Middle Ages And Literature Essay

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 à 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.

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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 possible.


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