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The Norman Conquest.—The overthrow of the Saxon rule in England by William the Conqueror in 1066 was an event of vast importance to English literature. The Normans (Norsemen or Northmen), as they were called, a term which shows their northern extraction, were originally of the same blood as the English race. They settled in France in the ninth century, married French wives, and adopted the French language. In 1066 their leader, Duke William, and his army crossed the English Channel and won the battle of Hastings, in which Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king, was killed. William thus became king of England.

Characteristics of the Normans.—The intermixture of Teutonic and French blood had given to the Normans the best qualities of both races. The Norman was nimble-witted, highly imaginative, and full of northern energy. The Saxon possessed dogged perseverance, good common sense, if he had long enough to think, and but little imagination. Some one has well said that the union of Norman with Saxon was like joining the swift spirit of the eagle to the strong body of the ox, or, again, that the Saxon furnished the dough, and the Norman the yeast. Had it not been for the blending of these necessary qualities in one race, English literature could not have become the first in the world. We see the characteristics of both the Teuton and the Norman in Shakespeare's greatest plays. A pure Saxon could not have turned from Hamlet's soliloquy to write:—

  “Where the bee sucks, there suck I.”[1]

Progress of the Nation, 1066-1400.—The Normans were specially successful in giving a strong central government to England. The feudal system, that custom of parceling out land in return for service, was so extended by William the Conqueror, that from king through noble to serf there was not a break in the interdependence of one human being on another. At first the Normans were the ruling classes and they looked down on the Saxons; but intermarriage and community of interests united both races into one strong nation before the close of the period.

There was great improvement in methods of administering justice. Accused persons no longer had to submit to the ordeal of the red-hot iron or to trial by combat, relying on heaven to decide their innocence. Ecclesiastical courts lost their jurisdiction over civil cases. In the reign of Henry II. (1154-1189), great grandson of William the Conqueror, judges went on circuits, and the germ of the jury system was developed.

Parliament grew more influential, and the first half of the fourteenth century saw it organized into two bodies,—the Lords and the Commons. Three kings who governed tyrannically or unwisely were curbed or deposed. King John (1199-1216) was compelled to sign the Magna Charta, which reduced to writing certain foundation rights of his subjects. Edward II. (1307-1327) and Richard II. (1377-1399) were both deposed by Parliament. One of the reasons assigned far the deposition of Richard II. was his claim that “he alone could change and frame the laws of the kingdom.”

The ideals of chivalry and the Crusades left their impress on the age. One English Monarch, Richard the Lion-Hearted (1189-1199) was the popular hero of the Third Crusade. In Ivanhoe and The TalismanSir Walter Scott presents vivid pictures of knights and crusaders.

We may form some idea of the religious spirit of the Middle Ages from the Gothic cathedrals, which had the same relative position in the world's architecture as Shakespeare's work does in literature. Travelers often declare that there is to-day nothing in England better worth seeing than these cathedrals, which were erected in the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries.[2]

The religious, social, and intellectual life of the time was profoundly affected by the coming of the friars (1220), who included the earnest followers of St. Francis (1182-1226), that Good Samaritan of the Middle Ages. The great philosopher and scientist, Roger Bacon (1214-1294), who was centuries in advance of his time, was a Franciscan friar. He studied at Oxford University, which had in his time become one of the great institutions of Europe.

The church fostered schools and learning, while the barons were fighting. Although William Langland, a fourteenth-century cleric, pointed out the abuses which had crept into the church, he gave this testimony in its favor:—

  “For if heaven be on this earth or any ease for the soul, it is in 
  cloister or school. For in cloister no man cometh to chide or fight, 
  and in school there is lowliness and love and liking to learn.”

The rise of the common people was slow. During all this period the tillers of the soil were legally serfs, forbidden to change their location. The Black Death (1349) and the Peasants' Revolt (1381), although seemingly barren of results, helped them in their struggle toward emancipation. Some bought their freedom with part of their wages. Others escaped to the towns where new commercial activities needed more labor. Finally, the common toiler acquired more commanding influence by overthrowing even the French knights with his long bow. This period laid the foundation for the almost complete disappearance of serfdom in the fifteenth century. France waited for the terrible Revolution of 1789 to free her serfs. England anticipated other great modern nations in producing a literature of universal appeal because her common people began to throw off their shackles earlier.

This period opens with a victorious French army in England, followed by the rule of the conquerors, who made French the language of high life. It closes with the ascendancy of English government and speech at home and with the mid-fourteenth century victories of English armies on French soil, resulting in the rapture of Calais, which remained for more than two hundred years in the possession of England.

At the close of this period we find Wycliffe, “the morning star of the Reformation,” and Chaucer, the first great singer of the welded Anglo-Norman race. His wide interest in human beings and his knowledge of the new Italian literature prefigure the coming to England of the Revival of Learning in the next age.

It will now be necessary to study the changes in the language, which were so pronounced between 1066 and Chaucer's death.


Three Languages used in England—For three hundred years after the Norman Conquest, three languages were widely used in England. The Normans introduced French, which was the language of the court and the aristocracy. William the Conqueror brought over many Norman priests, who used Latin almost exclusively in their service. The influence of this book Latin is generally underestimated by those who do not appreciate the power of the church. The Domesday survey shows that in 1085 the church and her dependents held more than one third of some counties.

In addition to the Latin and the French (which was itself principally of Latin origin), there was, thirdly, the Anglo-Saxon, to which the middle and the lower classes of the English stubbornly adhered. The Loss of Inflections.—Anglo-Saxon was a language with changing endings, like modern German. If a Saxon wished to say, “good gifts,” he had to have the proper case endings for both the adjective and the noun, and his expression was g=ode giefa. For “the good gifts,” he said eth=a g=odan giefa, inflecting “the” and at the same time changing the case ending of “good.”

The Norman Conquest helped to lop off these endings, which German has never entirely lost. We, however, no longer decline articles or ordinary adjectives. Instead of having our attention taken up with thinking of the proper endings, we are left free to attend to the thought rather than to the vehicle of its expression. Although our pronouns are still declined, the sole inflection of our nouns, with the exception of a few like ox, oxen, or mouse, mice, is the addition of 's, s, or es for the possessive and the plural. Modern German, on the other hand, still retains these troublesome case endings. How did English have the good fortune to lose them?

Whenever two peoples, speaking different languages, are closely associated, there is a tendency to drop the terminations and to use the stem word in all grammatical relations. If an English-speaking person, who knows only a little German, travels in Germany, he finds that he can make himself understood by using only one form of the noun or adjective. If he calls for “two large glasses of hot milk,” employing the incorrect expression, zwei gross Glass heiss Milch, he will probably get the milk as quickly as if he had said correctly, zwei grosse Glaeser heisse Milch. Neglect of the proper case endings may provoke a smile, but the tourist prefers that to starvation. Should the Germans and the English happen to be thrown together in nearly equal numbers on an island, the Germans would begin to drop the inflections that the English could not understand, and the German language would undergo a change.

If there were no books or newspapers to circulate a fixed form of speech, the alteration in the spoken tongue would be comparatively rapid.

Such dropping of terminations is precisely what did happen before the Norman Conquest in those parts of England most overrun by the Danes. There, the adjectives lost their terminations to indicate gender and case, and the article “the” ceased to be declined.

Even if the Normans had not come to England, the dropping of the inflections would not have ceased. Many authorities think that the grammatical structure of English would, even in the absence of that event, have evolved into something like its present form. Of course the Norman Conquest hastened many grammatical changes that would ultimately have resulted from inherent causes, but it did not exercise as great an influence as was formerly ascribed to it. Philologists find it impossible to assign the exact amount of change due to the Conquest and to other causes. Let us next notice some changes other than the loss of inflections.

