Instructor: Professor Ecaterina Han iu PhD

Middle English Prose and Poetry
‡ Middle English prose of the 13th century continued the tradition of Anglo-Saxon prose ± didactic and directed toward ordinary people rather than aristocratic society. The fact that there was no French prose tradition was very important to the preservation of the English prose tradition, formed with the help of the story-tellers and historians. Poetry took a lyrical turn under the impact of French sources.





Several poems in early Middle English were preserved, offering samples of language, philosophical thought and artistic force. The Orrmulum (c. 1200), a verse translation of parts of the Gospels, is of linguistic (mainly phonological) and prosodic rather than literary interest. This collection of homilies was written by Orrm (or Orrmin), an Augustinian monk of Lincolnshire, hence the name of the work.

The Owl and the Nightingale
‡ Of approximately the same date, The Owl and the Nightingale is the first example in English of the debat, a popular continental form. In the poem, the sober owl, representing monastic and didactic ideas, and the merry nightingale, a free secular spirit, debate the virtues of their ways of life. The allegory may represent the argument between asceticism and pleasure, philosophy and art, or the older didactic poetry and the newer secular love poetry. The poem can be regarded both as an allegory and a bestiary, specific forms illustrative for medieval literature.

Owl and nightingale (Illustrations from "De arte venandi cum avibus" Codex Ms. Pal. Lat. 1071, ca. 1260)

The Medieval Romance
‡ In the 13th century the romance, an important continental narrative verse form, was introduced in England. It drew from three rich sources of character and adventure: the legends of Charlemagne (the matter of France); the legends of Greece and Rome (the matter of Troy and the matter of Rome); the British legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (the matter of Britain).

‡ ‡


Charlemagne (Charles the Great) (742/747 ± 814) was King of the Franks from 768 to his death. Through his foreign conquests and internal reforms, Charlemagne helped define Western Europe and the Middle Ages. His rule is also associated with the Carolingian Renaissance, a revival of art, religion, and culture.

Layamon¶s ³BRUT´



Layamon¶s Brut, a late 13th century metrical romance translated from French marks the first appearance of Arthurian matter in English. Original English romances based upon indigenous material include King Horn and Havelok the Dane, both 13th century works that retain elements of Anglo-Saxon heroic tradition. The Brut is 16,095 lines long and narrates the history of Britain. It is largely based on the Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut by Wace, which is in turn inspired by Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, though is longer than both and includes an enlarged section on the life and exploits of King Arthur. The rhyming style is the alliterative verse line style commonly used in Middle English poetry.

New Values and Tastes



French romances were easily accepted even on British soil, as they popularized ideas of adventure and heroism based upon new values and tastes. New manners and rituals, the idea of courtly love replaced some of the principles of the old heroic code. The "lovesick" knight became a conventional figure in medieval romance. Typical symptoms: sighing, turning pale, turning red, fever, inability to sleep.

‡ We generally define chivalry as a system of ethical ideals that arose from feudalism and had its highest development in the 12th and 13th centuries. Chivalric ethics originated mainly in France and Spain but spread rapidly to the rest of the Continent and England. Young noblemen were taught from early childhood the principles of both Christian and military morality and conduct. Piety, honour, valour, courtesy, chastity and loyalty were the chief chivalric virtues.

L¶Amour Courtois
‡ The romance of chivalry had a great importance in those days. New ideals of life were expressed in such literary creations, in which the brave knights fought for honour and dignity, for a noble life, for a wellrespected and beloved lady. Love, in the chivalrous sense, was largely platonic; it was the so-called amour courtois (courtly love), the object of which could be only a virgin or another man¶s wife. In the romances the knight tended to appear as the embodiment of all human virtues, even if in real life chivalric conduct was never free from corruption.


The ideal of militant knighthood was greatly promoted by the Crusades and the monastic orders of knighthood (The Knights Templars and the Knights Hospitalers). The virtues of the knights could be proved either on battlefield or in tournaments, according to the complicated code of conduct imposed at court.
The capture of Jerusalem marked the First Crusade's success

The Arthurian Cycle ‡ The Arthurian Legend consists of a cycle of tales (in several languages) that developed in the Dark Ages concerning Arthur, semihistorical king of the Britons, and his knights. The legend is a complex weaving of ancient Celtic mythology with later traditions around a core of possible historical authenticity. Arthur might have been a British king, but in time his legendary figure faded more and more into the background, until he finaly became the phantom monarch of an imaginary land of fairies.

