CHAPTER VI. THE MIDDLE AGES: ENGLAND
Literature in Latin, in Anglo-Saxon, and in French. The Ancestor of English Literature: Chaucer.
THE THREE LITERATURES.—In England, prior to the Norman invasion, that is before 1066, England possessed Saxon bards who sang of the prowess of forbears or contemporaries, and monks who wrote in Latin the lives of saints or even lay histories.
From 1066 must be distinguished in England three parallel literatures: the Latin literature of the cloister, the Anglo-Saxon literature, and the French literature of the conquerors.
Latin literature, so far as prose is regarded, was devoted exclusively to philosophy and history; in verse the subjects are more diversified, satire more especially flourished.
The poets of the French tongue wrote more particularly chansons de geste, and those of such songs which form what is termed the Cycle of Artus are for the most part the work of poets born in England.
Finally, in the different popular dialects, Saxon, Western English, etc., epic poems were written in verse, or romances, discourses, homilies, different religious work in prose. The Normans, ardent, energetic, and practical, had founded universities whence issued, endowed and equipped, those who by patriotic sentiment or taste were destined to write in Anglo-Saxon or in English.
CHAUCER; GOWER.—The greatest name of the period and the one which radiates most brilliantly is that of Chaucer in the fourteenth century, author of The Canterbury Tales and a crowd of other works. He possessed very varied imagination, sometimes vigorous, sometimes humorous, an extraordinary sense of reality, much spirit, and a fertility of mind which made him the ancestor and precursor of Shakespeare. To his illustrious name must be added that of his friend and pupil Gower, who is curious because he is representative of the three literatures still in use in his day, having written his Speculum Meditatus in French, his Vox Clamantis in Latin, and his Confessio Amantis in English. So far as I am aware this phenomenon was never repeated.