Early English Lit

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bullet.gif (1956 bytes)Notes

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bullet.gif (1956 bytes) Old English

bullet.gif (1956 bytes)Middle English
        King Horn
    Piers Plowman






















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Early English Literature 

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*See reference page for full citations. 

Introductory Notes 

When were the Middle Ages? 449-1500 (in England)
Old English: 449-1066
Middle English: 1066- 1485
(Divisions are largely political; actual transition between Old and Middle English was gradual. )

Old English

1. Sources about OE culture: How do we know what we know?
A. Sutton Hoo: 1939 archeology expedition uncovered 7th century burial by ship
B. Histories and Chronicles: Bede’s 8th century EH; A-S Chronicle (translated in 9th century; see below), and 1st century Roman chronicler, Tacitus’ Germania

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles: "texts for a winter evening’s entertainment"; events were attached to dates to aid memory (oral transmission)

55BC is date of earliest annals in Latin on Easter tables; gradual expansion of length and scope led to group of annals collectively known as A-S chronicles.

890 in Winchester entries were pulled together (but began some time earlier southwest England), much circulation began as they were (perhaps at instigation of Alfred At least, he is why entries after 891 are in English) transcribed, and distributed to monasteries were they were maintained and continued until 1154; After 950, they begin to reflect local interests and do not all record the same information; they became the first original narrative prose in any European vernacular; Gives us 449 date, for instance. Include poetry such as "Battle of Brunanburgh" is inserted as is "Cynewulf."

C. Literature (Genres): Not our modern sense of the term; nor our modern sense of authorship


2. History:  For an outline of important historical dates, see Notes for History of the English Language.  Be sure to supplement these notes with your own, following our class discussion.

3. Anglo-Saxon culture

About the modern student relating to Anglo-Saxon literature, Patrick W. Conner writes that "The desire of the postmodern reader of this poetry is not to share in revelation– it is not a pursuit of the ecstatic– but to comprehend the discourse through which Anglo-Saxons encountered the existential dilemmas with which their cultures and their lives presented them" ("Religious Poetry" in A Companion to Anglo-Saxon Literature.  267)

-Comitatus: bond between lord and retainer; loyalty; bond between maternal uncle and nephew

-peaceweaver: role of woman

-physical and moral courage



-meadhall as center of cultural activities

-wergild: price of a man; and the blood feud

-fate: "fate goes ever as it must" (the only choice is how man reacts to his destiny)

-social rather than individual identity

-scop as voice of community; carrier of tradition

-oral culture (used futhark and adopted Latin alphabet)

-manuscript tradition (manuscripts were written on animal skin): role of the scribe: "‘editor’; in a very real sense the scribe is the shaper, not merely the transmitter, of Old English poetry" (Roy J. Liuzza in "The Texts of the Old English Riddle 30")

--role of women in transmission of literary texts 

Jonathan Wilcox writes that "even if male scribes predominated, female houses and their scriptoria presumably played a role [in textual transmission]" ("Religious  Poetry" in A Companion to Anglo-Saxon Literature, 54).

- most works were anomymous; we have lost names, if ever names were attached; nature of scop and religious belief in God as creator nullify the necessity for authorship. "We might find it hard to imagine today that authors could compose texts and allow them to be circulated without marking them as their creation....Modern scholars’ feelings of frustration when confronted by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon text are revealing of assumptions about what texts mean, and about the information we should bring to bear when reading them. The problem here, of course, is with modern concepts and assumptions..." (Mary Swan "Authorship and Anonymity" in A Companion to Anglo-Saxon Literature, 72-73)

-importance of "layered texts": glosses and marginalia

4.  Language:
The various dialects spoken by the Germanic tribes are known as Pre-Old English. The term England developed later from the tribal name Angles, possibly because this kingdom was dominant. The term Anglo-Saxon referred to the West Germanic tribes generally. Old English was not entirely uniform and four main dialects were predominant: Northumbrian, Mercian, West Saxon, and Kentish. Nearly all of Old English literature is preserved in the West Saxon dialect.

Characteristics of Old English
Spelling and Pronunciation:

1. the long vowels have undergone extensive change due to the Great Vowel Shift.

2. some different letters are apparent in Old English texts.

3. there were no unstressed syllables; primary stress usually occurred on the first syllable.


Nearly 85% of Old English words are no longer in use. Those that remain are basic elements of our vocabulary. Also absent are many borrowings from Latin and French. However, language was still poetic mainly through the use of compounds called kennings.