Change in Gender.—Before any one could speak Anglo-Saxon correctly, he had first to learn the fanciful genders that were attached to nouns: “trousers” was feminine; “childhood,” masculine; “child,” neuter. During this period the English gradually lost these fanciful genders which the German still retains. A critic thus illustrates the use of genders in that language: “A German gentleman writes a masculine letter of feminine love to a neuter young lady with a feminine pen and feminine ink on masculine sheets of neuter paper, and incloses it in a masculine envelope with a feminine address to his darling, though neuter, Gretchen. He has a masculine head, a feminine hand, and a neuter heart.”

Prefixes, Suffixes, and Self-explaining Compounds.—The English tongue lost much of its power of using prefixes. A prefix joined to a well-known word changes its meaning and renders the coining of a new term unnecessary. The Anglo-Saxons, by the use of prefixes, formed ten compounds from their verb fl=owan, “to flow.” Of these, only one survives in our “overflow.” From sittan, “to sit,” thirteen compounds were thus formed, but every one has perished. A larger percentage of suffixes was retained, and we still have many words like “wholesome-ness,” “child-hood,” “sing-er.”

The power of forming self-explaining compounds was largely lost. The Saxon compounded the words for “tree,” and “worker,” and said tr=eow-wyrhta, “tree-wright,” but we now make use of the single word “carpenter.” We have replaced the Saxon b=oc-craeft, “book-art,” by “literature”; =aefen-gl=om, “evening-gloom,” by “twilight”; mere-sw=in, “sea-swine,” by “porpoise”; =eag-wraec, “eye-rack,” by “pain in the eye”; leornung-cild, “learning-child,” by “pupil.” The title of an old work, Ayen-bite of In-wit, “Again-bite of In-wit,” was translated into “Remorse of Conscience.” Grund-weall and word-hora were displaced by “foundation” and “vocabulary.” The German language still retains this power and calls a glove a “hand-shoe,” a thimble a “finger-hat,” and rolls up such clumsy compound expressions as Unabhaengigkeits-erklaerung.

We might lament this loss more if we did not remember that Shakespeare found our language ample for his needs, and that a considerable number of the old compounds still survive, as home-stead, man-hood, in-sight, break-fast, house-hold, horse-back, ship-man, sea-shore, hand-work, and day-light.

Introduction of New Words and Loss of Old Ones.—Since the Normans were for some time the governing race, while many of the Saxons occupied comparatively menial positions, numerous French words indicative of rank, power, science, luxury, and fashion were introduced. Many titles were derived from a French source. English thus obtained words like “sovereign,” “royalty,” “duke,” “marquis,” “mayor,” and “clerk.” Many terms of government are from the French; for instance, “parliament,” “peers,” “commons.” The language of law abounds in French terms, like “damage,” “trespass,” “circuit,” “judge,” “jury,” “verdict,” “sentence,” “counsel,” “prisoner.” Many words used in war, architecture, and medicine also have a French origin. Examples are “fort,” “arch,” “mason,” “surgery.” In fact, we find words from the French in almost every field. “Uncle” and “cousin,” “rabbit” and “falcon,” “trot” and “stable,” “money” and “soldier,” “reason” and “virtue,” “Bible” and “preach,” are instances in point.

French words often displaced Saxon ones. Thus, the Saxon Haelend, the Healer, gave way to the French Savior, wanhope and wonstead were displaced by despair and residence. Sometimes the Saxon stubbornly kept its place beside the French term. The English language is thus especially rich in synonyms, or rather in slightly differentiated forms of expression capable of denoting the exact shade of thought and feeling. The following words are instances:—


  body corpse 
  folk people 
  swine pork 
  calf veal 
  worth value 
  green verdant 
  food nourishment 
  wrangle contend 
  fatherly paternal 
  workman laborer

English was enriched not only by those expressions, gained from the daily speech of the Normans, but also by words that were added from literary Latin. Thus, we have the Saxon “ask,” the Norman-French “inquire” and “question,” and the Latin “interrogate.” “Bold,” “impudent,” “audacious”; “bright,” “cheerful,” “animated”; “earnings,” “wages,” “remuneration,” “short,” “brief,” “concise,” are other examples of words, largely synonymous, from the Saxon, the Norman-French, and the Latin, respectively. These facts explain why modern English has such a wealth of expression, although probably more than one half of the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary has been lost.

The Superiority of the Composite Tongue.—While we insist on the truth that Anglo-Saxon gained much of its wonderful directness and power from standing in close relations to earnest life, it is necessary to remember that many words of French origin did, by an apprenticeship at the fireside, in the field, the workshop, and the laboratory, equally fit themselves for taking their place in the language. Such words from French-Latin roots as “faith,” “pray,” “vein,” “beast,” “poor,” “nurse,” “flower,” “taste,” “state,” and “fool” remain in our vocabulary because they were used in everyday life.

Pure Anglo-Saxon was a forcible language, but it lacked the wealth of expression and the flexibility necessary to respond to the most delicate touches of the master-musicians who were to come. When Shakespeare has Lear say of Cordelia:—

              “Her voice was ever soft, 
  Gentle, and low; an excellent thing in woman,”

we find that ten of the thirteen words are Saxon, but the other three of Romance (French) origin are as necessary as is a small amount of tin added to copper to make bronze. Two of these three words express varying shades of quality.

Lounsbury well says: “There result, indeed, from the union of the foreign and native elements, a wealth of phraseology and a many-sidedness in English, which give it in these respects a superiority over any other modern cultivated tongue. German is strictly a pure Teutonic speech, but no native speaker of it claims for it any superiority over the English as an instrument of expression, while many are willing to concede its inferiority.”

The Changes Slowly Accomplished.—For over a hundred years after the Conquest, but few French words found their way into current English use. This is shown by the fact that the Brut, a poem of 32,250 lines, translated from a French original into English about 1205, has not more than a hundred words of Norman-French origin.

At first the Normans despised the tongue of the conquered Saxons, but, as time progressed, the two races intermarried, and the children could hardly escape learning some Saxon words from their mothers or nurses. On the other hand, many well-to-do Saxons, like parents in later times, probably had their children taught French because it was considered aristocratic.

Until 1204 a knowledge of French was an absolute necessity to the nobles, as they frequently went back and forth between their estates in Normandy and in England. In 1204 King John lost Normandy, and in the next reign both English and French kings decreed that no subject of the one should hold land in the territory of the other. This narrowing of the attention of English subjects down to England was a foundation stone in building up the supremacy of the English tongue.

In 1338 began the Hundred Years' War between France and England. In Edward the Third's reign (1327-1377), it was demonstrated that one Englishman could whip six Frenchmen; and the language of a hostile and partly conquered race naturally began to occupy a less high position. In 1362 Parliament enacted that English should thereafter be used in law courts, “because the laws, customs, and statutes of this realm, be not commonly known in the same realm, for that they be pleaded, shewed, and judged in the French tongue, which is much unknown in the said realm.”


Metrical Romances.—For nearly three hundred years after the Norman Conquest the chief literary productions were metrical romances, which were in the first instance usually written by Frenchmen, but sometimes by Englishmen (e.g. Layamon) under French influence. There were four main cycles of French romance especially popular in England before the fifteenth century. These were tales of the remarkable adventures of King Arthur and his Knights, Charlemagne and his Peers, Alexander the Great, and the heroes at the siege of Troy. At the battle of Hastings a French minstrel is said to have sung the Song of Roland from the Charlemagne cycle.

These long stories in verse usually present the glory of chivalry, the religious faith, and the romantic loves of a feudal age. In Beowulf, woman plays a very minor part and there is no love story; but in these romances we often find woman and love in the ascendancy. One of them, well known today in song, Tristram and Iseult (Wagner's Tristan und Isolde), “a possession of our composite race,” is almost entirely a story of romantic love.

