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3. Middle English

3. Middle English

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This file is written for self-use only in the Literature class of English Education Study Program of UKI Jakarta
This file is written for self-use only in the Literature class of English Education Study Program of UKI Jakarta

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Published by: Parlindungan Pardede on Jan 28, 2012
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Chapter 3:
Middle English
 
An Outline of English Literature 
(For EESP of UKI Use only)
 
10
William the Conqueror defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, 1066
MIDDLE ENGLISH PERIOD(1066
 — 
1485)
 
 
his period is the name given to the transition period during which Old English waschanging to Modern English. This period lasted from the middle of the 11
th
century(1066) to the middle of the 16
th
century. The year 1066 is taken because in thisyear one of the most important events in English history took place, namely The NormanConquest. This event is important not only because it completely changed the course of English literature but also significantly influenced the development of English language.The Norman Conquest was the last successful invasion of Britain. It was led byWilliam, Duke of Normandy, later known as William the Conqueror. After defeating KingHarold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Normans took power and William became Kingof England. He tried to bring peace to the country after many centuries of wars andinvasions but did not always succeed.The arrival of the Norman introduced England to French (a language derived fromLatin), better architecture, progress in painting and music. Not long after the conquest, theUniversity of Cambridge and Oxford were established. Another impact of the conquest isthe parallel use of both English and French. Soon after the conquest, French became thelanguage used by educated people, i.e. in offices, royal courts, and also by poets. The Anglo-Saxon (Old English) was spoken only by uneducated people. This situation of twoparallel languages in daily use in the same country lasted for more than 300 years.In the field of literature, we could say that the first hundred and fifty years of thisperiod had little intrinsic worth, but it was historically important for the sake of the
 
 
Chapter 3:
Middle English
 
An Outline of English Literature 
(For EESP of UKI Use only)
 
11
Geoffrey Chaucer, oil onpanel by an unknown artist.
evolution of modern English literature. There may be several reasons to the blank time of production of literary works. Firstly, the conquest has stunned English literature intosilence. Secondly, the limitation of Anglo-Saxon language probably prevented it fromfurther advance. Thirdly, the Norman, at the conquest, had no literature to offer, becauseat that time French literature was still at its infancy which later on become dominant inEurope during the 12
th
and 13
th
century.By taking the French literature as its model, English literature revived at thebeginning of the 13
th
century. This process of assimilation, however, enriched Englishliterature because the French, different from the Anglo-Saxon, which was humorous less inspirit, hard in vocabulary, and monotonous in alliteration (although it had more feeling andthought), was gay and colorful in spirit, soft in vocabulary and musical in its bright verse.
The first valuable work produced on the French influence is Layamon’s
Brut 
(1205).This voluminous poem, contains 30,000 lines, is a legendary history of Britain, named afterBrut or Brutus, the grandson of Aeneas, one of the heroes of Troy. Brutus is supposed tobe the founder of Britain and of new Troy of London. Layamon brings his account down toCadwallader, the last of the Celtic kings. This verse is a translation from French, but whatmakes it interesting is that it introduces, for the first time, the story of King Arthur.The most interesting of all works produced in the first quarter of the 13
th
century is
The Owl and the Nightingale 
, a verse debate between two birds mentioned in the titleabout life: to live morally or to live for pleasures. The two birds argue topics ranging fromtheir hygienic habits, looks, and songs to marriage, prognostication, and the proper modesof worship. The nightingale stands for the joyous aspects of life, the owl for the somber;there is no clear winner, but the debate ends as the birds go off to state their cases to oneNicholas of Guildford, a wise man. The poem is learned in the clerical tradition but wears itslearning lightly as the disputants speak in colloquial and sometimes earthy language.
The Owl and the Nightingale 
is metrically regular (octosyllabic couplets) and uses the Frenchmetre with an assurance that is astonishing in so early a poem.In addition, it also important to note that it was during this era when English ballads,e.g.
Robin Hood 
, began to appear. These ballads are initially in oral form, and theygenerally reflect daily life of lower class people in England at that time.
Chaucer
The use of two parallel languages in Englandended in the 14th century, because the MiddleEnglish had been accepted as the only language usedin all levels. This situation developed Englishliterature of the middle period to reach its highestpeak.The greatest literary figure of this time isGeoffrey Chaucer. He was influenced by many kindsof writing and used many European models. Forexample, his first poems were dream poems, usingthe Old English model:
Troylus and Creyside 
(aboutI385) uses a story from classical Greek times; and
The House of Fame 
(I370s) uses the Latin poet Ovidand the Italian poet Dante (I265--I32I) as its
 
 
Chapter 3:
Middle English
 
An Outline of English Literature 
(For EESP of UKI Use only)
 
12
influences. Chaucer was a European in outlook and experience, but his ambitionwas to make the literature of English the equal of any other European writing.
Chaucer’s greatest work is
The Canterbury Tales 
[tales = stories] (I387-I400). Itis also the first major work in English literature. It is a series (never completed) of linked stories. In it a group of about 30 pilgrims gather at the Tabard Inn in Southwark,across the Thames from London, and agree to engage in a storytelling contest as theytravel on horseback to the shrine of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury, Kent, and back. Thereare many aspects to
The Canterbury Tales 
, both secular and religious. The time isspring (April) when the world comes to life again after the long winter; and thepeople are from every level of society, except the highest and the lowest
 —
a widerange of the new middle class, including a knight [a soldier], a scholar of Oxford, anun, the
 
wife of Bath, a simple-minded peasant, and several religious figures andtradesmen. And the stories which they tell are also very different
 —
some areclassical, some modern, some moral, some the opposite. Chaucer took the idea of linked series of stories from the Italian writings of Boraccio, but he sets themclearly in the here and now of late fourteenth century England. He had planned for120 stories, but only 24 of them were written. However,
The Canterbury Tales 
is stillthe great mirror of its times, and a great collection of comic views of the life it describes.For example, the knight is seen as a figure from a past age who does not fit in very
well with the new modern society. Chaucer uses irony to describe him as ‘a verrayparfit gentil knight’ 
[parfit = perfect, gentil = gentle)
 —
completely ferfect and gentleare high moral values which are difficult to keep. In his story, self-interest is one of the main themes:
And therefore, at the kynges court, my brother,Each man for hymself, ther is noon oother.And therefore, at the king's court, my brother,Each man for himself, there is no other way.
(‘The Knight’s Tale’)
 
Chaucer is describing a society that is changing, and its people and their values
 
arechanging, too. Again and again the stories and the story-tellers contrast old ways of behaving and of thinking with more modern attitudes. So religion is less importantthan enjoying life, and making money is a new ambition:
But al be that he was a philosophre,Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre;But although he was a philosopher,Nevertheless he had only a little gold in his coffer
1
.
(‘General Prologue’
2
)
box for storing things 
introduction 
Some of the ideas in
The Canterbury Tales 
sound very modern, and show that Chaucerwas interested in wider themes:

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