[Click on image to enlarge] The Middle Ages is like no other period in The Norton Anthology of English Literature in terms of the time span it covers. Caedmon's Hymn, the earliest English poem to survive as a text (NAEL 8, 1.25-27), belongs to the latter part of the seventh century. The morality play, Everyman, is dated "after 1485" and probably belongs to the early-sixteenth century. In addition, for the Middle Ages, there is no one central movement or event such as the English Reformation, the Civil War, or the Restoration around which to organize a historical approach to the period.

When did "English Literature" begin? Any answer to that question must be problematic, for the very concept of English literature is a construction of literary history, a concept that changed over time. There are no "English" characters in Beowulf, and English scholars and authors had no knowledge of the poem before it was discovered and edited in the nineteenth century. Although written in the language called "Anglo-Saxon," the poem was claimed by Danish and German scholars as their earliest national epic before it came to be thought of as an "Old English" poem. One of the results of the Norman Conquest was that the structure and vocabulary of the English language changed to such an extent that Chaucer, even if he had come across a manuscript of Old English poetry, would have experienced far more difficulty construing the language than with medieval Latin, French, or Italian. If a King Arthur had actually lived, he would have spoken a Celtic language possibly still intelligible to native speakers of Middle Welsh but not to Middle English speakers.

The literary culture of the Middle Ages was far more international than national and was divided more by lines of class and audience than by language. Latin was the language of the Church and of learning. After the eleventh century, French became the dominant language of secular European literary culture. Edward, the Prince of Wales, who took the king of France prisoner at the battle of Poitiers in 1356, had culturally more in common with his royal captive than with the common people of England. And the legendary King Arthur was an international figure. Stories about him and his knights originated in Celtic poems and tales and were adapted and greatly expanded in Latin chronicles and French romances even before Arthur became an English hero.

Chaucer was certainly familiar with poetry that had its roots in the Old English period. He read popular romances in Middle English, most of which derive from more sophisticated French and Italian sources. But when he began writing in the 1360s and 1370s, he turned directly to French and Italian models as well as to classical poets (especially Ovid). English poets in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries looked upon Chaucer and his contemporary John Gower as founders of English literature, as those who made English a language fit for cultivated readers. In the Renaissance, Chaucer was referred to as the "English Homer." Spenser called him the "well of English undefiled."

Nevertheless, Chaucer and his contemporaries Gower, William Langland, and the Gawain poet — all writing in the latter third of the fourteenth century — are heirs to classical and medieval cultures that had been evolving for many centuries. Cultures is put in the plural deliberately, for there is a tendency, even on the part of medievalists, to think of the Middle Ages as a single culture epitomized by the Great Gothic cathedrals in which architecture, art, music, and liturgy seem to join in magnificent expressions of a unified faith — an approach one recent scholar has referred to as "cathedralism." Such a view overlooks the diversity of medieval cultures and the social, political, religious, economic, and technological changes that took place over this vastly long period.

The texts included here from "The Middle Ages" attempt to convey that diversity. They date from the sixth to the late- fifteenth century. Eight were originally in Old French, six in Latin, five in English, two in Old Saxon, two in Old Icelandic, and one each in Catalan, Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic.

"The Linguistic and Literary Contexts of Beowulf" demonstrates the kinship of the Anglo-Saxon poem with the versification and literature of other early branches of the Germanic language group. An Anglo-Saxon poet who was writing an epic based on the book of Genesis was able to insert into his work the episodes of the fall of the angels and the fall of man that he adapted with relatively minor changes from an Old Saxon poem thought to have been lost until a fragment from it was found late in the nineteenth century in the Vatican Library. Germanic mythology and legend preserved in Old Icelandic literature centuries later than Beowulf provide us with better insights into stories known to the poet than anything in ancient Greek and Roman epic poetry.

"Estates and Orders" samples ideas about medieval society and some of its members and institutions. Particular attention is given to religious orders and to the ascetic ideals that were supposed to rule the lives of men and women living in religious communities (such as Chaucer's Prioress, Monk, and Friar, who honor those rules more in the breach than in the observance) and anchorites (such as Julian of Norwich) living apart. The Rule of Saint Benedict, written for a sixth-century religious community, can serve the modern reader as a guidebook to the ideals and daily practices of monastic life. The mutual influence of those ideals and new aristocratic ideals of chivalry is evident in the selection from the Ancrene Riwle (Rule for Anchoresses, NAEL 8, [1.157–159]) and The Book of the Order of Chivalry. Though medieval social theory has little to say about women, women were sometimes treated satirically as if they constituted their own estate and profession in rebellion against the divinely ordained rule of men. An outstanding instance is the "Old Woman" from the Romance of the Rose, whom Chaucer reinvented as the Wife of Bath. The tenth-century English Benedictine monk Aelfric gives one of the earliest formulations of the theory of three estates — clergy, nobles, and commoners — working harmoniously together. But the deep- seated resentment between the upper and lower estates flared up dramatically in the Uprising of 1381 and is revealed by the slogans of the rebels, which are cited here in selections from the chronicles of Henry Knighton and Thomas Walsingham, and by the attack of the poet John Gower on the rebels in his Vox Clamantis. In the late-medieval genre of estates satire, all three estates are portrayed as selfishly corrupting and disrupting a mythical social order believed to have prevailed in a past happier age.

The selections under "Arthur and Gawain" trace how French writers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries transformed the Legendary Histories of Britain (NAEL 8 , 1.117–128) into the narrative genre that we now call "romance." The works of Chrétien de Troyes focus on the adventures of individual knights of the Round Table and how those adventures impinge upon the cult of chivalry. Such adventures often take the form of a quest to achieve honor or what Sir Thomas Malory often refers to as "worship." But in romance the adventurous quest is often entangled, for better or for worse, with personal fulfillment of love for a lady — achieving her love, protecting her honor, and, in rare cases such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, resisting a lady's advances. In the thirteenth century, clerics turned the sagas of Arthur and his knights — especially Sir Lancelot — into immensely long prose romances that disparaged worldly chivalry and the love of women and advocated spiritual chivalry and sexual purity. These were the "French books" that Malory, as his editor and printer William Caxton tells us, "abridged into English," and gave them the definitive form from which Arthurian literature has survived in poetry, prose, art, and film into modern times.

"The First Crusade," launched in 1096, was the first in a series of holy wars that profoundly affected the ideology and culture of Christian Europe. Preached by Pope Urban II, the aim of the crusade was to unite warring Christian factions in the common goal of liberating the Holy Land from its Moslem rulers. The chronicle of Robert the Monk is one of several versions of Urban's address. The Hebrew chronicle of Eliezer bar Nathan gives a moving account of attacks made by some of the crusaders on Jewish communities in the Rhineland — the beginnings of the persecution of European Jews in the later Middle Ages. In the biography of her father, the Byzantine emperor Alexius I, the princess Anna Comnena provides us with still another perspective of the leaders of the First Crusade whom she met on their passage through Constantinople en route to the Holy Land. The taking of Jerusalem by the crusaders came to be celebrated by European writers of history and epic poetry as one of the greatest heroic achievements of all times. The accounts by the Arab historian Ibn Al-Athir and by William of Tyre tell us what happened after the crusaders breached the walls of Jerusalem from complementary but very different points of view.


© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback  :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page    
Home