‡ The earliest references to Arthur are found in Welsh sources ± poems (c. 600), histories written in Latin in the 9th and 10th centuries, and tales in the Welsh story collection The Mabinogion (c. 1100). One of the early Latin sources, Historia Britonum (c. 679) mentions Arthur as the Celtic hero of a feud with the Anglo-Saxons, where he was 12 times victorious, but here he appears as a military leader and not as a king.

When did Arthur live? ‡ William of Malmesbury refers to Arthur as a hero of popular tradition, deserving to be celebrated in authentic history as well as in fiction. The transformation of the British Arthur into a romantic hero of European renown was the result of the contact between British and Norman culture.


³Alas for the Red Dragon, for its end is near. Its cavernous dens shall be occupied by the White Dragon, which stands for the Saxons which you have invited over. The Red Dragon represents the people of Britain, who will be overrun by the White One..." (Geoffrey of Monmouth 171)


Avalon is often equated with Glastonbury, a small town in Somerset, England, situated 50km south of Bristol.

The earliest continuous Arthurian narrative is given in the Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1139) by the English chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth. Here Arthur is identified as the son of the British king Uther Pendragon, and his counsellor Merlin is introduced. The Historia mentions the isle of Avalon, where Arthur went to recover from wounds after his last battle, and it tells of Guinevere's infidelity and the rebellion instigated by Arthur's nephew Mordred.


All later developments of the Arthurian legend are based on Geoffrey's work. Thus, the first English Arthurian story, in the poet Layamon's Roman de Brut (1205), is an English version of Geoffrey's Historia. Arthur is depicted as a warrior on an epic scale and the story of his magic sword Excalibur, which only he could extract from a rock, as well as the story of the Round Table, meant to symbolize equality is included here for the first time.


An Arthurian tradition also developed in Europe, probably based on stories handed down from the Celts, who migrated to Brittany in the 5th and 6th centuries. By 1100 Arthurian romances were known as far away as Italy. Inspired by chivalry and courtly love, they are more concerned with the exploits of Arthur's knights than with king Arthur himself. It is surprising to notice the rapid development of the basic story and the way in which it became the centre of many gravitating stories (such as those about Merlin the wizard, Sir Gawain, Sir Lancelot, Tristram, Percival and others) that finally became part of the Arthurian system.

Morgan le Fay

The Continental Arthurian Romances

‡ The oldest of the French Arthurian romances is a series of 12th-century poems by Chrétien de Troyes. ‡ Chrétien's work had great influence on later Arthurian romance, particularly early German versions, such as Erec and Iwein, by the 12thcentury poet Hartmann von Aue, and the epic Parzifal (c. 1210), by Wolfram von Eschenbach. By the early 13th century the story of Tristram and Iseult (or Tristan and Isolde), from another Celtic tradition, was added to the Arthurian legend.

The Principal Arthurian Legends (Summary)
‡ Arthur was the son of a Welsh king, Uther Pendragon and was born (just as Hercules, the hero in the ancient Greek legend) as a result of his father¶s assuming a false identity by means of magic. Deep in love with Igaerne, the Duke of Tintagil¶s beautiful but virtuous wife, Uther asked Merlin, the wizard, to help him get into her bed while her husband was fighting against his enemies. A magic transformation took place, Uther came to Igaerne as the lord of the castle and was received with great joy by everyone, except for Morgan, Tintagil¶s little witch daughter, who could be tricked neither by the resemblance nor the disguise.

King Uther Pendragon


The Duke was killed in battle and Igaerne married Uther Pendragon, without being told the truth and without knowing that Arthur was in fact Uther¶s son. After Uther¶s death the only person who was able to extract the magic sword Excalibur from a rock was young Arthur, who thus became a king. With this magic sword and Merlin¶s help Arthur gained victory after victory on many a battlefield.

Tintagel Castle


Arthur married beautiful Guinevere with whom he lived happily in a castle named Camelot. It was in the big hall of Camelot that the king ordered to have a Round Table made for 150 knights. Sitting round the table and listening to the knights¶ stories was one of the king¶s greatest pleasures. To have a seat there was an honour reserved for all those who had done remarkable heroic deeds. The shape of the table was symbolic: it showed that all the knights, the king included, were equal and had equal rights.