The romances of this age that have most interest for English readers are those which relate to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. The foundation suggestions for the most of this cycle are of British (Welsh) origin. This period would not have existed in vain, if it had given to the world nothing, but these Arthurian ideals of generosity, courage, honor, and high endeavour, which are still a potent influence. In his Idylls of the King, Tennyson calls Arthur and his Knights:—

  “A glorious company, the flower of men, 
  To serve as model for the mighty world, 
  And be the fair beginning of a time.”

The Quest of the Holy Grail belongs to the Arthurian cycle. Percival (Wagner's Parsifal), the hero of the earlier version and Sir Galahad of the later, show the same spirit that animated the knights in the Crusades. Tennyson introduces Sir Galahad as a knight whose strength is as the strength of ten because his heart is pure, undertaking “the far-quest after the divine.” The American poet Lowell chose Sir Launfal, a less prominent figure in Arthurian romance, for the hero of his version of the search for the Grail, and had him find it in every sympathetic act along the common way of life.

The story of Gawayne and the Green Knight, “the jewel of English medieval literature,” tells how Sir Gawayne, Arthur's favorite, fought with a giant called the Green Knight. The romance might almost be called a sermon, if it did not reveal in a more interesting way a great moral truth,—that deception weakens character and renders the deceiver vulnerable in life's contests. In preparing for the struggle, Sir Gawayne is guilty of one act of deceit. But for this, he would have emerged unscathed from the battle. One wound, which leaves a lasting scar, is the result of an apparently trivial deception. His purity and honor in all things else save him from death. This story, which reminds us of Spenser's Faerie Queene, presents in a new garb one of the oft-recurring ideals of the race, “keep troth” (truth). Chaucer sings in the same key:—

  “Hold the hye wey, and let thy gost thee lede, 
  And trouthe shall delivere, it is no drede.”

We should remember that these romances are the most characteristic literary creations of the Middle Ages, that they embody the new spirit of chivalry, religious faith, and romantic love in a feudal age, that they had a story to tell, and that some of them have never lost their influence on human ideals.

A Latin Chronicler.—One chronicler, Geoffrey of Monmouth, although he wrote in Latin, must receive some attention because of his vast influence on English poetry. He probably acquired his last name from being archdeacon of Monmouth. He was appointed Bishop of St. Asaph in 1152 and died about 1154. Unlike the majority of the monkish chroniclers, he possessed a vivid imagination, which he used in his so-called History of the Kings of Britain.

Geoffrey pretended to have found an old manuscript which related the deeds of all British kings from Brutus, the mythical founder of the kingdom of Britain, and the great-grandson of Aeneas, to Caesar. Geoffrey wrote an account of the traditionary British kings down to Cadwallader in 689 with as much minuteness and gravity as Swift employed in the Voyage to Lilliput. Other chroniclers declared that Geoffrey lied saucily and shamelessly, but his book became extremely popular. The monks could not then comprehend that the world's greatest literary works were to be products of the imagination.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain we are given vivid pictures of King Lear and his daughters, of Cymbeline, of King Arthur and his Knights, of Guinevere and the rest of that company whom later poets have immortalized. It is probable that Geoffrey was not particular whether he obtained his materials from old chroniclers, Welsh bards, floating tradition, or from his own imagination. His book left its impress on the historical imagination of the Middle Ages. Had it not been for Geoffrey's History, the dramas of King Lear and Cymbeline might never have been suggested to Shakespeare.

Layamon's Brut.—About 1155 a Frenchman named Wace translated into his own language Geoffrey of Monmouth's works. This translation fell into the hands of Layamon, a priest living in Worcestershire, who proceeded to render the poem, with additions of his own, into the Southern English dialect. Wace's Brut has 15,300 lines; Layamon's, 32,250. As the matter which Layamon added is the best in the poem, he is, in so far, an original author of much imaginative power. He is certainly the greatest poet between the Conquest and Chaucer's time.

A selection from the Brut will give the student an opportunity of comparing this transition English with the language in its modern form:—

  “And Ich wulle varan to Avalun: And I will fare to Avalon, 
  To vairest alre maidene To the fairest of all maidens, 
  To Argante ethere quene, To Argante the queen, 
  Alven swiethe sceone; Elf surpassing fair; 
  And heo scal mine wunden And she shall my wounds 
  Makien alle isunde, Make all sound, 
  Al hal me makien All hale me make 
  Mid halweige drenchen. With healing draughts. 
  And seoethe Ich cumen wulle And afterwards I will come 
  To mine kineriche To my kingdom 
  And wunien mid Brutten And dwell with Britons 
  Mid muchelere wunne.” With much joy.

With this, compare the following lines from Tennyson's The Passing of Arthur:—

          ”...I am going a long way 
       * * * * * 
  To the island-valley of Avilion, 
  Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow, 
  Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies 
  Deep-meadow'd, happy, fair with orchard lawns 
  And bowery hollows crown'd with summer sea, 
  Where I will heal me of my grievous wound. 
       * * * * * 
  He passes to be King among the dead, 
  And after healing of his grievous wound 
  He comes again.”

Layamon employed less alliteration than is found in Anglo-Saxon poetry. He also used an occasional rime, but the accent and rhythm of his verse are more Saxon than modern. When reading Tennyson's Idylls of the King, we must not forget that Layamon was the first poet to celebrate in English King Arthur's deeds. The Brut shows little trace of French influences, not more than a hundred French words being found in it.

Orm's Ormulum.—A monk named Orm wrote in the Midland dialect a metrical paraphrase of those parts of the Gospels used in the church on each service day throughout the year. After the paraphrase comes his metrical explanation and application of the Scripture.

He says:—

  “Diss boc iss nemmnedd Orrmulum 
  Forrethi ethatt Ormm itt wrohhte.”

  This book is named Ormulum 
  For that Orm it wrote.

There was no fixed spelling at this time. Orm generally doubled the consonant after a short vowel, and insisted that any one who copied his work should be careful to do the same. We shall find on counting the syllables in the two lines quoted from him that the first line has eight; the second, seven. This scheme is followed with great precision throughout the poem, which employs neither rime nor regular alliteration. Orm used even fewer French words than Layamon. The date of the Ormulum is probably somewhere between 1200 and 1215.

The Ancren Riwle.—About 1225 appeared the most notable prose work in the native tongue since the time of Alfred, if we except the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Three young ladies who had secluded themselves from the world in Dorsetshire, wished rules for guidance in their seclusion. An unknown author, to oblige them, wrote the Ancren Riwle (Rule of Anchoresses). This book not only lays down rules for their future conduct in all the affairs of life, but also offers much religious consolation.

The following selection shows some of the curious rules for the guidance of the anchoresses, and furnishes a specimen of the Southern dialect of transitional English prose in the early part of the thirteenth century:—

  “sse, mine leoue sustren, 
  ne schulen habben no best 
  bute kat one... sse schulen 
  beon i-dodded four siethen, 
  iethe ssere, uorto lihten ower 
  heaued... Of idelnesse awakeneeth 
  muchel flesshes fondunge... 
  Iren ethet lieth stille gedereeth 
  sone rust.”

