The Anglo-Saxon Period

Around 400 AD, these tribes came to Celtic England from their German homes in search of new land. They were invited, but they eventually pushed the Celts into remote regions.
The Anglo-Saxons left their mark on the English language in its German grammar and in thousands of words, including perhaps a fifth of the words we use today. In structure, Old English and Old German are very close.

Old English was the chief literary language of England until about 1100. In 597, Saint Augustine of Canterbury began converting the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. English literature began through the combined influence of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the Christian church.
While the stories of King Arthur and the tales of the Round Table generally have a medieval setting, the actual legend began in this period, based on a Celtic lord who refused to surrender, winning battles in a lost war.

The Anglo-Saxon Poetry

Many Old English poems glorified a real or imaginary hero and tried to teach the values of bravery and generosity. Poets used alliteration (words that begin with the same sound) and kennings (elaborate descriptive phrases).
Old English poetry also featured mid-line splits called caesuras and a four beat line that had four accented syllables, two on each side of the caesuras. Poets called scops recited these poems during ceremonies while playing a musical instrument.


This epic poem is believed to be a 7th century composition that was first written down in the 9th century. Though it is often considered as a simple battle of good and evil, this tale shows the cultural conflicts that developed as the Anglo-Saxon people were converted to Christianity.
Beowulf is divided into three sections: the victory over Grendel, the victory over Grendel's mother, and the fatal victory over a dragon. Each battle gets more difficult, as Beowulf, the Geat warrior, fights for the Danes and later, as an eighty year-old king, fights for his own people..
As the world's greatest warrior, Beowulf blends his faith in God with his boldness and pride. He renders generous aid to the Danes, even though they seem to have lost their faith in God. In death, as a true ring lord, Beowulf wins a great fortune for his own people, willingly giving his life for the service of the Geats who no longer deserve his loyalty.
Beowulf is shown to be a mighty warrior who has the qualities most admired by the Anglo-Saxons—strength, courage, loyalty, and generosity. However, his ideal perfection actually diminishes his quality as an epic hero. Lacking flaws or weaknesses, he does not seem human, and modern readers expect realistic heroes.

"The Seafarer"

"The Seafarer" has two essential parts: the first section explores the life of a man who battles the sea and all of its dangers while the second section examines what a man must do in his life to prepare himself for the afterlife and his day of reckoning. In the first part, a man deals with luck and uncertainty while in the second he knows that he must do on his "journey through life."The first section of "The Seafarer" was most likely composed by an Anglo-Saxon in the pre-Christian era because it looks at man's battle with nature as a complete meaning of a man's life.
The first section of "The Seafarer" was probably added on by a monk at Exeter who determined that there was a spiritual side of life that must be addressed. "The Seafarer" captures most of the key elements of the Anglo-Saxon culture, including the hate/love paradox of man's battle with the nature, especially the sea. Still, this poem seems to be rendered through the voice of a seafarer who has taken his last journey, saying ironically that when at sea he greatly missed the land, but when back home he longed for the adventure of the sea.

"The Wanderer"

"The Wanderer"is more concerned with an isolated situation and incident in which his ring lord has died and he has neglected his tribal duty by staying alive. Because of this, he can never return to his home; he must travel to his eventual death or find acceptance in another tribe. He journeys with sorrow from the past and no hope for the future.
Like other excerpted poems from The Exeter Book, "The Wanderer"appears to be the work of an Anglo-Saxon in the pre-Christian era which was altered by a monk. In this case, the alterations consist of a few lines at the beginning and a few lines at the end. Only in the beginning and end will there be references to Christian beliefs and God.

Bede's A History of the English Church and People

Bede's A History of the English Church and People, though written in Latin, is very important to the study of English literature. Bede was English and his entire subject was the people of the British Isles, who are weakly represented in other literary efforts. Bede's work was considered so important that it was the first book King Alfred the Great ordered to be translated into the vernacular.
Bede's writings on history, science, and theology, while far from accurate and filled with opinions and superstitions of the people of that period, are regarded as the most intelligent summary ever prepared of Western knowledge in the 600's and 700's, a time when English monasteries were chief centers of learning. The work is also our main source for Anglo-Saxon history.

