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Medieval British Literature

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Overview of Medieval British Literature

British LitIn medieval England (12th–15th century), the ascendancy of Norman-French culture in the post-Conquest era, followed by the re-emergence of native English works – by such authors as Chaucer, Langland, and Malory, and numerous anonymous authors, – marked the Middle English period of English literature. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, more lay people were literate, and the Paston Letters form one of the first records of one family's ordinary lives. These, together with a growing number of financial and legal records, sermons, chronicles, poems, and charters, form the basis of modern historical knowledge of the period.

Although the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued to be written until 1154, with the arrival of a Norman ruling class at the end of the 11th century, the ascendancy of Norman-French in cultural life began, and it was not until the 13th century that English literature regained its strength. Prose was concerned chiefly with popular devotional use, but verse emerged typically in the metrical chronicles, such as Layamon's Brut, and the numerous romances based on the stories of Charlemagne, the legends of King Arthur and the Holy Grail, and the classical episodes of Troy, derived from Homer's Iliad (c. 700 BC).

First of the great English poets was Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387), whose early work reflected the formality of the predominant French influence, but later the realism of Renaissance Italy. Of purely native inspiration was the medieval alliterative poem Piers Plowman (1367–86) by William Langland, and the anonymous Pearl, Patience, and Gawayne and the Grene Knight. Chaucer remained unmatched in the period, although the poet John Skelton was one of Chaucer's more original successors; the first secular morality play in English, Magnyfycence (1516), was written by Skelton. More successful were the anonymous authors of songs and carols, and of the ballads, which often formed a complete cycle, such as those concerned with the outlaw Robin Hood. Many stories were carried by travelling minstrels. Drama flourished in the form of mystery plays and morality plays. Prose reached new heights in the 15th century with Thomas Malory's retelling of the Arthurian legends in Le Morte d'Arthur (c. 1470).

From CREDO English literature, medieval in from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide
Image: Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales from the National Library of Wales.

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