The Holy Grail


The legend of the Holy Grail added to the cycle new symbols regarding the virtues of a true knight. The golden cup in which Jesus Christ¶s blood was collected could not be found but by a knight who was pure in body and spirit, who was honest, faithful and brave. The youngest of all knights, Sir Percival, finally manages to find the Holy Grail, but only after having passed through lots and lots of adventures.


During the war against the Roman Emperor Lucius, Arthur and his knights bravely defended the independence of their country. While Arthur was fighting battle after battle, the kingdom was ruled by Morderd, Arthur¶s nephew (and also, as some of the legends suggest, Arthur¶s son born from an incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Morgan).
Arthur deals Mordred a mortal blow, but in return Mordred gives Arthur a wound which proved to be fatal.


Sir Bedivere waits with King Arthur as the Barge to Avalon appears.

Mordred decided to get both crown and queen, made Guinevere his prisoner, but Arthur returned and regained his throne and his wife. Mordred was killed during the fight but Arthur was also severely wounded. Reluctantly obeying the King¶s order of throwing Excalibur into the waters of a lake, Sir Bedivere was the witness of Arthur¶s ³passing away´: he could see how the king was taken away by a group a fairies with whom he sailed to Avalon, the land of the immortals, where it was expected that he would be healed of his wounds and someday return to his people.

‡ After Arthur¶s disappeareance, Queen Guinevere went to a monastery and became a nun, refusing the proposal made to her by her fromer lover, Sir Lancelot.

The Lady of the Lake ‡ The stories about Sir Lancelot are almost as numerous a those about Arthur, making Lancelot the most famous and well-known of all knights. He is presented as the son of king Ban of Brittany, who was kidnapped in early infancy and then brought up by Vivian, the Lady of the Lake, a beautiful fairy that Merlin was in love with. Many legends deal with the brave heroic deeds of Lancelot, but also with the women in his life: Elaine, the Lady of Astolat, mother of Lancelot¶s son, Sir Galahad and Queen Guinevere, the love of his life.

The Lady of the Lake is usually referred to by various spellings of the names Nimue or Vivienne.

Sir Gawain


Sir Gawain, a nephew of King Arthur renowned for his skill as a warrior, is also one of the knights present in many legends. He is often presented as an irresponsible person who seeks the thrill of combat with little thought of serving others. He becomes a friend of his fellow knight Lancelot, but in some accounts the friendship eventually dissolves, as Gawain is not always a perfect flawless knight, as Sir Percival, who finally manages to get to the Holy Grail is.

Sir Percival


In the early Arthurian tales, Percival has a central role in the tale of the Holy Grail. As a youth, he leaves home to travel to the court of King Arthur. Before he reaches his destination, he stops at the castle of the Fisher King. The Fisher King is guardian of the Holy Grail and of the spear that wounded Jesus when he was crucified; however, because of the Fisher King¶s sinful ways, he is struck mute when he comes into the presence of the sacred chalice. After Percival arrives at the Fisher King¶s castle, he witnesses a procession in which the bleeding spear and the Holy Grail pass before the speechless king.


According to tradition, Joseph of Arimathea kept the Grail after the Last Supper and collected Jesus¶ blood in it when Jesus was crucified. The Grail supposedly possessed many miraculous properties. It could furnish food for those without sin, and it could blind the impure of heart and strike mute the irreverent who came into its presence.



Percival fails to ask any questions concerning the strange scene in the Fisher King¶s house, but he later learns that if he, a pure soul, had spoken, his action would have healed the king. After many wanderings, Percival returns to the Fisher King¶s castle and welds together a broken sword, or (in another version) restores the power of speech to the king, and succeeds him as king. His quest for the Holy Grail is later on completed by Sir Galahad, Lancelot¶s son, a knight completely free of sin and pure of heart.

The Arthurian Legends and Their Legacy ‡ The various legends included in the Arthurian cycle were used as sources of inspiration by numerous authors in the centuries to come. ‡ English Arthurian romances, dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, concerned mainly individual knights - Percival and Galahad, the Grail knights, and especially Gawain. The culminating masterpiece of these was the anonymously written Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1370), one of the literary gems of 14th century poetry. A number of the Arthurian tales were retold, in English prose, by Sir Thomas Malory in his Morte d'Arthur (1485). On this book the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson based his Idylls of the King (1859-1885), an interesting allegorical treatment of Victorian society.