Old English Text Excerpt from "The Wanderer" (opening)

Oft him anhaga         are gebideš, 
metudes miltse,         žeah že he modcearig 
geond lagulade         longe sceolde 
hreran mid hondum         hrimcealde sę, 
wadan wręclastas.         Wyrd biš ful aręd! 
Swa cwęš eardstapa,         earfeža gemyndig, 
wražra węlsleahta,         winemęga hryre: 
"Oft ic sceolde ana         uhtna gehwylce 
mine ceare cwižan.         Nis nu cwicra nan 
že ic him modsefan         minne durre 
sweotule asecgan.         Ic to sože wat 
žęt biž in eorle         indryhten žeaw, 
žęt he his feršlocan         fęste binde, 
healde his hordcofan,         hycge swa he wille. 
Ne męg werig mod         wyrde wišstondan, 
ne se hreo hyge         helpe gefremman.

The Medieval Period

****Period Background****

English society, from 1066 to 1400, was dominated by restrictions resulting from the feudal system. While the rest of Europe experienced the Renaissance, Anglo-Saxon art and literature failed to develop under repressive Norman rule.

The English language of the period, Middle English, was a blending of the Germanic Old English of the Anglo-Saxons with 10,000 French vocabulary words. Until Chaucer's arrival, there was no serious Middle English literature.

Middle English literature, prior to Chaucer, followed the oral tradition with many folk ballads and romances on the legends of King Arthur. Also, a great deal of domestic and imported drama featured religious themes. These plays developed a large audience for England's future theater.

When the devastating Hundred Years War and
the Wars of the Roses had concluded and the
Tudor family gained firm control of the monarchy;
and around 1450, Middle English literature became
an important art form, soon to dominate the English
Renaissance. The arrival of the printing press from
Germany helped make England "land of the poets."

****Folk Ballads****


Folk Ballads were part of the oral tradition.
They generally told fragmented stories in
a simple poetic structure, using quatrains
with 8-8 or 8-6 meter. Though simple art,
they helped preserve the Anglo-Saxon
language and culture. They feature the four
beat meter which is the basis for popular
music today.


Folk Ballads came from English, Irish, and Scottish cultures. They were usually based on well-known legends or popular stories, so their incomplete details for plot development caused no problems for the medieval audiences who sought them as a popular form of entertainment.
robinhood angel

Ballads are grouped as traditional or modern.
The traditional ballad was an anonymous poem that was mainly intended to be heard, not read. The modern ballad has a known author and is either published and intended to be read as formal literature or serves as the lyrics for popular songs.

"Sir Patrick Spens"

This ballad is based on an historical event involving the ill-fated king's ship. Upon an old knight's suggestion, Spens is told he must take the king's ship out at a very dangerous time of year. An interesting aspect of the ballad is the mystery over Spen's talents: was he really the best sailor in Scotland?

"Get Up and Bar the Door"

This ballad uses hyperbole to ridicule the lengths people will go to win an argument, especially a married couple. Both characters
are far too stubborn to say the first word because of a bet. As a result, intruders abuse them and they willingly suffer the consequences.

"The Highwayman"

This ballad, on the surface, appears to be a Romeo and Juliet story with a pair of suicides, but the aspect of guilt makes the psychological aspects stand out toward the end. After the crazed thief charges back into the jaws of death, the final stanza turns the romance into a ghost story, as the spirit of the Highwayman continues to return on stormy evenings to keep his pledge.

"Barbara Allen"

This ballad is a character study of the "headstrong" Barbara Allen. Slighted by her lover, she wishes him dead. Time compression allows him to die quickly, throwing Barbara into a state of suicidal remorse. This rapid mood swing appears somewhat unrealistic.

The Canterbury Tales "Prologue"

Working as an ambassador to France and Italy, Chaucer learned about the vast literary developments of the Renaissance. Upon his return to England, he "borrowed" the idea of The Decameron, a frame story with one hundred tales. Chaucer's frame would include 24 stories (or anecdotes) of the projected 100 plus he intended to tell.
The Decameron used a frame of people hiding away from the plague, in rural Italy. Chaucer used a more positive vehicle involving a pilgrimage to Canterbury.
During this trip, a group of middle class travelers amused themselves in a story telling contest. The frame runs beyond the "Prologue," linking the individual stories and adding narrative elements.
The "Prologue" does more than introduce the characters. These characters represent every aspect of the emerging middle class, so their attitudes and opinions were as important as their appearances and actions. Also, they serve the dual function of narrator and character, for a character's tale would be an extension of his or her personality. They would form the basis of the most important work in Middle English.

