated between the two roles imposed by
his brothers, but not surpassing them in any: he is second to Hector in battle, and
a passive, love-struck lover of the romance convention, ruled by Pandarus,
Criseyde is more of a pragmatist. Being at the mercy of conventions, she is
aware that she cannot oppose political decisions and follow her love, and since,
due to the circumstances, she could not be faithful to Troilus, she decides to be
faithful to Diomedes.

The ending is troubling for a love poem, since the final lines are dedicated to the
futility of the struggles or pain of lovers:


And when he was slain in this manner, his light ghost full blissfully went

up to the hollowness of the eighth sphere, leaving behind every element.

And there he saw, clear in his ascent, the wandering planets, hearing harmony in
sounds full of heavenly melody.


And down from there he spies

this little spot of earth that with the sea is embraced, and begins to despise this
wretched world, and hold it vanity compared with the true felicity

that is in heaven above. And at the last down where he was slain, his gaze he

And in himself he laughed at the woe

of those who wept for his death now past: and damned all our work that follows so on
blind lust, which can never last,

when we should all our heart on heaven cast. And forth he went, briefly to tell,

where Mercury appointed him to dwell. 262.

Such ending has Troilus, lo, through love: such ending has all his great worthiness,
such ending has his royal estate above, such ending his desire, his nobleness, such
ending has false words fickleness.

And thus began his loving of Cressid, and in this way he died, as I have said.

As far as the style of the poem is concerned, Chaucer is at his best. Even if there
are voices that may reproach that there is too little action and too much talk, as
far as the quality of the poetry is concerned, his mastery of rhyme, the variety of
diction, the excellence of his style, everything is at its best.

E. Collections of Tales

1. The Legend of Good Women. According to the text, this collection of tales
about love is written as a penance for the disparagement of love in other texts.
The tales retell love stories in whose


center are famous women such as Cleopatra, Thisbe, Dido, Ariadna, Medeea.
Most of these tales are tragic, seven of the ten women dying, four through

This collection of stories is an experiment, taken up later with The Canterbury

Tales, of putting together a variety of tales and trying to unite them in such a
way as to make a coherent whole.

2. The Canterbury Tales is his final work and considered by critics his
masterpiece. It was started in 1387 and he continued work on it until 1400, the
year of his death. The plan of the tales was definitely much more impressive than
the final achievement, since there are only 24 tales out of the foreseen 120 and
29 pilgrims. The Tales were found in different manuscripts (84 manuscripts
survived), and there is no certainty whether the order in which they appear
nowadays is the order intended by the writer (if he actually thought of such an
order) or they were arranged by chance, by the different copyists or when the
texts were bound in manuscripts. It is also possible that some of the stories
might have been written before, and included in this text later, since they seem
to be self-sufficient and not dependant on the plan.

The collection of independent tales united in a framework was not uncommon in

the period. Boccaccio framed the hundred tales of his Decameron by the context
of the plague that forces the secluded noblemen to pass their time by telling
stories. Giovanni Sercambi, a fourteenth century writer also used the convention
of a collection of various types of tales. In England, John Gower gathered a
number of tales on love in his Confessio Amantis. Geoffrey Chaucer had tried to
employ the same pattern before, in his Legends of Good Wives.

The name of the collection comes from the frame that puts together a number of
story tellers: the pilgrimage to Canterbury, to the shrine of Thomas a Becket
Englands most famous site of pilgrimage. This convention gives the author the
opportunity to bring together a composite group of people that otherwise would
not be found together. Therefore, he manages to present the reader with a set of
types representing almost all the layers of the medieval society. They meet at
Tabbard Inn and the Host, the innkeeper, suggests telling tales in order to spend
their time on their way to Canterbury: each one has to tell two tales on their way
to Canterbury and two tales on their way back. Chaucer completes only twenty
two, two remaining unfinished, though it is not known whether it was out of lack
of time or out of his intention (the tellers are interrupted while telling their

The text can be divided into two parts, the General Prologue, in which the frame
is set and the portraits of the story tellers are drawn, and the stories themselves,
some of them (like that of the Wife of Bath, of the Manciple and of the Pardoner)
containing also a self-explanatory prologue before the tale.

