Ages Essay, Research Paper
English Language and Literature in the Middle Ages
English Society of the Middle Ages saw many developments and new trends, but
none so plainly as the developments witnessed in the Language and Literature of that time.
It began with the Norman Conquest: eloquent french words substituted for the ?harsh?
saxon equivalents, primarily in the upper levels of society. Literature began to reflect these
changes in the language, and continued to evolve throughout the Renissance. Together,
these aspects helped define the Middle Ages.
The Norman Conquest took place in 1066 with the death of King Edward. William
of Normandy, later to be reffered to as ?The Conquerer?, fought King Harold in order to
claim the crown in Britian. Succeeding, William integrated Norman life into the Old
English culture, concentrating in the higher courts and plitical scene. This integration of
the Norman culture then filtered down to the underclass.
The developmental trends of the English Language can be clearly seen in the
literature of the time. Geoffrery Chaucer, who?s works were a precursor to the
Renissance, wrote The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories set within a framing
story of a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, the shrine of Saint Thomas ? Becket. The
poet joins a band of pilgrims, vividly described in the Prologue, who assemble at the
Tabard Inn outside London for the journey to Canterbury. Ranging in status from a
Knight to a humble Plowman, they are a detailed view of 14th-century English society.
Another glimpse into the life of Middle England was created by William Langland,
who was supposedly the author of the religious allegory known as Piers Plowman,
considered one of the greatest English poems of medieval times. This work satires
corruption among the clergy and the secular authorities, and upholds the dignity and value
of labor, represented by Piers Plowman. Sir Thomas Malory, a translator and compiler,
was the author of the first great English prose epic, Le morte d’Arthur. It is believed that
he was an English knight of Warwickshire and spent many years in prison for political
offenses and civic crimes. Le morte d’Arthur was supposedly composed while the author
was in prison. It is a compilation and translation from old French sources of most of the
tales about the legendary Arthur, king of the Britons, and his knights. The work is filled
with compassion for human faults and rememberance of the days of chivalry. His works
are followed by John Wycliffe, who gained prominence in 1374 during a prolonged
dispute between Edward III, king of England, and the papacy over the payment of a
certain papal tribute. Both the king and Parliament were reluctant to pay the papal levies.
Wycliffe wrote several pamphlets refuting the pope’s claims and upholding the right of
Parliament to limit church power.
The growth of towns and guilds helped to spread the new trends witnessed in the
Middle Ages. With towns, society was concentrated, encouraging the spread of the new
language and culture. Guilds then helped bring people with similar talents together,
providing the ideal conditions for new inventions to arise. One such invention crucial to
the development of literature and language in general was the printing press. Developed by
Johann Gutenberg of Germany, the printing press allowed works to be copied and
distributed en masse. William Caxton, the first englishman to open a printing press, helped
with the transmission of new ideas in the Middle Ages, ushering in the Renissance. Caxton
was responsible for the printing of many of the famous works of Middle Age authors,
including Sir Thomas Malory?s Le morte d’Arthur.
Therefore, it is readily appearent that the Middle Ages of English history was a
crucial time in the development of the English language and the literature to follow.
Without such developments witnessed in the works of Chaucer, Wycliffe, and Malory, the
literature that followed, such as the works of William Shakespeare, would not have been