New words were acquired through word formation, borrowings, and affixes.

Parts of speech were not interchangeable. (i.e.; a verb could not "double" as a noun)

5.  A Very Few Simple Facts about Grammar:

-Old English is highly synthetic; more dependent upon word inflections than word order.

-Nouns had only four cases: nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative. Noun endings signaled the case. Nouns were arranged into classes which determined particular endings. Two main categories were known as "strong" and "weak." The strong declension nouns were arranged according to a vowel ending that was had already disappeared by the time of Old English. Noun endings are, as you may have already surmised, far too complex for the scope of our class, but their nature can be gathered by consulting the class handout on Old English Nouns.

-Verbs were also complex. There were two categories, strong and weak (identified tense by a dental suffix). The strong verbs fell into seven basic categories.

-Adjectives were also inflected as strong or weak in a complex system.

-The definite article was fully inflected.

-Personal pronouns were fully inflected, as they still are today because of their frequent use. Noteworthy is dual number in Old English.

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As you read the riddles, consider the following groupings based on Craig Williamson's commentary on the riddles (see References for full citation).  See how many examples you can find in our text that illustrate these groupings.

1. Bimorphic: riddles subject is compared to living creature, but it’s difficult to tell if disguise is person, animal, or plant

2. Zoomorphic: subject compared to animal or has animal-like features

3. Anthropomorphic: inanimate subject is compared to a  person; shield = warrior

4. Phytopmorphic: subject is compared to a plant

5. Inanimate object:  subject is compared to an inanimate object

6. Multiple comparison group: subject is compared to a variety of things; in one riddle, a tree is bloom, blaze, traveler, cross.

7. Selected details group: riddle enumerates descriptive details, typically of creature’s form or function.  One riddled describes an object that is  "twisted, dried, rubbed, adorned" (answer here unknown)

8. Neck Riddle: speaker saves his neck by the riddle, for the judge or executioner promises his release in exchange for "impossible riddle."

9. Arithmatical group:  The riddle takes the form of a  math puzzle 

10. Family relationship group: subject is described in terms of family relations; with a bizarre twist. 

11. Crystomorphic group: Riddle uses runic or concealed codes.

12. Homonymic: solution is a homonym.

13. Erotic: double entendre with pornographic solution as one possibility.

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The Middle Ages: 1100- 1485

A Few Important Dates: (for a fuller history, see NOTES for History of the English Language, Chapters 4 and 5,and read the introduction of our text, Garbaty’s Medieval English Literature)

1066: Viking line dies without heir; Aethelred’s son, Edward the Confessor, returns to rule England but dies with no heir. He is succeeded by Harold, son of advisor Godwin, with good will of people. Challenged by William, duke of Normandy (no real right to throne, takes Harold in Battle of Hastings; wipes out English nobility and replaces them with French; all educated, nobility, etc are now Anglo-French). French becomes the language of the upper-class in English for the next 200 years.

12th century: Eleanor of Aquitaine, bride of Louis and later Henry II of England, patroness of arts; grandfather a troubadour. Adds element of love, attitude towards women, her daughter commissions Chretien de Troyes to write first Arthurian romance and Andreas Capallanus to write treatise about courtly love. Chretien begins vogue of romance and is dubbed "Creator of Arthurian Romance"

The "Father of Arthurian romance," Geoffrey of Monmouth, writes History of the Kings of Britain in the 12th century under Norman influence (he also tells of Lear and Vortigern), but with sympathy for Celts because of his own Welsh background.


13th century: shifting emphasis of French and English . Englishmen (whether of Norman or Anglo descent) begin to use English. Many noble children must be taught French as if it were a second language.

1204: King John Lackland loses Normandy, but French influence continues

late 14th century England: separation between England and France; Paris now center of Parisian culture

1244: Decree of the Two Masters, Louis IX and Henry III, finalizes separation between France and England

14th century: French is in decline. Anglo-French (as spoken in England and Normandy) is seen as inferior as Parisian dialect gains esteem. The 100 Years War enhances English patriotism, and The Black Death gives some empowerment to the lower classes and enables rise of bourgeois class. Writers must choose between three languages for their compositions: French (still a language of culture), Latin, and English. Thus, John Gower writes three major works, one in each of these tongues.

15th century: Malory’s Morte D’arthur: assembles all the stories about Arthur, probably while in jail, condemns courtly love, adds novel-like interest, gave consistency to character.