The group contains people from almost all the layers of the society. The upper
layer is represented by people like the Knight and the Squire. The gentry is
represented by the Franklin or the rich Merchant. The Reeve and the Manciple
take care of the others wealth or money, but they make sure the gain is theirs.
There are simpler people, such as the Miller, the Shipman, the Cook, part of a
group of specialized labourers, ranked closer to the Guild members: a
Haberdasher and a Carpenter, a Webber, a Dyer and a Tapiser. There are learned,
educated men: the Lawyer, the Physician, the Oxford Clerk and representatives
of the clergy, or people connected with the Church: the Monk, the

Prioress and the Nuns, the Nuns Priest, the Parson, the Friar, the Summoner and
the Pardoner. There are only three women in the group of pilgrims: two are nuns
and the other is a merchant, identified as the Wife of Bath. From the lower
classes, there are the Knights Yeoman and the Parsons brother, the

Plowman. There is also a narrator, named Chaucer, but who, ironically, is not a
very good story teller and the Host, a large man, cheerful but hot-tempered.
There are no aristocrats, neither some of the lowest in society, like beggars, or
prostitutes, however, some are downright sinful and corrupt, like the Friar, or the
Summoner or the Pardoner, others are kind, honest and moral, like the Parson
and the Plowman, or the Knight, the highest on the social ladder represented in
the text, and the poor Clerk. The Miller is a drunkard whereas the Host is hottempered.

Though these characters are types, representing facets of the society that Chaucer
wants to satirize or to idealize, their portrayal in the General Prologue is subtle and
diverse, Chaucer adapting the style of the text as well as the manner of portrayal to
the type of character, insisting either on physical portraits, on clothes, or on
psychological aspects. The language and imagery are likewise adapted to the
character. The tales are also in keeping with the status and the temperament of the
story teller.

There is a lot variation in the tales as well. The collection displays a wide variety
of genres and types of texts. There are courtly romances, like those told by the
Knight, his son, the Squire (his story is


unfinished), the Physician or Chaucers (again unfinished). Some tellers prefer the
Breton lai/ lay (a literary genre popularized in the 12th century France, it is a
short narrative romance in verse, usually on the theme of love, promises and
magical occurrences): the Franklin and the Wife of Bath. The fabliau is another
preferred genre. The fabliau is a realistic, short and plain story, rapid in narration
and skilful. The form is primarily French and, at the origin, it was courtly not
popular, the aristocrats mocking at the lower classes or at the clergy. It was
believed to be a reaction to courtly literature. In Chaucers Tales, the fabliaux are
told by the Miller, the Friar, the Reeve, the Summoner, the Shipman and the
Merchant, and so, there is no rule that they are told by the lower or the higher
classes, since participants from all the groups choose this comic-satirical type.
There are also religious allegories, sermons, parables, lives of martyrs, like those
told by the Clerk, the Pardoner, the Prioress, Chaucers Melibee, including the
Parsons concluding religious sermon or the Monks series of tragedies. The Nuns
priest chooses a fable, whose protagonists are the famous cock Chaunticleer and
the fox. The fables, known since Ancient Greece (Aesop, 6 th century) are stories
with a moral whose characters are non-human creatures or inanimate objects
that are personified. The Manciples tale is a fable of explanation, telling why the
crows are black. Many stories are adaptations from other sources: Boccaccio for
the Knights tale, or Petrarch for the Clerks.

Many of these stories, either serious or comic, tackle the theme of love, usually
represented by a love triangle: thus, the Knights tale which is an adaptation of
Boccaccios Theseide and tells the story of two young men, Palamon and Arcite,
for the beautiful Emily, is counterbalanced by the Millers fabliau in which Alisoun,
the young and pretty wife of an old carpenter, is desired by their lodger, the
student Nicholas and by the local parish clerk, Absolon. The low language, the
bawdiness and humor of the story oppose the high attitudes represented in the
courtly romances. The same low, bawdy attitude is visible in the Reeves fabliau,
in which two students want to mock at a miller, by sleeping with his wife and
daughter, eventually steeling his flour that was cooked into a cake. It is obvious
that there is a rivalry between the Miller and the Reeve that becomes explicit in
their stories, in which each mocks at the other.

The professional rivalry is visible in the tales told by the Friar and the Summoner.
The Friar tells a story about a summoner and a yeoman who seems to be the
devil and who eventually takes the summoner to hell. In response, the Summoner
tells a story about a greedy friar who aggressively asks for money. He will receive
something in return, but it will be only a fart.

