OLD ENGLISH LITERATURE
Old-English literature encompasses literature written in Anglo-Saxon during the period that extends from about 410 to the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066. It was time of war, invasions, death, soldiers, heroes…
The Germanic tribes from Europe (Angles, Saxons, Yutes, Vikings…) occupied the territory in the 5th century after the Roman withdrawal. The invasions left very important influences, not only buildings (castles specially) but also their culture; religion, language, social structure by classes. They had not writings (except runes) until they learned Latin alphabet from Roman missionaries, thus they brought the Old English or Anglo-Saxon language, which is the basis of Modern English.
The earliest written works in old English were probably composed orally at first and may have been passed on from speaker to speaker before being written.
The monks had a very important role preserving literature. Most of the literature works was written by monks so it was quite religious and masculine.
Much of old English poetry was probably intended to be chanted, with harp a accompaniment, by a very interesting figure: the SCOP (or bold). This kind of poet was a member of Comitatus, and he had to speak in favour of his Lord, sure.
Often bold and strong, but also mournful and elegiac in spirit, this poetry emphasizes the sorrow and ultimate futility of life and the helplessness of humans before the power of fate.
The Anglo-Saxon time can be divided in two periods; The first one, from 5th century to 8th century, is characterized by the lack of texts. In the 6th century Christianity brought the idea of poetry as a written art. The language that they used is Latin because it was considered the language of culture. In the second period, from 8th to 11th century English was written in monasteries.
Poetry was based on rhythm not on rhyme and on stress. As literary resources we find alliteration, repetition, variation, formulae and kenning.
Authorship wasn't important then, but there are five exceptions: Aldhem, Bede, Caedmon, Cynewulf and Alfred. They are the only one who signed their works in Anglo-Saxon literature. The first known English poet is Aldhem, however, Caedmon is the first English poet whose words survive at all. His story is related in the Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum ( “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” -731-) by St Bede (the Venerable Bede). Written in Latin prose, it remains an indispensable primary source for English history from 597 to 731. It gives the most thorough and reliable contemporary account of the triumph of Christianity and of the growth of Anglo-Saxon culture in England. Caedmon's only known surviving works is Caedmon's Hymn, the nine-line alliterative vernacular* praise poem in honour of God he supposedly learned to sing in his initial dream. The poem is one of the earliest attested examples of Old English and also one of the earliest recorded examples of sustained poetry in a Germanic Language.
Cynewulf, who came from Northumbria, is famous for his religious composition; four poems have been ascribed to him: Juliana, The Ascension, Elene, and The Fates of the Apostles. Alfred (849-899) promoted the composition of vernacular* texts.
The Dream of the Rood is one of the earliest Christian poems in the Anglo Saxon literature and belongs to the genre of dream-vision poetry. Like all English poetry, it's written in alliterative verse. In this longer text in the Vercelli Book, the SCOP describes his dream of a conversation with the wood of the “True Cross”. Jesus is like the heroic model of a Germanic warrior, and the speaker Cross (also called “Tree of Victory” or “Tree of Glory”) faces the Christ crucifixion.
The name of epic poems has been applied to a group of stories telling historical deeds of heroes. Thus the epic celebrates the hero's fearless and bloody struggles against monsters, his courage, honor and loyalty.
Beowulf was composed about the 8th century, although it was found in a manuscript of the late 10th century. Written in a strongly accentual, alliterative verse, is the oldest surviving Germanic epic as well as the longest and important poem in Old English. The poem is untitled in the manuscript, but it has been known as Beowulf since the early 19th century.
The materials for the poem are derived mainly from Scandinavian history and mythology. Its narrative consists on two parts: The first one relates the Beowulf's successful fights with the monster Grendel and with Grendel's mother; the second one narrates the hero's victory in his old age over a dragon and his subsequent death and funeral: Beowulf, a warrior prince from Sweden, goes to Denmark because it is in troubles. A monster called Grendel attacks a famous hall, Herot, and Beowulf manages to kill the monster and he does so. After Grendel's death, his mother wants to revange, but finally the hero also kills her. Then he returns to Sweden and, fifteen years later, being a great old king, takes place a battle against a dragon, where both two die. Monsters symbolize the invasors while the all is the symbol of the order, protection and shelter. Throughout the story, Beowulf presents three stages: as warrior, as hero and as king.