"The Pardoner's Tale"

This tale is an exemplum, an anecdote
with a lesson or moral. In this case, "greed
is the root of all evil." In ironic fashion, a trio
of drunken fools seeks death and eventually
finds it in their own self-destruction. The
tale's only complex element is a mysterious
old man who directs them to the fatal pot of
gold. Was he just an old man, unwanted by
death, or was he death itself?

"The Woman of Bath's Tale"

This anecdote focuses on the human weakness of vanity, as a knight gives into his weaknesses and rapes a young maiden. To prevent his execution for the crime, he has one year to learn what women truely desire. Strangely, the answer that saves his life comes from an old, ugly hag--actually a beautiful young woman testing the knight's honor. He passes the test when he returns to her to be her husband.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

This narrative poem is more than an English romance based on the legends of King Arthur. It is one of the key works representing the Alliterative Revival, a literary movement combining the Old English alliterative structure with ballad rhyme. The technique was called the "bob and wheel."
As a part of the Christmas games, Arthur's sister, using magic, challenges the knights of the Round Table to an unfair contest. The central focus turns on Sir Gawain when he stands up to take Arthur's place. After his "free swing," he promises a reunion in one year's time, to lose his own head.
The plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was constructed by combining old Irish "beheading" and "vegetation" myths with the Authorian romance. Thus, a modern hero has been produced: Gawain may show weakness and makes mistakes, but learns from his experiences. During his year of waiting, Gawain "comes of age" as a true knight.
In the end, all of the knights of the round table wear a green sash, sharing in Gawain's disgrace. The entire experience has been nothing more than another Christmas game in terms of Gawain's execution; however, a serious lesson in humility has been learned.

Morte D'Arthur

While in prison for unknown crimes, Thomas Malory translated countless French romance tales of King Arthur and rewrote them into nine prose volumes, calling volume nine and the whole set Morte D'Arthur. These nine volumes have been the basis of all post-medieval tales of King Arthur and the Round Table, from the poetry of Tennyson to current films.
In the closing of volume nine, Arthur must battle his son Mordred for control of all England. Lacking chivalry, Arthur arranges a treaty, simply to restrain his son until help can arrive. However, an accident occurs and Arthur, ignoring a warning from his dream, destroys himself and his son in a massive battle. Malory's plot suggests that all of this was predestined.


Everyman comes from the tradition of morality plays, street performances, and miracle plays, drama performed during church services. While believed to be Dutch by origin, this play was frequently performed in England and is strongly representative of the types of plays that drew huge audiences as performers traveled from town to town. Renaissance theater owes a great debt to the drama of the medieval period.
Everyman functions as an allegory because most of its characters represent something else, usually an abstracted virtue or quality. An example is "Knowledge" who is one of "Everyman's" friends, but represents what any man learns thoroughout his life. When the unprepared Everyman is taken to meet God, he learns that only Good Deeds have meaning in the afterlife.

The Diary of Margery Kempe

Margery Kempe's life was filled with visions and spiritual revelations. Often, she believed she talked directly to God, who came to visit her at times of need. Kempe's diary is the first autobiographical account of life in English society and it is also a rare example of a literary effort made by a woman in this period.

This is the first stanza of the middle English
version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

SIŽEN že sege and že assaut watz sesed at Troye,
Že bor3 brittened and brent to bronde3 and askez,
Že tulk žat že trammes of tresoun žer wro3t
Watz tried for his tricherie, že trewest on erže:
Hit watz Ennias že athel, and his highe kynde,
Žat sižen depreced prouinces, and patrounes bicome
Welne3e of al že wele in že west iles.
Fro riche Romulus to Rome ricchis hym swyže,
With gret bobbaunce žat bur3e he biges vpon fyrst,
And neuenes hit his aune nome, as hit now hat;
Tirius to Tuskan and teldes bigynnes,
Langaberde in Lumbardie lyftes vp homes,
And fer ouer že French flod Felix Brutus
On mony bonkkes ful brode Bretayn he settez wyth wynne,
Where werre and wrake and wonder
Bi syžez hatz wont žerinne,
And oft bože blysse and blunder
Ful skete hatz skyfted synne.