Historical Background of the Middle English Period


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Author: Павел Воля
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th c., apart from its cultural significance, testifies, to the complete rustablishment of English as the language of writing. Some authors wrote in their local dialect from outside London, but most of them used the London dialect or forms of the language combining London and provincial traits. Towards the end of the century the London dialect had become the principal type of language used in literature a sort of literary ‘pattern’ to be imitated by provincial authors.

The literary text of the late 14th c. preserved in numerous manuscripts, belong to a variety of genres. Translation continued, but original composition were produced in abundance; party was more prolific than prose. This period of literary florescence is known as the ‘age of Chaucer’; the greatest name in English literature before Shakespeare other writers are referred to as ‘Chaucer’s contemporaries’).

One of the prominent authors of the time was John de Trevisa of Cornwall. In 1387 he completed the translation of seven books on world history - ‘Polychronicon’ by R. Higden – from Latin into the South-Western dialect of English. Among other information it contains some curious remarks about languages used in English: ‘ Trevisa:…gentle men have now left to teach (i.e. ‘stopped teaching’) their children French. …Higden: It sums a great wonder how Englishmen and their own language and tongue is so diverse in sound in this one island and the language of Normandy coming from another land has one manner of sound among all men that speak it right in England…men of the East with men of the West, as it were under the same pared of heaven, award more in the sound of their speech than men if the North with men of the South.

Of Greatest linguistic consequence was the activity of John Wyclif (1324-1384), the forerunner of the English Reformation. His most important contribution to English prose was his (and his pupils’) translation of the Bible completed in 1384. He also wrote pamphlet protesting against the corruption of the Church. Wyelif’s Bible was copied in manuscript and read by many people all over the country. Written in the London dialect, it played an important role in spreading this form of English.

The chief poets of the time, besides Chaucer, were John Gower, William Langland and, probably, the unknown author of ‘Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight’).

The remarkable poem of William Langland ‘The Vision Coneerning Piers the Plowman’ was written in a dialect combining West Midland and London features; it has survived in three versions, from 1362 to 1390; it is an allegory and a satire attacking the vises and weaknesses of various social classes and sympathizing with the wretchedness of the poor. It is presented as a series of visions appearing to the poet in his dreams. He susdiverse people and personifications of vices and virtues and explains the way to salvation, which is to serve Truth by work and love. The poem is written in the old alliterative verse and shows no touch of Anglo-Norman influence.

John Gover, Chaucer’s friend and an outstanding poet of the time, was born in Kent, but there are not many Kentisins in his London dialect. His first poems were written in Anglo-Norman and in Latin. His longest poem ‘Vox Clamantis’ (’the Voice of the Crying in the Wilderness’) is in Latin; it deals with Watiyler’s rebellion and condemns all roans of Society for the sins which brought about the terrible revolt. His last long poem I is in English: Confession Amantis (‘The Lover’s Confession), a composition of 40000 acto-syllabis . It contains a vast collection of stories drawn from various sources and arranged to illustrate the seven deadly sins. John Gower told his tales easily and vividly and for long was almost as popular as Chaucer.

There was one more poet whose name is unknown. Four poems found in a single manuscript of the 14th c. – ‘Peasl’, ‘Patience’, ‘Cleanness’, and ‘Sir Gawaineand the Green Knight’ – have been attributed to the same author. Incidentally, the latter poet belongs to the popular Arthurian cycle of Knightly romances, though the episodes narrated as well as the form are entirely original. The poems are a blending of collaborate alliteration, in line with the OE tradition, and new rhymed verse, with a variety of difficult rhyme schemes.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) was by far the most outstanding figure of the time. A hundred years later William Caxon, the first English printer, called him ‘the worshipful father and fist founder and embellisher of ornate eloquence in our language. ‘In many books on the history of English literature and the history of English Chaucer is described as the founder of the literary language.

His carried works more of less imitative if other authors – Latin, French or Italian – though they bear abundant evidence of his skill. He never wrote in any other language than English. The culmination of Chaucer ‘s work as a poet ; his great unfinished collection of stories ‘The Canterbury Tales’.

Chaucer wrote in a dialect which in the main coincided with that used in documents produced in London shortly before his time and for a long time after. Although he did not really create the literary language, as a poet of outstanding talent he made better use if it than contemporaries and set up 2 pattern to be followed in the 15th c. His poems were copied so many times that over sixty manuscripts of ‘The Cantervary Tales’ have survived to this day. No books were among the first to be printed, a hundred years after their Compositon.

Chauser’s literary language, based in the mixed (lavgely East Midland) London dialect is known as classical M.E. In the 15th and 16th c. it became the basis of the national literary English language.

The 15th c. could produce nothing worthy to rank with Chaucer. The two prominent poets, Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate, were chicfly translators and imitators. The style of Caucer’s successors is believed to have drawn farther away from everyday speech; it was highly effected in character, abounding in abstact words and strongly influenced by Latin rhetoric (it is termed ‘aureate language’).

Whereas in English literature the decline after Chaucer is apparent, the literature of Scotland forms a Northern dialect of English flourished from the 13th until the 16th c. ‘The Bruce’ , written by John Barbour between 1373 and 1378 is a national epic, which describes the real history of Rolert Bruce a hero and military chief who defeated the army of Edward 2 at Bannockburn in 1314 and secured the independence of Scotland. This poem was followed by others, composed by prominent 15th c. poets: e.g. ‘Wallace’ attributed to Henry the Minstel; ‘ Kind’s Quhair’ (King’s Book’) by King James of Scotland.

  1. Iliyish B. ‘History of the English Language’, Leningrad, 1983, 351p.

  2. Rastorgueva T.A. ‘A History of English’, Moscow, 1983, 347p.

  3. Ярцева В. Н. ‘Развитие национального литературного английского языка’, М., 1969.

  4. Костюченко Ю. П. ‘История английского языка’, К. 1953б 360с.

  5. Ярцева В. Н. ‘История английского языка 9-15 в. в.’, М

  6. Иванова, Чахоян, Беляева. «История английского языка», К.: 1996


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