In the line of the serious tales, martyrdom, suffering and endurance are
highlighted. The Lawyer tells the story of Custance (Constance), the daughter of
the Holy Roman Emperor, who goes through a long series of hardships and
suffering that mark all the three stages of her life: daughter, wife and mother, but

she never loses her faith, being rewarded in the end. In the same line there is the
story of the martyrdom of Saint Cecilia, told by the Second Nun, or the
tribulations of Griselda, the wife who obeys every test set by her husband in the
tale told by the Clerk. In the same line, the Prioress tells a story of a child killed by
Jews, who keeps singing after death, so that the mother can find the body.

The Pardonner tells a parable about three drunken and debauched man who want
to find death. They encounter an old man who tells them where to find death.
They go to that place where they discover gold coins and they kill one another for
the gold, finding, thus death. The parable is similar to the fable in the sense that
it is a didactic story, with the difference that the characters are human beings.
However, its closeness to the fable, the allegory or the exemplum suggests he
importance of the didactic texts in medieval literature.

Chaucers Canterbury Tales are interesting as single stories, but, though harder to
grasp, it is more rewarding to see the relationships among them and to
understand that their bewildering appearance is, in fact, the image of the reality
that the writer wants to reveal to his readers. It is the image of a society in
transition where new social types redefine the old social roles and interactions. It
is a dual world, defined by oppositions between realistic and idealistic outlooks,
interest in the worldly or in the religious, between tradition and individualist

Portraits in the Prologue


The Knight (Cavalerul) Courtly romance: the story of Palamoun and Arcite
The Squire (Scutierul)
Courtly romance or lai (unfinished because it is



The Yeowman (Arcasul)

The Prioress (accompanied by a Nun, a

The Prioress Tales: a religious tale (against the Jews)
chaplain and three priests) (Stareta, o
The Nuns Priests Tale: Fable about a Cock
maica, o diaconita si trei preoti)
(Chaunticleer) and a Fox.

The Second Nuns Tale: The life of St. Cecilia

The Monk (Calugarul)

A collection of short stories mixing biblical, historical and

contemporary figures.

The Friar (Fratele)

Appearing as a fabliau, it is closer ot exemplary sermon,

with the protagonist, the summoner, representing certain


The Merchant (Negustorul)

Fabliau about an old man January who married a young

woman May

The Clerk (Diacul din Oxford)

Allegory taken from Boccaccio and Petrarch (the story of

The Sergeant of the Law (Notarul)
A religious tale, romance, Saints lives: the story of


The Franklin (= a freeholder not of noble

Lai about marriage and freedom
birth) (Razesul)

Skilled Tradesmen: a Haberdasher, a

Carpenter, a Webber, a Dyer, a Tapiser

(un Mamular, un Boiangiu, Dulgherul,

un Tesator, Tapiterul - Breslele)

The Cook (Bucatarul)

Unfinished story/fabliau about an apprentice and a man

married to a prostitute
The Shipman (Corabierul)
Fabliau about a monk, a rich merchant and his wife
The Doctor/ Physician (Doctorul)
A tale from The Romance of the Rose
The Wife of Bath (Targoveata de la
Lai: the story of a knight accused of rape.

The Parson (un Popa)

A religious sermon and allegory on the Seven Deadly Sins
The Plowman (the Parsons brother) (un


The Reeve (=an administrative officer of

Fabliau: a story about a miller and two students
a town or district, a superintendent or a

person of high rank representing the

Crown) (Logofatul)

The Miller (Morarul)

Fabliau: A story about a carpenter tricked by a student, his

lodger and a parish clerk

The Summoner (Aprodul)

Fabliau about a Friar

The Pardoner (Vanzator de iertaciuni)

Parable about three man looking for and eventually finding

The Manciple (=a buying agent for a
Fable of explanation: why the crown are black
college, an inn, an association of lawyers)


The Poet
Sir Topas, a parody romance (unfinished), Melibee, a

moral tale, which is a translation from a French version of

a Latin book Book of Consolation and Advice

The Host (Hangiul)

The Canons Yeomans tale (Argatul Avei) (canon= one of

the bodies of dignitaries attached to a cathedral). A

humorous tale about trickery through alchemy



fabliau [fab-li-oh] (plural -liaux), a coarsely humorous short story in verse,

dealing in a bluntly realistic manner with *STOCK CHARACTERS of the middle
class involved in sexual intrigue or obscene pranks. Fabliaux nourished in France
in the 12th and 13th centuries, and were usually written in * OCTOSYLLABIC
couplets; some 150 French examples survive, most of them anonymous. They
were imitated in English by Chaucer (in rhyming *PENTAMETERS), notably in his
Miller's Tale and Reeve's Tale. Many fabliaux involve * SATIRE against the clergy.
A standard plot is the cuckolding of a slow-witted husband by a crafty and lustful
student. (The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms)

exemplum (plural -pla), a short tale used as an example to illustrate a moral

point, usually in a sermon or other *DIDACTIC work. The form was cultivated in
the late Middle Ages, for instance in Robert Mannyng of Brunne's Handlyng
Synne (early 14th century) and in Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale and Nun's Priest's
Tale, as well as in many prose collections for the use of preachers. (The Oxford
Dictionary of Literary Terms)



