Tuesday, September 4, 2012


This is a blog initially created by Jesús A. González for his students of English Literature at the University of Cantabria, Spain. It is now open for use by anybody interested in the field.


1.- OLD ENGLISH: Anglo-Saxon Literature (ap.450-1066)

Historical Background: Early Middle Ages ("The Dark Ages")
- Decline and fall of the Roman Empire
- Anglo-Saxon invasions (from Denmark-Germany)
- Native Britons (Celts, among them the legendary King Arthur) move west
- Christianization (from Rome and from Ireland)
- 7 kingdoms
- 9th century: Viking Invasions (Danes: the Danelaw)
- Movement towards unification and fragmentation
- 1066 Norman conquest

Oral tradition: Epic poems, like Beowulf (8th-11th century), which describes the fights of the hero against monsters, warriors and dragons. Alliterative verse (consonant rhyme) as opposed to end-rhyme.

First written texts in Old English: 9th century (Previously, only in Latin): sermons, saints’ lives, biblical translations, Christian poetry. Most famous author: King Alfred (who wrote translations from Latin).

2. – MIDDLE ENGLISH LITERATURE (1066-ap.1485, 1470 “Chancery Standard”, first printing press: a more unified form of English)

Historical background:

- The Middle Ages: Feudalism.
- The Battle of Hastings (1066) brought about the Norman domination of England. (Bilingualism: Norman (a dialect of French, for the higher classes) and English (Middle English, for the lower classes, great diversity of dialects, no clear standard). Deep influence on English: beef/cow, liberty/freedom). Progressive integration of Anglo-Normans.
- House of Plantagenet (1154-1485): Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, Magna Carta (1215, Powers of the Parliament). Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Crusades.
- 1337-1453: Hundred Years’ War (over the control of France, dynastic war, beginning of English and French nationalism).

Medieval literature: Society revolved around the Church, so religious values were always present, but priests, monks and nuns were also frequently criticized in medieval literature (particularly in "Goliardic" literature). The feudal system led to chivalric values (bravery, honour, "courtly love") which were shown in chivalric literature. Allegory is also a frequent feature of medieval literature (particularly religious literature). Medieval literature is sometimes very contradictory (because high ideals run together with coarse vulgarity and social criticism) but also very lively and surprising.

- Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400): diplomat and writer, the “father of English Literature”. The Canterbury Tales, (ap. 1386) a collection of 24 stories told by fictional pilgrims on the road to the cathedral at Canterbury. Realistic characters, variety of stories. 2 stories in prose, 22 in verse. Influenced by Boccaccio’s Decameron.

- Medieval Romances. Chivalric. Adventures of a heroic knight. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (ap. 1390, Arthurian Romance: Gawain is a knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, symbolic poem).

- Piers Plowman. Allegorical narrative poem. Part theological allegory, part social satire. A quest for true Christian life. Written by William Langland.
Morality plays. Allegorical theatre. A character meets other characters representing moral attributes. Example: Everyman. (with characters like Everyman, God, Death, Beauty, Strenght…) . There were also Miracle Plays and Mystery Plays played in church.