These events take place in Denmark and Sweden. The poem was written in a period of transition between Christianity and paganism, so it contains a fusion of elements of each one and provides a vivid picture of old Germanic life.
The most striking early English poems are the Elegies of the Exeter book: The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and heroic elegies, as is The Ruin.
These are dramatic monologues whose speaker is unnamed, and he complaint about his situation, his sufferings and pains. In the first two poems the speaker is an exile who lacks a lord.
In The Wanderer, we can see two parts: the speaker moves from his personal experience from his sufferings to a general lament.
The Seafarer also consists on two parts: in the first one the speaker talks about a deep love for the sea and explains how he misses his past life with his Lord, his friends, his hall…with nostalgia. In the second part he moves to a fresh direction, presenting life as a call of the Christianity because life at the sea was a sacrifice, as Christian life (contradiction).
Invasions and wars renew the occasion of battle poems. The Battle of Maldon. It was written soon after the battle, at the end of Anglo Saxon period probably by a monk. It deals with a heroic event: the Vikings. It shows the right and wrong behaviors on the battlefield, giving historical details. The other battle poem that survives from the 10th is the Brunanburh. It's the entry for 937 in the ASC, a record of the crushing victory of the West-Saxons over n invading force of Scots, Picts, Britons and Dubling Vikings. It has a historical purpose, and ends with a reference to written histories, claiming Brunanburh as the greatest victory won by the English since their original conquest of Britain five hundred years earlier.
MIDDLE ENGLISH LITERATURE
The Norman conquest of England in 1066 (the battle of Hastings) and the William the Conqueror coming to the throne of Great Britain, traditionally signifies the beginning of 200 years of the domination of French in English letters; this strong language would be absorbed by French and Latin: Latin was the language of religion and learning, and French was the language of the Court and the government. So Old English was spoken by ordinary people and in some monasteries.
After this period, English texts reappear but with some changes: in poetry, for example, we don't find alliteration and rhythm but rhyme, as a French influence.
We don't see the arrival of maturity until the second half of the 14th century.
The second half of the 14th century is considered a great period with important writers as: Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland and The Gawain Poet.
But we also find historical events:
- Magna Carta(1915). Noble men forced King John to sign this document, reducing the power of the king and giving more power and rights to the aristocrats.
- The Peasants´ Revolt (1381).
So, at the same time, we have that literature was reappearing and also we find rebellion, both of them, a sign of a new independence.
In 1362 English is recognized, but this “new” English is different from OE because many Germanic words disappear and French ones appear.
Courtly romance is one of the most important genres that we find in Middle English Literature. There are three key words to define it: love, chivalry and fantasy.
The word “romance” was originally used to refer to literature written in French, but English romances refer to adventures and heroism.
In a Courtly romance we find a courtly love between a lady and a knight so, instead of having the idea of fighting for the Lord (heroic age) we find the Lord is substituted and in his place we have a lady. Knights fought for ideals, to show how brave they were, no like Beowulf that he only fought when he needed. The fantastic part is that knights almost never die.
This period goes from the second part of the 14th century to the early part of the 15th century. It is a return to the Germanic verse, a return to the tradition with a modified alliterative technique.
For scholars the alliterative revival is an open question because the can't decide if it was a continuation of alliterative literature or if it was a rebellion.
There are important authors from this period as: William Langland, Geoffrey Chaucer, The Gawain poet and John Gourer.
William Langland used satire; he wanted to criticise his society because he was a traditional and conservative poet.
Other important author was John Gower, but he wasn't an alliterative revival poet. He used syllabic verse and irony and he wrote Conffesio Amantis(1393). He wrote in England, French and Latin. John Gower was born in 1330 and died in 1408.
It's a dream-vision-poem written by William Langland, but it is also consider an allegory. So you can read it in two ways: as a narration or as something else (a hidden meaning). Langland was a traditional and conservative poet and he supported the importance of moral, because of that there is a contrast in the poem, between old values of religion and new idea of human desires. Langland revised his great works several times.