The Arthurian Legends and Their Legacy
‡ Many other writers have adapted the stories of Arthur and his knights and their great court at Camelot to contemporary tastes and themes. The Renaissance poet Edmund Spenser used Arthur, as the perfect knight, in his epic allegory of Elizabethan society, The Faerie Queene (1590-1599). Mark Twain contrasted New England progressivism with medieval society in his A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court (1880). The Once and Future King (4 vols., 1939-1958), by the English author T. H. White, remains a widely read modern version of the legend. The novel The Mists of Avalon (1982) by American author Marion Zimmer Bradley focuses on the female characters of Arthurian legend. In this modern version, Morgaine (another name for Morgan le Fay), sets the scene for her retelling of the story.

The Arthurian Legends and Their Legacy

‡ Music, too, shows the abiding interest in Arthurian stories²from Parsifal by Richard Wagner (1882) to the Broadway musical Camelot (1960), by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. ‡ Throughout the 20th century, beginning with a 1904 production of Parsifal by the American director Edwin Porter, filmmakers have been drawn to the story of King Arthur²for example, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court has been filmed repeatedly. Excalibur (1981), a serious British production, tells the entire Arthurian story as Sir Thomas Malory presents it, from Arthur's birth and the Sword in the Stone to Lancelot and Guinevere's love, and on to the king's final grievous wound.

The Arthurian Legends and Their Legacy
‡ Other prominent films include the animated picture The Sword in the Stone (1963), about the education of the young Arthur, and Camelot (1967), based on the Broadway musical of the same name. T. H. White¶s work inspired both films. Some movies recast Arthurian motifs in modern form, as in The Fisher King (1991), a story of personal redemption by characters involved with a modern Grail. Others, including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) or The Da Vinci Code (2006) use the Grail as an impetus for adventure and speculation.



Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci

The Arthurian Legends and Their Legacy
‡ Parodies and even cartoons (including Mickey Mouse and Tom and Jerry versions) resume the main ideas and present the main heroes of the legends in as many ways as possible, according to the imagination of their creators, which accounts for the success of the Arthurian legend along the centuries.

Main Features of the Chivalry Romances

‡ 1. The chivalry romances include for the first time in literature a deep psychological analysis, a description of the heroes¶ inner feelings. Although the narrative element gets a considerable place, the description of different events is not the main purpose of these works, as the spiritual life of the Middle Ages is present in them to a great extent.

‡ 2. Man¶s rights to love and happiness on earth (and not only in Heaven, as promised by the church) are proclaimed here. The chivalry romances generally present love as a noble sentiment, in contrast with the ecclesiastical morals that considered it a dirty aspect of human nature. It is true that in the legend about the Holy Grail the author(s) tried to preach the idea of renouncing earthly goods and devoting one¶s activities to purity, which was to be rewarded after death, but this is a theme that gets only a secondary place in the chivalry literature.

‡ 3. However, it is obvious that the romances idealized the idea of chivalry. They described the refined and delicate manners of the knights, who came to find the ancient manners rough and unfit and who adopted the notion of politeness and noble behaviour. In real life ± and there is plenty of evidence to prove this ± the knights were not exactly the embodiment of lofty ideals: they could be arrogant and false, mean and uncivil. But the romance knight was always presented as generous, loyal, honest and brave.

‡ 4. Women, who in Anglo-Saxon times had been but a shadowy part of a man¶s universe, get a new status in the chivalrous romances: they are an ideal worth fighting for. ‡ 5. In this respect, as in many others, pointing to dramatic changes in society and the new forms of life, the chivalry literature was looking forward.

Summary: Characteristics of the Medieval Romance ‡ The Medieval Romance = A tale of High Adventure. Can be a religious crusade, a conquest for the knight's liege lord, or the rescue of a captive lady or any combination.
‡ ‡ Characterized by: 1. Medieval romance usually idealizes chivalry. 2. Medieval romance Idealizes the hero-knight and his noble deeds. 3. An important element of the medieval romance is the knight's love for his lady. 4. The settings of medieval romance tend to be imaginary and vague. 5. Medieval romance derives mystery and suspense from supernatural elements. 6. Medieval romance uses concealed or disguised identity. 7. Repetition of the mystical number "3." (Repetitions of the number or multiples of 3)

Characteristics of the Hero-Knight

1. Birth of a great hero is shrouded in mystery. 2. He is reared away from his true home in ignorance of his real parents. 3. For a time his true identity is unknown. 4. After meeting an extraordinary challenge, he claims his right. 5. His triumph benefits his nation or group.

For Further Study

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