1476: William Caxton introduces the printing press to England, one factor that leads to the rise of Standard English (East Midland dialect).


Literary Periods according to our text (Garbaty)

Beginnings to 1250: the Period of Religious Record (exceptions include The Owl and the Nightingale (c. 1195), Layamon’s Brut (c. 1205), and the Ancrene Riwle (c. 1200))

1250-1350: Period of Religious and Secular Literature (secular works include Havelok and Horn)

1350-1400: Period of Great Individual Writers (Chaucer, Gower, Wycliff, the Pearl Poet, Langland)

1400-1500: Period of Imitation or Transition (Malory, the Scottish Chaucerians, Lydgate)

Middle English Language:


Four main Middle English dialects are East Midland, Northern, Southern, and West Midland. Of these, East Midland developed into Standard English due to its central location, the presence of Oxford and Cambridge, the large population of the dialect area, and the importance of London as a commercial and political center.

This period is characterized by leveling of inflections as Old English inflections are lost or simplified. The language becomes increasingly less synthetic and more analytic. The period is also characterized by abundant borrowings, especially from French and Latin.

Romance and King Horn:

Originally, the term romance refered to the vernacular language of Rome; Romance languages descend from Rome. The term is used loosely in the Middle Ages (by the 14th century) to designate works that set ideals for knighthood and focus on knight’s role as lover; fighting is often on behalf of lady.  However, the term is not a generic label in the modern sense.  The romance genre sets up ideals for knighthood, not only on the battlefield but especially in the court regarding the social etiquette of courtly love.  

courtly love: a "modern" term invented by Gaston Paris in the 19th century that describes the rules for lovers codified by Capallanus in the 12th century. In the works of Chretien, these rules become part of the chivalric code for knighthood.

(Notes on "King Horn" are from my article "A Description of the Middle English Romance Based on King Horn" Arthurian Interpretations (11.2) 1991:  44-57.)

"King Horn" is extant in three Middle English manuscripts, all Southern dialect.  The plot is shared with the French Romance of Horn by Maistre Thomas.  Thomas refers to a "parchemin," or source, and alludes to the fact that his romance is part of a trilogy.  The English version and the French version are similar, but there is no indication that one directly influenced the other.  Rather, several variations of the story probably existed, and possibly the French and English writers were familiar with the same or similar versions.  

Chevalier: horseman; chivalry= knightly code of honor;

Maurice Keen’s definition of chivalry, from his text Chivalry (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1984): "prowess, franchise, loyalty, generosity, courtesy (behavior at court)"

Aspects of romance:

Most romances begin in one of the following conventional ways:  with a dedication to patron/patroness; an introduction of the author; or a reference to source material.  The plot itself often begins with an account of the hero's ancestry (sometimes an adventure of the hero's father), a court occasion in which the king refuses food until some event happens, a festival, or a history of the hero's childhood.  
"King Horn" begins with a reference to "song," perhaps indicative of an oral tradition and indicating that the unknown author could be a minstrel.  The action begins with an introduction of Horn's father and an account of Horn's youth.

romance settings:   remote rather than historical; even when specific locations are mentioned, one could not trace the hero's wanderings on a map. The author's purpose is to establish a setting that is distant, and in doing so, he may extend beyond his own sketchy knowledge of geography.  Generally, a romance begins at a specific court from which knights wander in search of adventure.  Obstacles pop up at random, and characters almost miraculously arrive at destinations.  In "King Horn," wandering takes place initially at sea.  In many other romances, the wandering is on horseback.

characters: loosely drawn, stereotypical, always noble

plot: The romance author does not intend to create a new work, but rather to shape familiar material artfully.  This type of composition is known as invention.  The plot is meandering, based on adventures; unified by knight proving himself or regaining status; little character development; the structure is divided according to the occurrence of the events, or according to various locales in which the events occur.  With cyclic romances, the structure revolves around a hero or family of heroes.  

structure:  King Horn is written in Alexandrine couplets, a standard romance form.  The manuscript is divided into four main parts.  If these divisions in the manuscript indicate the structure, then the structure revolves around Horn's attainment of honor by winning back his home and proving himself a worthy lover.  Horn is carried from youth, in which he is helpless at the hands of pagans, to adulthood, in which he serves as a role model of chivalry.

motifs:  Recurring elements are common to the genre, and "King Horn" contains quite a few typical motifs, including descriptions of Horn, gift giving (Rymenhild's magic ring), fighting giants, etc. The exchanging of gloves is a common motif, as when King Thurston offers his glove to his son.  Typically a gesture of significance to comitatus, here, the glove exchange becomes a jest:  Horn is such an attractive hero that Berild needs the token to attract a wife.

style:  Style in the Middle Ages is an adaptation of classical distinctions between metaphoric, figurative, and colloquial writing.  These distinctions are reworked in the Middle Ages and refer, in a broad schema, to subject matter.  The subject matter of "King Horn" seems to be presented in the high style, appropriate for a courtly audience.


