Middle English Period

Why I hear you ask, do we call it 'Middle English'? Well, that's because it's in the middle of Old English and Modern English. That makes sense, but it's also been named a little bit unfairly, don't you think? It's as though its defining characteristic is the fact that it's in the middle of two more well-known siblings. It may be the literary middle child, but Middle English still has much to offer! Think Geoffrey Chaucer (c. the 1340s-1400), the legend of King Arthur, and the epic tale of Sir Gawain. Middle English even has the first-ever English autobiography! Are you convinced yet? 

Middle English Period Middle English Period

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Table of contents

    We'll start today by looking in a bit more detail at the Middle English period. We'll then look at some grammar before moving on to Middle English literature. We'll also look at some Middle English examples and the important characteristics of the period.

    Middle English Period Summary

    What do we mean when we refer to the 'Middle English period'? Let's start with a basic definition and summary.

    Middle English refers to a version of the English language spoken from approximately 1066 until 1500.

    The Middle English period began in 1066, following the Norman conquest of England.

    The Normans were a group of Vikings (Norsemen) descended from modern-day Denmark, Norway and Iceland who settled in northern France during the late 9th century. In 1066 they conquered England during the infamous battle of Hastings.

    Prior to this, England was controlled by the Anglo-Saxons, who themselves had invaded the island following the collapse of Roman Britain in the 5th Century AD.

    The Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic cultural group comprised of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. The group initially inhabited Scandinavia and northern Germany.

    During their nearly 600-year reign in England, The Anglo-Saxons spoke the first recorded version of the English language, known as 'Old English'. This version was more closely related to the West Germanic language family than it was to the version of English we know today. In fact, to a modern English speaker, Old English would sound completely foreign!

    Prior to the invasion, the Normans spoke a regional dialect of Old French, known as 'Norman French'. Immediately after conquering England, the Normans began to adopt loan words from the Anglo-Saxons, leading to a new variant of the French language called 'Anglo-Norman'.

    While the invasion began the process of mixing Old English and the Norman dialect, the Anglo-Norman language was still primarily based on French. It would be hundreds of years before the use of English was once again popularised.

    Anglo-Norman became associated with the upper class and was the language of nobility, courts, law and administration. Despite this, most of the lower-class population of England continued to speak Old English.

    During the 8th and 9th centuries, many scholars began writing works of literature in Old English. This was a turning point for the English mother tongue, which had only been a spoken language for hundreds of years prior. During that time, all documents in England were written exclusively in Latin.

    After the Norman invasion, Latin saw a resurgence within religious texts, and English once again fell out of use within written work. Although the majority of the lower-class population still spoke the language, English had become the least important written language within its own country.

    It took many years for English to once again re-emerge as the country's dominant language. One of the primary reasons for this was the Normans' gradual loss of touch with French culture. This occurred in part due to King John (1166-1216), who lost control of Normandy - the region of France under Norman control - to the King of France Philip II (1165-1223).

    Middle English Normandy StudySmarterFig 1. Normandy (highlighted red) is a region in northern France that was controlled by the Normans from 911 until 1204.

    This defeat isolated the Normans in England, quickly leading them to see themselves as English rather than French. Although many Anglo-Norman words had found their way into the Old English language by this point, this was the first time that Anglo-Norman speakers had readily and extensively adopted Old English words into their own vocabulary. The eventual mix of these two languages resulted in what we now know as Middle English.

    The impact of French on the English language is enormous and still visible today. By the end of the Middle Ages, it is estimated that 30 percent of words in the English language were derived from French.

    But what was the difference between Old and Middle English? Let's read on to find out.

    Middle English Period's Grammar and Characteristics

    The primary change from Old English to Middle English was the simplification of grammar. In Old English, word order was left up to the discretion of the author. Therefore, writers needed to use other grammatical functions to convey meaning within their work. Most prevalent within Old English was a startling number of inflections.

    Inflections are a change in a word (normally the ending) as a way to convey a meaning.

    This made Old English grammar extremely complex. In contrast, Middle English grammar was based more heavily on fixed word order, meaning that the arrangement of words could communicate the writer's intention over unnecessarily complex inflections.

    Old English also used three genders to describe nouns: masculine, feminine and neuter. Today we see this only in languages like German and Icelandic.

    This makes sense, as Old English is derived from the West Germanic language family!

    Middle English saw the transition towards the prepositional constructions that we find in our language today. Combined with the fixed word order, this makes Middle English much easier to understand for a modern English speaker when compared with Old English, which is almost impossible to comprehend without study.

    The primary difference between Middle English and Modern English is the amount of standardisation in the language. The invention of the printing press in 1436 allowed texts to be mass-printed. This helped regulate the written word, eventually making spelling, punctuation and grammar consistent throughout the country.

    Middle English Period: Literature

    Most of the surviving literature we have from both the Middle English and Old English period is either administrative or religious. Hymns, sermons, laws and documents are the most readily available texts for scholars who want to learn more about life in the Middle Ages.

    For hundreds of years after the Norman invasion, most literature was written in either Latin or French. Aside from some exceptions dated to the thirteenth century, like Layamon's Brut, English only made a complete resurgence within written work during the fourteenth century.

    There are many surviving examples of Middle English fiction from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that tell us a lot about language use, the way writers constructed texts, and the themes that medieval authors were concerned with. Let's look at three essential works created during this period.

    Middle English Period Writers

    Let's look at some important authors and poets from the Middle English period.

    Geoffrey Chaucer - The Canterbury Tales

    The most important text to come from Middle English is Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), which contains twenty-four unique tales told from the perspective of travelling pilgrims who are trying to win a story-telling contest. The work is largely written in poetry, but some passages are written in prose.

