Now available on Read Great Literature: an annotated listing of the best literature from the English Middle Ages.
Click here to take a look at the best and most famous works from the Middle Ages. Pick out something new to read, or just enjoy learning something about the major works and authors from the very beginnings of literature written in English!
Before you click, however, take a minute to read this post for some great background on Middle Ages English Literature.
When you read Middle Ages English literature, you will encounter a lot of firsts:
- First major poem written in the English language (The Canterbury Tales)
- First autobiography written in English (The Book of Marjory Kempe)
- The oldest book known to have been written in English by a woman (Revelations of Divine Love).
You will also encounter many kinds of writing:
- Compendiums of tales and stories
- Chivalric romances recounting Knightly adventures
- Tales of courtly love and love laments
- Devotional writing
- Mystery and Morality plays, some serious but more often funny
- Philosophical and social critique
Why So Many Firsts?
Literature written in English in the Middle Ages contains so many “firsts” because, for about 400 years, until the mid- 14th century, most English writers wrote their literature in Latin or Norman French, not in English.
Recall your English history, and you will figure out why: when the French Norman William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he established the new ruling class along with its social and political structures in French Norman style. That included making French the official language of law, politics, and education. Speaking French became a test of one’s gentility. Latin was used for writing literature as well because it was the language of the Church and Universities.
Click here to read a good article about Anglo-Norman literature, which is literature in the French language that was written in England after the Norman conquest.
What Made Authors Write in English?
What changed to make writers turn to English as a literary language? In the late 1330s, England went to war with France; armed conflict between the two countries continued for about 100 years. These conflicts are now known as the Hundred Years War.
During these times, French may have come to seem more like the language of an enemy than the language of English politics, love, or literature; thus, writers like Chaucer began to explore how to write literature in the native English tongue. As we know, Chaucer and other writers found English a flexible and beautiful language perfectly suited to literature.
Middle English and Us, Modern Readers
Of course, the English that was spoken in Chaucer’s day has changed quite a bit from their days, hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Therefore, readers new to reading literature of the Middle Ages may have difficulty reading these texts in their original Middle English.
Not to worry—there are many excellent translations of the all the major works. Reading translations is a great place to start enjoying Middle Ages English Literature.
If (when?) you fall in love with what you find in translation, go ahead and attempt reading some in Middle English. It’s not as hard as it may seem at first glance. Before long, you will see the similarities of Middle English to our English today. With the aid of a good glossary and notes, you can pick up any frequently used Middle English words that have now been lost to time. Here’s a reason to make the effort: so much of the poetry (I’m thinking especially of Chaucer) sounds very beautiful when read in the original Middle English.
Here are two free sources of Middle Ages English Literature online:
There are many other online texts out there—just search online by title. These online texts are great for sampling, but when you do find something you like, I recommend purchasing a good edited edition, which will explain puzzling words and provide history and cultural background to help you understand it better.
Writing Techniques in Middle Ages English Literature
Several genres and writing techniques recur frequently in literature of the Middle Ages. Allegory, for one, was highly favored by writers. When writing Allegories, writers create characters or aspects of the setting to represent values or abstractions. Therefore, characters might have names like “Love,” “Youth,” “Sin,” “Learning,” and so on, with each character exhibiting the qualities of that idea as they act within the story line.
Dreams and visions, both real and fictional, are frequent as well. Other works focus specifically on the spiritual life, including prayers, meditations, and accounts of mystical visions. Romances, which told the tales of knightly adventures, were popular. In addition, many works from the Middle Ages consist of collections of tales of many types and genres, some invented by the author, and some re-drawn from older sources.
The Christian Church was a dominant institution in the Middle Ages. It controlled the calendar, advised people on spirituality, ethics, and morals, delivered education, and was part of the government structure. Given the dominance of the church in both political and social life, it’s not surprising that writers in the Middle Ages were very much concerned with how people should live. Thus, a lot of Medieval literature examines how best to apply the values of Christianity which dominated life and faith.
Teachings of the Church meet practical questions of living in much writing from the Middle Ages. Romances, for instance, which relate adventures of Knights who go forth to meet many dangers and then return to their home kingdoms, often illustrate values of the Chivalric Code such as bravery, courage, courtesy, honor, and gallantry. Other literary works discuss how love relationships should be conducted, as well as how they may fall short, or just how to be a good person in general.
However, as writers observed their fellow men and women in their quests to define goodness, often what they saw going on was anything but good. Therefore, a lot of Middle Age literature delivers withering social commentary and critique; some of it is sad, but some of it is very funny. Writers did not necessarily accept every precept taught by the church, especially when teachings or practices seemed contradictory. Corruption of various clergy who used the power of the church for their own advantage are frequent targets in Medieval literature.
Modern readers, whose lives are spent in a world quite different from the Medieval one, can rejoice how much the writers of the Middle Ages were interested in the people who lived in their own times. Many authors have left us descriptions of characters who came from every aspect of society, from nobility to peasant, from country to town, from the court to the clergy.
Thus one thing is sure: readers who wade very far into the Literature of the Middle Ages will encounter many types of delightful characters, drawn from every walk of Medieval life, both real and imaginary: priests, friars, monks, and nuns; knights and squires; merchants and their wives; young women and young wives, and their husbands, young or old; kings, queens, princes, beggars, and minstrels; even wizards and monsters.
If you want to enter a romantic realm where people lived very different lives from our own, and yet where people don’t seem so very different from those we meet in our own world today, you can’t do better than read a little Middle Ages English literature.
Links to Reading Lists:
See credits for all photos on Middle Ages English Literature page. Click link above.
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.