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Piers Plowman by William Langland

A long, religious allegory, Piers Plowman survives in three versions.  The large number of manuscripts evidence that the work was popular from the 14th through the 17th century.  The work is a dream vision, presented as the author's dream, fantastic and allegorical by nature.  It embodies the medieval idea that dreams relay truth in disguise.  

Piers Plowman accomplishes the following: 
1.  It provides a history of  Christianity according to the Old and New testament.
2.  It allegorically represents the Christian life of an individual.
3.  It records conflicts of late medieval society, especially 
       A.  feudal order of church which was in decay (Langland perhaps influenced  the Peasant's Revolt of 1381, as phrases from this work were used in the rhetoric of the rebellion.  His work also comments upon  Wycliff, an academic philosopher who led a movement against transubstantiation and who posited that the church should consist of a community of believers.  Wycliffe's beliefs encouraged a group known as Lollards (mumblers) who argued that scripture should be studied in the vernacular.  Lollards were perceived as heretics for some of their more extreme ideas (for example, they claimed that the Pope was the Anti-Christ).  Like the Lollards, Langland condemns the wealth of the church, but Langland looks for internal reform and is primarily conservative in his resistance to change).
       B.  shifting strata of social estates.  (The medieval notion of three estates-- cleric, nobility, and peasant-- was challenged by the burgeoning bourgeois class.  In Langland's day, medieval social structure was quite complex.  Langland's "fair field of folk" depicts and satirizes that social structure, particularly pointing out corruptions.  As such, it is "estates satire."  Langland's view, however, is that the various social estates could live harmoniously if not distracted by Mead, or money.  Lady Mead represents the corruption of every estate; Piers represents redemption. He is associated with common man, Adam, Moses, and Christ.)
4.  It has been referred to as a medieval sermon in that is shares traits with sin manuals about penance and confession.

Who is William Langland?
The final section of the C text gives some indication about Langland's background.  He  was most likely a married clerk who perhaps lacked preferment.  Apparently reduced to poverty, he lived the life of a wandering hermit in his youth. He refers to himself as "long Will" and was most likely from Malvern Hills.    

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The topic of my doctoral dissertation and much of my subsequent scholarship, the fabliau is my favorite medieval genre.  Defined by Joseph Bedier as "des contes a rires en vers" (short, humorous tales in verse," the medieval fabliaux flourished in 12th and 13th century France.  Although few English tales are extant other than Dame Siriz and Chaucer's fabliuax, eight Anglo-Norman tales and numerous references to fabliau subject matter indicate that the genre was also popular in England.  Fabliaux frequently concern a lover's triangle and an elaborate trick of which one character is the dupe, or victim.  One of the most salient characteristics of the genre is its concern with changing social roles.  As estates satire, the fabliau shows the complexities of medieval society beyond the traditional hierarchy of church, nobility, and peasant.  The fabliau demonstrates the upheaval of traditional societal estates and traditionally defined  societal roles by exposing and punishing the dupe, a character of liminal social standing. Antithetical to the conventional knight of the romance, fabliau knights are typically destitute and drunk; poor lovers and worse fighters. Likewise, bourgeois characters are rich and have frequently bought the title of nobility. Fabliau clerks neglect their clerical duties and devote their energies to such self-indulgent endeavors as lovemaking and eating.  As an intentional narrative device, fabliau also overturn the pristine, conventional language of the romance to expose the liminal standing of fabliau characters.

Please visit my article on "Dame Sirith" at this link.  Also, you can see my translation of Du Chevalier de lonc cul (The Knight with the long ass) at this link.  

(Bedier, Joseph.  Les Fabliaux.  6th edition.  Paris:  Champion, 1893.)

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Dr. Carol Jamison
Gamble Hall 202C
Armstrong Atlantic State University
11935 Abercorn Street
Savannah, GA 31419
Phone: 912.344.3097