  Ye, my beloved sisters, 
  shall have no beast 
  but one cat... Ye shall 
  be cropped four times 
  in the year for to lighten your 
  head... Of idleness ariseth 
  much temptation of the flesh... 
  Iron that lieth still soon gathereth 

The keynote of the work is the renunciation of self. Few productions of modern literature contain finer pictures of the divine love and sympathy. The following simile affords an instance of this quality in the work:—

  “De sixte kunfort is ethet 
  ure Louerd, hwon he ietholeth 
  ethet we beoeth itented, he plaieeth mid 
  us, ase ethe moder mid hire ssunge 
  deorlinge; vliheth from him, and 
  hut hire, and let hit sitten one, 
  and loken sseorne abuten, and cleopien 
  Dame! dame! and weopen 
  one hwule; and etheonne mid ispredde 
  ermes leapeeth lauhwinde 
  voreth, and cluppeeth and cusseeth and 
  wipeeth his eien. Riht so ure 
  Louerd let us one iwurethen oether 
  hwules, and wiethdraweeth his grace 
  and his kunfort, ethet we ne ivindeeth 
  swetnesse in none ethinge ethet we wel 
  doeth, ne savor of heorte; and ethauh, 
  iethet ilke point ne luveeth he us 
  ure leove veder never ethe lesce, 
  auh he deeth hit for muchel luve 
  ethet he haveeth to us.”

  The sixth comfort is that 
  our Lord, when he suffers 
  that we be tempted, he plays with 
  us, as the mother with her young 
  darling; she flees from it, and 
  hides herself, and lets it sit alone 
  and look anxiously about and cry 
  “Dame! dame!” and weep 
  awhile; and then with outspread 
  arms leaps laughing 
  forth and clasps and kisses it and 
  wipes its eyes. Exactly so our 
  Lord leaves us alone once in a 
  while and withdraws his grace 
  and his comfort, that we find 
  sweetness in nothing that we do well, 
  no relish of heart; and notwithstanding, 
  at the same time, he, our dear 
  Father, loves us nevertheless, 
  but he does it for the great love 
  that he has for us.

Professor Sweet calls the Ancren Riwle “one of the most perfect models of simple, natural, eloquent prose in our language.” For its introduction of French words, this work occupies a prominent place in the development of the English language. Among the words of French origin found in it, we may instance: “dainty,” “cruelty,” “vestments,” “comfort,” “journey,” “mercer.”

Lyrical Poetry.—A famous British Museum manuscript, known as Harleian MS., No. 2253. which was transcribed about 1310, contains a fine anthology of English lyrics, some of which may have been composed early in the thirteenth century. The best of these are love lyrics, but they are less remarkable for an expression of the tender passion than for a genuine appreciation of nature. Some of them are full of the joy of birds and flowers and warm spring days.

A lover's song, called Alysoun, is one of the best of these lyrics:—

  “Bytuene Mershe ant[3] Averil[4] 
    When spray biginneth to spring, 
  The lutel[5] foul hath hire wyl 
    On hyre lud[6] to synge.”

A famous spring lyric beginning:—

  “Lenten[7] ys come with love to toune,[8] 
    With blosmen ant with briddes[9] roune.”[10]

is a symphony of daisies, roses, “lovesome lilies,” thrushes, and “notes suete of nyhtegales.”

The refrain of one love song is invigorating with the breath of the northern wind:—

  “Blou, northerne wynd! 
  Send thou me my suetyng! 
  Blou norterne wynd! blou, blou, blou!”

The Cuckoo Song, which is perhaps older than any of these, is the best known of all the early lyrics:—

  “Sumer is i-cumen in 
  Lhude sing cuccu 
  Groweth sed and bloweth med 
  And springeth the wde nu. 
  Sing cuccu, cuccu.”

  Summer is a-coming in, 
  Loud sing cuckoo, 
  Groweth seed and bloometh mead, 
  And springeth the wood now. 
  Sing cuckoo, cuckoo.

A more somber note is heard in the religious lyrics:—

     “Wynter wakeneth al my care, 
        Nou this leves waxeth bare; 
      Ofte I sike[11] ant mourne sare[12] 
    When hit cometh in my thoht 
  Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.”

We do not know the names of any of these singers, but they were worthy forerunners of the later lyrists of love and nature.

Robert Manning of Brunne.—We have now come to fourteenth-century literature, which begins to wear a more modern aspect. Robert Manning, generally known as Robert of Brunne, because he was born at Brunne, now called Bourn, in Lincolnshire, adapted from a Norman-French original a work entitled Handlyng Synne (Manual of Sins). This book, written in the Midland dialect in 1303, discourses of the Seven Deadly Sins and the best ways of living a godly life.

A careful inspection of the following selection from the Handlyng Synne will show that, aside from the spelling, the English is essentially modern. Most persons will be able to understand all but a few words. He was the first prominent English writer to use the modern order of words. The end rime is also modern. A beggar, seeing a beast laden with bread at the house of a rich man, asks for food. The poem says of the rich man:—

  “He stouped down to seke a stone, 
  But, as hap was, than fonde he none. 
  For the stone he toke a lofe, 
  And at the pore man hyt drofe. 
  The pore man hente hyt up belyue, 
  And was thereof ful ferly blythe, 
  To hys felaws fast he ran 
  With the lofe, thys pore man.”

  He stooped down to seek a stone, 
  But, as chance was, then found he none. 
  For the stone he took a loaf, 
  And at the poor man it drove. 
  The poor man caught it up quickly, 
  And was thereof full strangely glad, 
  To his fellows fast he ran 
  With the loaf this poor man.

Oliphant says: “Strange it is that Dante should have been compiling his Inferno, which settled the course of Italian literature forever, in the selfsame years that Robert of Brunne was compiling the earliest pattern of well-formed New English... Almost every one of the Teutonic changes in idiom, distinguishing the New English from the Old, the speech of Queen Victoria from the speech of Hengist, is to be found in Manning's work.”

Mandeville's Travels.—Sir John Mandeville, who is popularly considered the author of a very entertaining work of travels, states that he was born in St. Albans in 1300, that he left England in 1322, and traveled in the East for thirty-four years. His Travels relates what he saw and heard in his wanderings through Ethiopia, Persia, Tartary, India, and Cathay. What he tells on his own authority, he vouches for as true, but what he relates as hearsay, he leaves to the reader's judgment for belief.

No such single traveler as Mandeville ever existed. The work attributed to him has been proved to be a compilation from the writings of other travelers. A French critic says wittily: “He first lost his character as a truthful writer; then out of the three versions of his book, French, English, and Latin, two were withdrawn from him, leaving him only the first. Existence has now been taken from him, and he is left with nothing at all.” No matter, however, who the author was, the book exists. More manuscripts of it survive than of any other work except the Scriptures. It is the most entertaining volume of English prose that we have before 1360. The sentences are simple and direct, and they describe things vividly:—

  “In Ethiope ben many dyverse folk: and Ethiope is clept[13] Cusis. 
  In that contree ben folk, that han but o foot: and thei gon so fast, 
  that it is marvaylle: and the foot is so large, that it schadewethe 
  alle the body azen[14] the Sonne whanne thei wole[15] lye and reste 

Mandeville also tells of a bird that used to amuse itself by flying away with an elephant in its talons. In the land of Prester John was a valley where Mandeville says he saw devils jumping about as thick as grasshoppers. Stories like these make the work as interesting as Gulliver's Travels.

The so-called Mandeville's Travels was one of the few works that the unlearned of that age could understand and enjoy. Consequently its popularity was so great as to bring large number of French words into familiar use. The native “againbought” is, however, used instead of the foreign “redeemed.”

John Wycliffe.—Wycliffe (1324-1384) was born at Hipswell, near Richmond, in the northern part of Yorkshire. He became a doctor of divinity and a master of one of the colleges at Oxford. Afterward he was installed vicar of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, where he died. In history he is principally known as the first great figure in the English Reformation. He preceded the other reformers by more than a century. In literature he is best known for the first complete translation of the Bible,—a work that exerted great influence on English prose. All the translation was not made by him personally, but all was done under his direction. The translation of most of the New Testament is thought to be his own special work. He is the most important prose writer of the fourteenth century. His prose had an influence as wide as the circulation of the Bible. The fact that it was forced to circulate in manuscript, because printing had not then been invented, limited his readers; but his translation was, nevertheless, read by many. To help the cause of the Reformation, he wrote argumentative religious pamphlets, which are excellent specimens of energetic fourteenth-century prose.