In the poem we have two parts: the prologue and The Confession of Glutony. In the prologue the (poet) Piers falls asleep in a summer season and he dreams about a crowd of different people (mean, poor…) being Piers one of the workers of the field. The 2nd part moves on with corruption, talking about the seven mortal sins (specially gluttony) and how he continues his pilgrimage, until he wakes up and he sees that the world hasn't change. But Piers isn't only a pilgrim, he is a learner and when he meets a beautiful woman (sign of holy church) he asks her: What is Christ will? And she answers: people loving Lord. In conclusion, William Langland, in Piers Plowman, criticizes his society, the ecclesiastic people and the corrupted world.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
It is a romance, written at the end of the 14th century, in the dialect of the North-West. Midlans, but we don't know his author since it was written late (medieval romance developed in the 12th century in France and then spread out to other arts of Europe). It questions the meaning of the chivalry code (Sir Gawain is seen as an anti-hero). Sir Gawain is the nephew of king Arthur, but we know that there have been stories about king Arthur since the 9th century. King Arthur is considered by Geoffrey of Monmouth: History of Kings of Britain(12th century, Latin) as a romantic king helped by the magic of Merlin. Although the story of Arthur king is important because it expresses a new nationalism against the idea of England as a kind of province of Christendom that had to recover Jerusalem (captured by the Saracens in 1187).
To end up we could say that the most important idea is: “testing a knight” : courage and honour, the contrast between a courtly ideal and the reality of physical temptation. Camelot against nature (green knight).
He was born in London in 1342. His father was a wine merchant, but Geoffrey became a king's man. He married Philippa, a noble woman, and after is death his son Thomas became the most important royal servant.
He was a witness of the Black Death, the 100 years war, the Peasants' Revolt and so on. He travelled abroad and he was captured, but the king rescued him.
When Chaucer begins to write, he uses French sources and forms: The book of the Duchess and The Romance of the Rose. Both poems are dream-vision-poems, and they reflect courtly ideas because the dream shows on ideal that should belong to the real world. Then he wrote: The House of Fame and The Parliament of Fowls. Chaucer followed European models because he wanted to make English literature similar to any European writing.
Chaucer wrote several books. But his best known work is The Canterbury Tales. The story tells how Chaucer joined to a group of pilgrims that were going on a pilgrimage and then the innkeeper proposes a tale-telling game; the characters tell 24 stories during four days (two going and two returning back).
But the Canterbury tales have two pars: The general prologue and the tales. The General Prologue is a kind of framework of the tales and if can be read as a mirror of Chaucer's world. And we can divide it into two parts: the spring setting and the description of the pilgrims, where Chaucer is quite ironic but “he” (Chaucer the narrator and pilgrim) doesn't mind or care about how corrupted people are and he must not be blamed for what he reports because he just tells what other people have told him.
*Irony: saying one thing by meaning another.
If we read the Old English version of The Canterbury Tales we realize that there are Germanic and French words, and as a continental influence Chaucer uses decasyllabic couplet, rhyme and the Iambic Pentameter (rising rhythm: there are 5feet with 2 stresses). Although in the 1st line we don't find it because Geoffrey wanted to attract the attention.
When we read the Prologue (spring setting) we notice that there are 2different parts: the first one goes from line 1 to line 18 where he talks about the regeneration of nature (4 elements: earth, water, wind and fire) and about the human being; and the 2nd one from line 17 to the end, where he tells how he joined to the pilgrims. in the 1st part Chaucer uses very long lines, subordinated sentences, an elaborated style, personification, etc. in the second part he talks about the pilgrimage in a tow-meaning way, so the pilgrimage has a spiritual and a physical object, not only religious: the framework is religious but the pilgrims have a different objects in life, as money.
After the sprint setting we have the description of the characters, without doing a moral judgement. There is no order describing the pilgrims, except that the knight is the first one to be described because he is in the highest ranking (without talking into account the king or the Pope).
Chaucer describes the Knight and the squire in different way; they are from different generations: the knight looks back, he has old ideal values, he wears olf fashion clothes and gives us a good view of the chivalry world; while the squire, his son, is a lover. He takes care about his appearance and he doesn't sleep so much.
Then the prioress is described in an ironic way. She cares about her pets but not about poor people. She speaks a provincial French, and is called Madame Eglantine instead of Sister; plus she is describes too sensually (“soft and red lips”).
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