    Middle English Geoffrey Chaucer StudySmarterFig 2. Geoffrey Chaucer (c. the 1340s-1400) was an English poet and author famed for creating The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400).

    Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales for thirteen years until his death in 1400. There is debate as to whether he completed it in his lifetime or left the work unfinished. Given the fragmented information we have on Chaucer's life, we will likely never know for sure. Despite this, the story collection is still revered as one of the most complete works of literature ever made.

    By this time, English was starting to more closely resemble the language we know today. If we modernise spellings for this extract of The Canterbury Tales, it's possible to interpret the text quite easily.

    And bathed every veyne in swich licourOf which vertu engendred is the flour…

    Now, here's a modern translation of the same two lines.

    Modern translation:

    And bathed every vein in such liquorOf which virtue engendered is the flower...

    Compared with Old English, the fixed word order in Middle English texts makes them much more accessible for Modern English speakers to read. Within this extract, you can also see the Norman invasion's impact on the English language. The words 'vein', 'liquor', 'virtue', 'engendered', and 'flower' all derive from Old French!

    Margery Kempe - The Book of Margery Kempe

    The Book of Margery Kempe (c.1440) was published in the early 15th century and is the earliest example of an autobiography in the English language. Kempe's work is invaluable, as she was one of the first to depict the reality of a typical middle-class life in Medieval England.

    Throughout her life, Margery was also a brewer, a horse-mill owner, a visionary, a mystic, and a mother to fourteen children. Talk about living life to the fullest!

    Margery couldn't read or write, so she recited her stories to a scribe who wrote the book for her. The narrative tells us a lot about the beliefs held in England at the time. For example, when Margery's businesses collapsed, she saw it as punishment for her sins and so devoted herself entirely to religion. The autobiography also reveals a lot about common attitudes to women; she describes being accused of heresy, repeatedly arrested, and being told she would be burnt alive in the street.

    All in all, Margery's account of her life is a frank, unembarrassed account of a woman's life in Medieval England. As such, it is an essential text for anyone interested in learning more about the period.

    Anonymous - Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

    Published anonymously sometime around the year 1400, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tells the story of a knight at King Arthur's court, Camelot. The knight, named Sir Gawain, accepts a challenge from a Green Knight who arrives at court, after which Sir Gawain is put through a series of challenges that test both his loyalty and honour.

    Today the poem is seen as an important example of the 'romance' genre. No, not that romance! This is the medieval romance.

    The medieval romance genre typically shows a brave knight embarking on an epic quest on which his heroism, masculinity and morality will prevail.

    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tells us a lot about the medieval concern for honour and chivalry, which was a common theme in Middle English literature. The poem is also helpful for scholars studying the dialects of the period.

    Although the poet is anonymous, we know that he was from the North West Midlands, as the entire manuscript is written in this dialect.

    Middle English Period: Literary Features

    Let's look at some of the defining characteristics and literary features of Middle English literature in more detail.

    Depictions of chivalry

    One of the major themes within Middle English literature is Chivalry.

    Chivalry is the religious, social and moral conduct followed by Knights in the Middle ages.

    Chivalry binds a knight to a strict code of honour that shapes how they speak and act. Some of these virtues are generosity, piety, courtesy and chastity. The idea of chivalry was popularised in Middle English society through literature. The legend of King Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales all feature elements of chivalry that guide their character's choices.

    Did you know? The term 'chivalry' comes from the Old French chevalerie, meaning 'horse soldiery'.

    Religion

    Religion was one of the most important concerns in all Middle English society. Most citizens believed that God decided their fate and saw religion as a way of life. This was reflected in almost all literature of the period. As the church held authority over daily life, most texts instructed citizens on how to live content, religious lives while warning them of what not to do should they want to make it to the afterlife.

    Anonymous authors

    Many works of literature, both poetry and prose, were written anonymously in the Middle English period. This is because most Medieval literature comes from an oral tradition, meaning that it was designed to be spoken rather than read. This means that stories were often memorised, adapted and altered by different people, so knowledge of the original author was unimportant.

    Middle English - Key takeaways

    • Middle English refers to a version of the English language that was spoken from approximately 1066 until 1500.
    • Middle English was a combination of the Anglo-Norman dialect and Old English.
    • The primary change between Middle English and Old English was the simplification of grammar.
    • Many famous texts arose during this period, including The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), The Book of Margery Kempe (c.1440), and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c.1400).
    • Some of the most common features of Middle English literature were depictions of chivalry, religiosity, and anonymous authors.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Middle English Period

    What is the Middle English period in literature?

    The Middle English period in literature is a period or literature and language that lasted approximately between 1066-1500.

    What happened in the Middle English period? 

    Middle English is a variation of Old English mixed with the Anglo-Norman language, which was a consequence of the Norman Invasion of 1066. Other notable historical events include the Hundred Year's War and the Black Death. This period saw large changes in the English language. 

    Explain the difference between Old English and Middle English.

    The main difference between Middle English and Old English is the simplification of grammar.

    Who were the three main authors of the Middle English Period?

    While there are many authors of this period, the most prominent are considered to be Geoffrey Chaucer, Margery Kempe, and the anonymous author who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. 

    When was Middle English first used?

    It is a challenge to accurately ascribe dates to any literary movement or period. However, the start and end dates of Middle English are approximately 1066 until 1500.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Anglo-Norman became associated with the upper class and was the language of nobility, courts, law and administration. Is this true or false?

    Most of the lower-class population of England continued to speak Old English. Is this true or false?

    Many works of literature, both poetry and prose, were written anonymously in the Middle English period. Is this true or false?

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