The fifteenth century is, unfortunately, less rich in great writers and works as the
previous centuries. Though William Caxtons (ca. 1415~1422 ca. March 1492)
efforts of bringing the printing craft to England (in 1476) and his endeavor to
print the works of the great writers of his time inevitable led to an increased
number of people with access to books, the century was dominated by too much
strife and danger to allow culture to develop.

The Hundred Years War had started in a victorious note for the English side, but
Henry Vs

(1386-1422) battle of Agincourt (1415) is among the last resounding victories for
the English. At his premature death, the throne was inherited by his 9 months old
son who, upon growing up, showed more interest in religion than in the affairs of
the country. His weakness inevitably led to internal struggles for power between
two noble families, the York and the Lancaster, both claiming to have descended
directly from King Edward III, being heirs of two of his sons. And so, the War of
the Roses starts in 1455, to end with the victory of the Lancaster family in 1485.


The drama is believed to have developed out the of the Catholic religious
services as dialogues in the form of questions and answers between the priest
and the believers (antiphones and responsories) and from the short and
rudimentary plays that reenacted scenes from the Bible and were staged at
important religious celebrations, especially Easter. It is very difficult today to
clearly grasp the importance of medieval drama since we are left with disparate
written piece of an art which was largely unwritten and which testifies of a rich
and imaginative performative culture.

MYSTERY PLAYS and MIRACLES were religious plays drawing inspiration form the
Bible (The Mystery Plays) and from the lives of saints (the Miracles). They were
played by the guilds that staged their play on a pageant (a moving platform like
a stage on wheels) and toured the streets. There are several known cycles: the
Chester cycle, the Wakefield cycle, the N-Town cycle (an unknown town) and the
York cycle.

MORALITY PLAYS showed the fate of a single person, Everyman, who becomes
symbolic for humanity, and were played by travelling companies. The religious
plays were suppressed by the advent of Protestantism.


THOMAS MALORY (c. 1405 - 1471) MORTE DARTHUR (1470)

The only important text in fifteenth century, creating a link between Chaucer and
the great Renaissance writers, is Sir Thomas Malorys prose text referring to the
Arthurian cycle. During the unstable and bloody time of the War of the Roses,
Malorys text appears as the last story of chivalrous ideals and brave deeds,
against the background of a world that has already given up such ideals. It is also
the last medieval Arthurian text remaining, to our days, a standard for all later

The sources of the text are varied, from Geoffrey of Monmouths Arthurian
stories, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and a stanzaic Morte Darthur of the
same period, as well as an alliterative Morte from Lincolnshire in the 15th century.
The last two derive from the French prose La Mort Artu.

The text was printed by Caxton in 1485, who edited it and divided it in 21
sections. Malorys original text, divided in only 8 sections, was discovered at the
beginning of the twentieth century.

The story follows Arthurs life from his conception and birth, through his glorious
deeds and great reign to his death and the decay of his kingdom. Long sections
are dedicated to Lancelot and his love to Guinevere, to Gawain, Tristan or to the
Holy Grail. The story insists on the elements that seem to be missing from the
historical times in which it was written. So, it speaks of faith and loyalty, of
courage and justice, of purity and unselfishness. However, Arthur dies of betrayal
and his kingdom is doomed to perish, ending the story in mistrust and regret.
The story closes with the inscription on

lies Arthur, former king and future king).

The style appears simple, almost childlike, but at a closer look, it deserves its
name as the greatest prose writing of its time. The text flows with a specific
cadence and musicality, never becoming tedious or monotonous, and being
adapted to the content, to the point of tension, the climaxes, or the endings. It is
not the vernacular of the day, neither some old language, and so, it reflects its
content: that of a story mixing reality with fantasy. The vocabulary is
predominantly Anglo-Saxon, the Latin or French words being very scarce. With its
more modern and easy to read manner, it is the link between the great writers of
the Middle Ages and the beginning of the early modern stage of the English