Of his place in literature, Ten Brink says: “Wycliffe's literary importance lies in the fact that he extended the domain of English prose and enhanced its powers of expression. He accustomed it to terse reasoning, and perfected it as an instrument for expressing rigorous logical thought and argument; he brought it into the service of great ideas and questions of the day, and made it the medium of polemics and satire. And above all, he raised it to the dignity of the national language of the Bible.”

The following is a specimen verse of Wycliffe's translation. We may note that the strong old English word “againrising” had not then been displaced by the Latin “resurrection.”

  “Jhesu seith to hir, I am agenrisyng and lyf; he that bileueth in 
  me, he, if he schal be deed, schall lyue.”

Piers Plowman.—The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman, popularly called Piers Plowman, from its most important character, is the name of an allegorical poem, the first draft (“A” text) of which was probably composed about 1362. Later in the century two other versions, known as texts “B” and “C” appeared. Authorities differ in regard to whether these are the work of the same man. The Vision is the first and the most interesting part of a much longer work, known as Liber de Petro Plowman (The Book of Piers the Plowman).

The authorship of the poem is not certainly known, but it has long been ascribed to William Langland, born about 1322 at Cleobury Mortimer in Shropshire. The author of Piers Plowman seems to have performed certain functions connected with the church, such as singing at funerals.

Piers Plowman opens on a pleasant May morning amid rural scenery. The poet falls asleep by the side of a brook and dreams. In his dream he has a vision of the world passing before his eyes, like a drama. The poem tells what he saw. Its opening lines are:—

  “In a s_omer s_eson * whan s_oft was the s_onne 
  I sh_ope[17] me in sh_roudes[18] * as I a sh_epe[19] were 
  In h_abite as an h_eremite[20]—un_h_oly of workes 
  W_ent w_yde in is w_orld—w_ondres to here 
  Ac on a M_ay m_ornynge—on M_aluerne hulles[21] 
  Me by_f_el a f_erly[22]—of f_airy me thouss te 
  I w_as w_ery for_w_andred[23]—and w_ent me to reste 
  Under a b_rode b_ank—b_i a b_ornes[24] side, 
  And as I l_ay and l_ened[25]—and l_oked in e wateres 
  I s_lombred in a s_lepyng—it s_weyved[26] so merye.”

The language of Piers Plowman is a mixture of the Southern and Midland dialects. It should be noticed that the poem employs the old Anglo-Saxon alliterative meter. There is no end rime. Piers Plowman is the last great poem written in this way.

The actors in this poem are largely allegorical. Abstractions are personified. Prominent characters are Conscience, Lady Meed or Bribery, Reason, Truth, Gluttony, Hunger, and the Seven Deadly Sins. In some respects, the poem is not unlike the Pilgrim's Progress, for the battle in passing from this life to the next is well described in both; but there are more humor, satire, and descriptions of common life in Langland. Piers is at first a simple plowman, who offers to guide men to truth. He is finally identified with the Savior.

Throughout the poem, the writer displays all the old Saxon earnestness. His hatred of hypocrisy is manifest on every page. His sadness, because things are not as they ought to be, makes itself constantly felt. He cannot reconcile the contradiction between the real and the ideal. In attacking selfishness, hypocrisy, and corruption; in preaching the value of a life of good deeds; in showing how men ought to progress toward higher ideals; in teaching that “Love is the physician of life and nearest our Lord himself,—“ Piers Plowman proved itself a regenerating spiritual force, a stepping-stone toward the later Reformation.

The author of this poem was also a fourteenth-century social reformer, protesting against the oppression of the poor, insisting on mutual service and “the good and loving life.” In order to have a well-rounded conception of the life of the fourteenth century, we must read Piers Plowman. Chaucer was a poet for the upper classes. Piers Plowman gives valuable pictures of the life of the common people and shows them working—

  “To kepe kyne In e field, e corne fro e bestes, 
  Diken[27] or deluen[28] or dyngen[29] vppon sheues,[30] 
  Or helpe make mortar or here mukke a-felde.”

We find in the popular poetry of Piers Plowman almost as many words of French derivation as in the work of the more aristocratic Chaucer. This fact shows how thoroughly the French element had become incorporated in the speech of all classes. The style of the author of Piers Plowman is, however, remarkable for the old Saxon sincerity and for the realistic directness of the bearer of a worthy message.

John Gower.—Gower, a very learned poet, was born about 1325 and died in 1408. As he was not sure that English would become the language of his cultivated countrymen, he tried each of the three languages used in England. His first important work, the Speculum Meditantis, was written in French; his second, the Vox Clamantis, in Latin; his third, the Confessio Amantis, in English.

The Confessio Amantis (Confession of a Lover) is principally a collection of one hundred and twelve short tales. An attempt to unify them is seen in the design to have the confessor relate, at the lover's request, those stories which reveal the causes tending to hinder or to further love. Gower had ability in story-telling, as is shown by the tales about Medea and the knight Florent; but he lacked Chaucer's dramatic skill and humor. Gower's influence has waned because, although he stood at the threshold of the Renaissance, his gaze was chiefly turned backward toward medievalism. His contemporary, Chaucer, as we see, was affected by the new spirit.


Life.—Chaucer was born in London about 1340. His father and grandfather were vintners, who belonged to the upper class of merchants. Our first knowledge of Geoffrey Chaucer is obtained from the household accounts of the Princess Elizabeth, daughter-in-law of Edward III., in whose family Chaucer was a page. An entry shows that she bought him a fine suit of clothes, including a pair of red and black breeches. Such evidence points to the fact that he was early accustomed to associating with the nobility, and enables us to understand why he and the author of Piers Plowman regard life from different points of view.

In 1359 Chaucer accompanied the English army to France and was taken prisoner. Edward III. thought enough of the youth to pay for his ransom a sum equivalent to-day to about $1200. After his return he was made valet of the king's chamber. The duties of that office “consisted in making the royal bed, holding torches, and carrying messages.” Later, Chaucer became a squire.

In 1370 he was sent to the continent on a diplomatic mission. He seems to have succeeded so well that during the next ten years he was repeatedly sent abroad in the royal service. He visited Italy twice and may thus have met the Italian poet Petrarch. These journeys inspired Chaucer with a desire to study Italian literature,—a literature that had just been enriched by the pens of Dante and Boccaccio.

We must next note that Chaucer's life was not that of a poetic dreamer, but of a stirring business man. For more than twelve years he was controller of customs for London. This office necessitated assessing duties on wools, skins, wines, and candles. Only a part of this work could be performed by deputy. He was later overseeing clerk of the king's works. The repeated selection of Chaucer for foreign and diplomatic business shows that he was considered sagacious as well as trustworthy. Had he not kept in close touch with life, he could never have become so great a poet. In this connection we may remark that England's second greatest writer, Milton, spent his prime in attending to affairs of state. Chaucer's busy life did not keep him from attaining third place on the list of England's poets.

There are many passages of autobiographical interest in his poems. He was a student of books as well as of men, as is shown by these lines from the Hous of Fame:—

  “For whan thy labour doon al is, 
  And halt y-maad thy rekeninges, 
  In stede of rest and newe thinges, 
  Thou gost hoom to thy hous anoon, 
  And, also domb as any stoon, 
  Thou sittest at another boke, 
  Til fully daswed[31] is thy loke, 
  And livest thus as an hermyte.”[32]

Chaucer was pensioned by three kings,—Edward III., Richard II., and Henry IV. Before the reign of Henry IV., Chaucer's pensions were either not always regularly paid, or they were insufficient for certain emergencies, as he complained of poverty in his old age. The pension of Henry IV. in 1399 must have been ample, however; since in that year Chaucer leased a house in the garden of a chapel at Westminster for as many of fifty-three years as he should live. He had occasion to use this house but ten months, for he died in 1400.

