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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 laim 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 oet 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 f 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 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, roviding 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.

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