He may be said to have founded the Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, as he was the first of the many great authors to be buried there.

Chaucer's Earlier Poems.—At the age of forty, Chaucer had probably written not more than one seventh of a total of about 35,000 lines of verse which he left at his death. Before he reached his poetic prime, he showed two periods of influence,—French and Italian.

During his first period, he studied French models. He learned much from his partial translation of the popular French Romaunt of the Rose. The best poem of his French period is Dethe of Blanche the Duchesse, a tribute to the wife of John of Gaunt, the son of Edward III.

Chaucer's journey to Italy next turned his attention to Italian models. A study of these was of especial service in helping him to acquire that skill which enabled him to produce the masterpieces of his third or English period. This study came at a specially opportune time and resulted in communicating to him something of the spirit of the early Renaissance.

The influence of Boccaccio and, sometimes, of Dante is noticeable in the principal poems of the Italian period,—the Troilus and Criseyde, Hous of Fame, and Legende of Good Women. The Troilus and Criseyde is a tale of love that was not true. The Hous of Fame, an unfinished poem, gives a vision of a vast palace of ice on which the names of the famous are carved to await the melting rays of the sun. TheLegende of Good Women is a series of stories of those who, like Alcestis, are willing to give up everything for love. In A Dream of Fair Women Tennyson says:—

  “'The Legend of Good Women,' long ago 
    Sung by the morning star of song, who made 
  His music heard below; 
    Dan Chaucer, the first warbler, whose sweet breath 
  Preluded those melodious bursts that fill 
    The spacious times of great Elizabeth 
  With sounds that echo still.”

In this series of poems Chaucer learned how to rely less and less on an Italian crutch. He next took his immortal ride to Canterbury on an English Pegasus.

General Plan of the Canterbury Tales.—People in general have always been more interested in stories than in any other form of literature. Chaucer probably did not realize that he had such positive genius for telling tales in verse that the next five hundred years would fail to produce his superior in that branch of English literature.

All that Chaucer needed was some framework into which he could fit the stories that occurred to him, to make them something more than mere stray tales, which might soon be forgotten. Chaucer's great contemporary Italian storyteller, Boccaccio, conceived the idea of representing some of the nobility of Florence as fleeing from the plague, and telling in their retirement the tales that he used in his Decameron. It is not certain that Chaucer received from the Decameron his suggestions for the Canterbury Tales, although he was probably in Florence at the same time as Boccaccio.

In 1170 Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered at the altar. He was considered both a martyr and a saint, and his body was placed in a splendid mausoleum at the Cathedral. It was said that miracles were worked at his tomb, that the sick were cured, and that the worldly affairs of those who knelt at his shrine prospered. It became the fashion for men of all classes to go on pilgrimages to his tomb. As robbers infested the highways, the pilgrims usually waited at some inn until there was a sufficient band to resist attack. In time the journey came to be looked on as a holiday, which relieved the monotony of everyday life. About 1385 Chaucer probably went on such a pilgrimage. To furnish amusement, as the pilgrims cantered along, some of them may have told stories. The idea occurred to Chaucer to write a collection of such tales as the various pilgrims might have been supposed to tell on their journey. The result was the Canterbury Tales.

Characters in the Tales.—Chaucer's plan is superior to Boccaccio's; for only the nobility figure as story-tellers in the Decameron, while the Canterbury pilgrims represent all ranks of English life, from the knight to the sailor.

The Prologue to the Tales places these characters before us almost as distinctly as they would appear in real life. At the Tabard Inn in Southwark, just across the Thames from London, we see that merry band of pilgrims on a pleasant April day. We look first upon a manly figure who strikes us as being every inch a knight. His cassock shows the marks of his coat of mail.

  “At mortal batailles hadde he been fiftene. 
       * * * * * 
  And of his port as meke as is a mayde. 
  He never yet no vileinye ne sayde 
  In al his lyf, un-to no maner wight. 
  He was a verray parfit gentil knight.”

His son, the Squire, next catches our attention. We notice his curly locks, his garments embroidered with gay flowers, and the graceful way in which he rides his horse. By his side is his servant, the Yeoman, “clad in cote and hood of grene,” with a sheaf of arrows at his belt. We may even note his cropped head and his horn suspended from green belt. We next catch sight of a Nun's gracefully pleated wimple, shapely nose, small mouth, “eyes greye as glas,” well-made cloak, coral beads, and brooch of gold. She is attended by a second Nun and three Priests. The Monk is a striking figure:—

  “His heed was balled, that shoon as any glas, 
  And eek his face, as he hadde been anoint. 
  He was a lord ful fat and in good point.”

There follow the Friar with twinkling eyes, “the beste beggere in his hous,” the Merchant with his forked beard, the Clerk (scholar) of Oxford in his threadbare garments, the Sergeant-at-Law, the Franklyn (country gentleman), Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer, Tapycer (tapestry maker), Cook, Shipman, Physician, Wife of Bath, Parish Priest, Plowman, Miller, Manciple (purchaser of provisions), Reeve (bailiff of a farm), Summoner (official of an ecclesiastical court), and Pardoner. These characters, exclusive of Baily (the host of Tabard Inn) and Chaucer himself, are alluded to in the Prologue to the Tales as—

  “Wel nyne and twenty in a companye, 
  Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle 
  In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle, 
  That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.”

. From the Cambridge University MS.]


The completeness of the picture of fourteenth century English life in the Canterbury Tales makes them absolutely necessary reading for the historian as well as for the student of literature.

Certainly no one who has ever read the Prologue to the Tales will question Chaucer's right to be considered a great original poet, no matter how much he may have owed to foreign teachers.

The Tales.—Harry Baily, the keeper of the Tabard Inn, who accompanied the pilgrims, proposed that each member of the party should tell four tales,—two going and two returning. The one who told the best story was to have a supper at the expense of the rest. The plan thus outlined was not fully executed by Chaucer, for the collection contains but twenty-four tales, all but two of which are in verse.

The Knightes Tale, which is the first, is also the best. It is a very interesting story of love and chivalry. Two young Theban nobleman, Palamon and Arcite, sworn friends, are prisoners of war at Athens. Looking through the windows of their dungeon, they see walking in the garden the beautiful sister of the queen. Each one swears that he will have the princess. Arcite is finally pardoned on condition that he will leave Athens and never return, on penalty of death; but his love for Emily lures him back to the forbidden land. Reduced almost to a skeleton, he disguises himself, goes to Athens, and becomes a servant in the house of King Theseus. Finally, Palamon escapes from prison, and by chance encounters Arcite. The two men promptly fight, but are interrupted by Theseus, who at first condemns them to death, but later relents and directs them to depart and to return at the end of a year, each with a hundred brave knights. The king prescribes that each lover shall then lead his forces in mortal battle and that the victor shall wed the princess.

On the morning of the contest, Palamon goes before dawn to the temple of Venus to beseech her aid in winning Emily, while Arcite at the same time steals to the temple of Mars to pray for victory in war. Each deity not only promises but actually grants the suppliants precisely what they ask; for Arcite, though fatally wounded, is victorious in the battle, and Palamon in the end weds Emily. Although Boccaccio'sTeseide furnished the general plot for this Knightes Tale, Chaucer's story is, as Skeat says, “to all intents, a truly original poem.”

The other pilgrims tell stories in keeping with their professions and characters. Perhaps the next best tale is the merry story of Chanticleer and the Fox. This is related by the Nun's Priest. The Clerk of Oxford tells the pathetic tale of Patient Griselda, and the Nun relates a touching story of a little martyr.

Chief Qualities of Chaucer.—I. Chaucer's descriptions are unusually clear-cut and vivid. They are the work of a poet who did not shut himself in his study, but who mingled among his fellow-men and noticed them acutely. He says of the Friar:—

  “His eyes twinkled in his heed aright, 
  As doon the sterres in the frosty night.”

Our eyes and ears distinctly perceive the jolly Monk, as he canters along:—

  “And, whan he rood, men might his brydel here 
  Ginglen in a whistling wind as clere, 
  And eek as loude as dooth the chapel-belle.”

II. Chaucer's pervasive, sympathetic humor is especially characteristic. We can see him looking with twinkling eyes at the Miller, “tolling thrice”; at the Monk, “full fat and in good point,” hunting with his greyhounds, “swift as fowl in flight,” or smiling before a fat roast swan; at the Squire, keeping the nightingale company; at the Doctor, prescribing the rules of astrology. The Nun feels a touch of his humor:—

  “Ful wel she song the service divyne, 
  Entuned in hir nose ful semely.”

Of the lawyer, he says:—

  “No-wher so bisy a man as he ther nas, 
  And yet he semed bisier than he was.”

Sometimes Chaucer's humor is so delicate as to be lost on those who are not quick-witted. Lowell instances the case of the Friar, who, “before setting himself softly down, drives away the cat,” and adds what is true only of those who have acute understanding: “We know, without need of more words, that he has chosen the snuggest corner.”

His humor is often a graceful cloak for his serious philosophy of existence. The humor in the Prologue does not impair its worth to the student of fourteenth-century life.

III. Although Chaucer's humor and excellence in lighter vein are such marked characteristics, we must not forget his serious qualities; for he has the Saxon seriousness as well as the Norman airiness. As he looks over the struggling world, he says with a sympathetic heart:—

  “Infinite been the sorwes and the teres 
  Of olde folk, and folk of tendre yeres.”[35]

In like vein, we have:—

  “This world nis but a thurghfare ful of wo, 
  And we ben pilgrimes, passinge to and fro; 
  Deeth is an ende of every worldly sore.”[36]

  “Her nis non hoom, her nis but wildernesse. 
  Forthe, pylgrime, forthe! forthe, beste out of thi stal! 
  Knowe thi contree, look up, thank God of al!”[37]

The finest character in the company is that of the Parish Priest, who attends to his flock like a good Samaritan:—

  “But Cristes lore, and his apostles twelve, 
  He taughte, and first he folwed it him-selve.”

IV. The largeness of his view of human nature is remarkable. Some poets, either intentionally or unintentionally, paint one type of men accurately and distort all the rest. Chaucer impartially portrays the highest as well as the lowest, and the honest man as well as the hypocrite. The pictures of the roguish Friar and the self-denying Parish Priest, the Oxford Scholar and the Miller, the Physician and the Shipman, are painted with equal fidelity to life. In the breadth and kindliness of his view of life, Chaucer is a worthy predecessor of Shakespeare. Dryden's verdict on Chaucer's poetry is: “Here is God's plenty.”

V. His love of nature is noteworthy for that early age. Such lines as these manifest something more than a desire for rhetorical effect in speaking of nature's phenomena:—

  “Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe, 
  That hast this wintres weders over-shake, 
  And driven awey the longe nightes blake[38]!”[39]

His affection for the daisy has for five hundred years caused many other people to look with fonder eyes upon that flower.

VI. He stands in the front rank of those who have attempted to tell stories in melodious verse. Lowell justly says: “One of the world's three or four great story-tellers, he was also one of the best versifiers that ever made English trip and sing with a gayety that seems careless, but where every foot beats time to the tune of the thought.”

VII. He is the first great English author to feel the influence of the Renaissance, which did not until long afterward culminate in England. Gower has his lover hear tales from a confessor in cloistered quiet. Chaucer takes his Pilgrims out for jolly holidays in the April sunshine. He shows the spirit of the Renaissance in his joy in varied life, in his desire for knowledge of all classes of men as well as of books, in his humor, and in his general reaching out into new fields. He makes us feel that he lives in a merrier England, where both the Morris dancer and the Pilgrim may show their joy in life.

What Chaucer did for the English Language.—Before Chaucer's works, English was, as we have seen, a language of dialects. He wrote in the Midland dialect, and aided in making that the language of England. Lounsbury says of Chaucer's influence: “No really national language could exist until a literature had been created which would be admired and studied by all who could read, and taken as a model by all who could write. It was only a man of genius that could lift up one of these dialects into a preeminence over the rest, or could ever give to the scattered forces existing in any one of them the unity and vigor of life. This was the work that Chaucer did.” For this reason he deserves to be called our first modern English poet. At first sight, his works look far harder to read than they really are, because the spelling has changed so much since Chaucer's day.


The period from the Norman Conquest to 1400 is remarkable (1) for bringing into England French influence and closer contact with the continent; (2) for the development of (a) a more centralized government, (b) the feudal system and chivalry, (c) better civil courts of justice and a more representative government, Magna Charta being one of the steps in this direction; (3) for the influence of religion, the coming of the friars, the erection of unsurpassed Gothic cathedrals; (4) for the struggles of the peasants to escape their bondage, for a striking decline in the relative importance of the armored knight, and for Wycliffe's movement for a religious reformation.

This period is also specially important because it gave to England a new language of greater flexibility and power. The old inflections, genders, formative prefixes, and capability of making self-explaining compounds were for the most part lost. To supply the places of lost words and to express those new ideas which came with the broader experiences of an emancipated, progressive nation, many new words were adopted from the French and the Latin. When the time for literature came, Chaucer found ready for his pen the strongest, sincerest, and most flexible language that ever expressed a poet's thought.

In tracing the development of the literature of this period, we have noted (1) the metrical romances; (2) Geoffrey of Monmouth's (Latin) History of the Kings of Britain, and Layamon's Brut, with their stories of Lear, Cymbeline and King Arthur; (3) the Ormulum, a metrical paraphrase of those parts of the Gospels used in church service; (4) the Ancren Riwle, remarkable for its natural eloquent prose and its noble ethics, as well as for showing the development of the language; (5) the lyrical poetry, beginning to be redolent of the odor of the blossom and resonant with the song of the bird; (6) the Handlyng Synne, in which we stand on the threshold of modern English; (7) Mandeville's Travels, with its entertaining stories; (8) Wycliffe's monumental translation of the Bible and vigorous religious prose pamphlets; (9) Piers Plowman, with its pictures of homely life, its intense desire for higher ideals and for the reformation of social and religious life; (10) Gower's Confessio Amantis, a collection of tales about love; and (11) Chaucer's poetry, which stands in the front rank for the number of vivid pictures of contemporary life, for humor, love of nature, melody, and capacity for story-telling.



An account of the history of this period may be found in either Gardiner[40], Green, Lingard, Walker, or Cheney. Volumes II. and III. of the Political History of England, edited by Hunt (Longmans), give the history in greater detail. For the social side, consult Traill, I. and II. See also Rogers's Six Centuries of Work and Wages. Freeman's William the Conqueror, Green's Henry II., and Tout's Edward I. (Twelve English Statesmen Series) are short and interesting. Kingsley's Hereward the Wake deals with the times of William the Conqueror and Scott's Ivanhoe with those of Richard the Lion-Hearted. Archer and Kingsford's The Story of the Crusades, Cutt's Parish Priests and their People in the Middle Ages in England, and Jusserand's English Wayfaring Life in the fourteenth Century are good works.


Cambridge History of English Literature, Vols. I. and II.

Bradley's Making of English.

Schofield's English Literature from the Conquest to Chaucer.

Ker's Epic and Romance.

Saintsbury's The Flourishing of Romance and the Rise of Allegory.

Lawrence's Medieval Story (excellent).

Weston's The Romance Cycle of Charlemagne and his Peers.

Weston's King Arthur and his Knights.

Maynadier's The Arthur of the English Poets.

Nutt's The Legends of the Holy Grail.

Jusserand's Piers Plowman.

Warren's Langland's Vision of Piers the Plowman, Done into Modern Prose.

Savage's Old English Libraries.

Schofield's Chivalry in English Literature.

Snell's The Age of Chaucer.

Root's The Poetry of Chaucer.

Tuckwell's Chaucer (96 pp.).

Pollard's Chaucer (142 pp.).

Legouis's Chaucer.

Coulton's Chaucer and his England.

Lowell's My Study Windows contains one of the best essays ever written on Chaucer.

Mackail's The Springs of Helicon (Chaucer).


Romances.—The student will be interested in reading from Lawrence's Medieval Story, Chapters III., The Song of Roland; IV., The Arthurian Romances; V., The Legend of the Holy Grail; VI., The History of Reynard the Fox. Butler's The Song of Roland (Riverside Literature Series) is an English prose translation of a popular story from the Charlemagne cycle. Sir Gawayne and the Green Knighthas been retold in modern English prose by J.L. Weston (London: David Nutt). A long metrical selection from this romance is given in Bronson.[41] I., 83-100, in Oxford Treasury, I., 60-81, and a prose selection in Century, 1000-1022.

Stories from the Arthurian cycle may he found in Newell's King Arthur and the Table Round. See also Maynadier's The Arthur of the English Poets, and Tennyson's The Idylls of the King.

Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain is translated in Giles's Six Old English Chronicles (Bohn Library).

Selections from Layamon's Brut may be found in Bronson, I.; P. &S.; and Manly, I.

What were the chief subjects of the cycles of Romance? Were they mostly of English or French origin? What new elements appear, not found in Beowulf? Which of these cycles has the most interest for English readers? How does this cycle still influence twentieth-century ideals? In what respect is the romance of Gawayne like a sermon?

What Shakespearean characters does Geoffrey of Monmouth introduce? How is Layamon's Brut related to Geoffrey's chronicle? Point out a likeness between the Brut and the work of a Victorian poet.

Ormulum, Lyrics, and Robert Manning of Brunne.—Selections may be found in P. &S.; Bronson, I.; Oxford (lyrics, pp. 1-10); Manly, I.; Morris's Specimens of Early English. Among the lyrics, read specially, “Sumer is i-cumen in,” “Alysoun,” “Lenten ys come with love to toune,” and “Blow, Northern Wind.”

What was the purpose of the Ormulum? What is its subject matter? Does it show much French influence?

What new appreciation of nature do the thirteenth-century lyrics show? Point out at least twelve definite concrete references to nature in “Lenten ys come with love to toune.” How many such references are there in the Cuckoo Song?

What difference do you note between the form of Robert Manning of Brunne's Handling Synne and Anglo-Saxon poetry? Can you find an increasing number of words of French derivation in his work?

Prose.—Manly's English Prose, Morris's Specimens of Early English, Parts I. and II., Chambers, I., Craik, I., contain specimens of the best prose, including Mandeville and Wycliffe. Mandeville's Travelsmay be found in modern English in Cassell's National Library (15c). Bosworth and Waring's edition of the Gospels contains the Anglo-Saxon text, together with the translations of Wycliffe and Tyndale. No. 107 of Maynard's English Classics contains selections from both Wycliffe's Bible and Mandeville's Travels.

What is the subject matter of the Ancren Riwle? What is the keynote of the work? Mention some words of French origin found in it. What is the character of Mandeville's Travels? Why was it so popular?

In what does Wycliffe's literary importance consist? Compare some verses of his translation of the Bible with the 1611 version.

Piers Plowman and Gower.—Selections are given in P. &S.; Bronson, I.; Ward, I.; Chambers, I.; and Manly, I. Skeat has edited a small edition of Piers the Plowman (“B” text) and also a larger edition, entitled The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman, in Three Parallel Texts. G.C. Macaulay has a good volume of selections from Gower's Confessio Amantis.

What is the difference between the form of the verse in Piers Plowman and Handling Synne? Who is Piers? Who are some of the other characters in the poem? What type of life is specially described? In what sort of work are the laborers engaged? Why may the author of Piers Plowman be called a reformer?

Why was Gower undecided in what language to write? What is the subject matter of the Confessio Amantis?

Chaucer.—Read the Prologue and if possible also the Knightes Tale (Liddell's, or Morris-Skeat's, or Van Dyke's, or Mather's edition). Good selections may be found in Bronson, I.; Ward, I.; P. and S., and Oxford Treasury, I. Skeat's Complete Works, 6 vols., is the best edition. Skeat's Oxford Chaucer in one volume has the same text. The Globe Edition of Chaucer, edited by Pollard, is also a satisfactory single volume edition. Root's The Poetry of Chaucer, 292 pp., is a good reference work in connection with the actual study of the poetry.

Give a clear-cut description of the six of Chaucer's pilgrims that impress you most strongly. How has the Prologue added to our knowledge of life in the fourteenth century? Give examples of Chaucer's vivid pictures. What specimens of his humor does the Prologue contain? Do any of Chaucer's lines in the Prologue show that the Reformation spirit was in the air, or did Wycliffe and Langland alone among contemporary authors afford evidence of this spirit? Compare Chaucer's verse with Langland's in point of subject matter. What qualities in Chaucer save him from the charge of cynicism when he alludes to human faults? Does the Prologue attempt to portray any of the nobler sides of human nature? Is the Prologue mainly or entirely concerned with the personality of the pilgrims? Has Chaucer any philosophy of life? Are there any references to the delights of nature? Note any passages that show special powers of melody and mastery over verse. Does the poem reveal anything of Chaucer's personality? In your future reading see if you can find another English story-teller in verse who can be classed with Chaucer.


[Footnote 1: The Tempest, V., I.]

[Footnote 2: For the location of all the English cathedral towns, see the Literary Map, p. XII.]

[Footnote 3: and.]

[Footnote 4: April.]

[Footnote 5: little.]

[Footnote 6: in her language.]

[Footnote 7: Spring.]

[Footnote 8: in its turn.]

[Footnote 9: birds.]

[Footnote 10: song.]

[Footnote 11: sigh.]

[Footnote 12: sorely.]

[Footnote 13: called.]

[Footnote 14: against.]

[Footnote 15: will.]

[Footnote 16: them.]

[Footnote 17: arrayed.]

[Footnote 18: garments.]

[Footnote 19: shepherd.]

[Footnote 20: hermit.]

[Footnote 21: hills.]

[Footnote 22: wonder.]

[Footnote 23: tired out with wandering.]

[Footnote 24: brook.]

[Footnote 25: reclined.]

[Footnote 26: sounded.]

[Footnote 27: to make dykes or ditches.]

[Footnote 28: to dig.]

[Footnote 29: to thrash (ding).]

[Footnote 30: sheaves.]

[Footnote 31: dazed.]

[Footnote 32: hermit.]

[Footnote 33: The Prologue, Lines 331-335.]

[Footnote 34: The cuts of the Pilgrims are from the Fourteenth Century Ellesmere MS. of Canterbury Tales.]

[Footnotes 35-36: Knightes Tale.]

[Footnote 37: Truth: Balade de bon Conseyl.]

[Footnote 38: black.]

[Footnote 39: The Parlement of Foules.]

[Footnote 40: For full titles, see p. 50.]

[Footnote 41: For full titles, see p. 6.]