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Index by Period

Anglo-Norman Literature
(1066 - 1350)

Specimens of the Language

A glance at the following selections will show how Anglo-Saxon was slowly approaching our English speech of to-day. The first is from a religious book called Ancren Riwle (Rule of the Anchoresses, cir. 1225). The second, written about a century later, is from the riming chronicle, or verse history, of Robert Manning or Robert of Brunne. In it we note the appearance of rime, a new thing in English poetry, borrowed from the French, and also a few words, such as "solace," which are of foreign origin:

    "Hwoso hevide iseid to Eve, theo heo werp hire eien therone, 'A!
    wend te awei; thu worpest eien o thi death!' hwat heved heo
    ionswered? 'Me leove sire, ther havest wouh. Hwarof kalenges tu me?
    The eppel that ich loke on is forbode me to etene, and nout forto

    "Whoso had said (or, if anyone had said) to Eve when she cast her
    eye theron (i.e. on the apple) 'Ah! turn thou away; thou castest
    eyes on thy death!' what would she have answered? 'My dear sir,
    thou art wrong. Of what blamest thou me? The apple which I look
    upon is forbidden me to eat, not to behold.'"

  Lordynges that be now here,
  If ye wille listene and lere [1]
  All the story of Inglande,
  Als Robert Mannyng wryten it fand,
  And on Inglysch has it schewed,
  Not for the lered [2] but for the lewed, [3]
  For tho that on this land wonn [4]
  That ne Latin ne Frankys conn, [5]
  For to hauf solace and gamen
  In felauschip when they sitt samen; [6]
  And it is wisdom for to wytten [7]
  The state of the land, and haf it wryten.

  [Footnote 1: learn]
  [Footnote 2: learned]
  [Footnote 3: simple or ignorant]
  [Footnote 4: those that dwell]
  [Footnote 5: That neither Latin nor French know]
  [Footnote 6: together]
  [Footnote 7: know]

The Norman Conquest

For a century after the Norman conquest native poetry disappeared from England, as a river may sink into the earth to reappear elsewhere with added volume and new characteristics. During all this time French was the language not only of literature but of society and business; and if anyone had declared at the beginning of the twelfth century, when Norman institutions were firmly established in England, that the time was approaching when the conquerors would forget their fatherland and their mother tongue, he would surely have been called dreamer or madman. Yet the unexpected was precisely what happened, and the Norman conquest is remarkable alike for what it did and for what it failed to do.

It accomplished, first, the nationalization of England, uniting the petty Saxon earldoms into one powerful kingdom; and second, it brought into English life, grown sad and stern, like a man without hope, the spirit of youth, of enthusiasm, of eager adventure after the unknown,--in a word, the spirit of romance, which is but another name for that quest of some Holy Grail in which youth is forever engaged.

Norman Literature

One who reads the literature that the conquerors brought to England must be struck by the contrast between the Anglo-Saxon and the Norman-French spirit. For example, here is the death of a national hero as portrayed in The Song of Roland, an old French epic, which the Normans first put into polished verse:

  Li quens Rollans se jut desuz un pin,
  Envers Espaigne en ad turnet son vis,
  De plusurs choscs a remembrer le prist....

"Then Roland placed himself beneath a pine tree. Towards Spain he turned his face. Of many things took he remembrance: of various lands where he had made conquests; of sweet France and his kindred; of Charlemagne, his feudal lord, who had nurtured him. He could not refrain from sighs and tears; neither could he forget himself in need. He confessed his sins and besought the Lord's mercy. He raised his right glove and offered it to God; Saint Gabriel from his hand received the offering. Then upon his breast he bowed his head; he joined his hands and went to his end. God sent down his cherubim, and Saint Michael who delivers from peril. Together with Saint Gabriel they departed, bearing the Count's soul to Paradise."

We have not put Roland's ceremonious exit into rime and meter; neither do we offer any criticism of a scene in which the death of a national hero stirs no interest or emotion, not even with the help of Gabriel and the cherubim. One is reminded by contrast of Scyld, who fares forth alone in his Viking ship to meet the mystery of death; or of that last scene of human grief and grandeur in Beowulf where a few thanes bury their dead chief on a headland by the gray sea, riding their war steeds around the memorial mound with a chant of sorrow and victory.

The contrast is even more marked in the mass of Norman literature: in romances of the maidens that sink underground in autumn, to reappear as flowers in spring; of Alexander's journey to the bottom of the sea in a crystal barrel, to view the mermaids and monsters; of Guy of Warwick, who slew the giant Colbrant and overthrew all the knights of Europe, just to win a smile from his Felice; of that other hero who had offended his lady by forgetting one of the commandments of love, and who vowed to fill a barrel with his tears, and did it. The Saxons were as serious in speech as in action, and their poetry is a true reflection of their daily life; but the Normans, brave and resourceful as they were in war and statesmanship, turned to literature for amusement, and indulged their lively fancy in fables, satires, garrulous romances, like children reveling in the lore of elves and fairies. As the prattle of a child was the power that awakened Silas Marner from his stupor of despair, so this Norman element of gayety, of exuberant romanticism, was precisely what was needed to rouse the sterner Saxon mind from its gloom and lethargy.

The New Nation

So much, then, the Normans accomplished: they brought nationality into English life, and romance into English literature. Without essentially changing the Saxon spirit they enlarged its thought, aroused its hope, gave it wider horizons. They bound England with their laws, covered it with their feudal institutions, filled it with their ideas and their language; then, as an anticlimax, they disappeared from English history, and their institutions were modified to suit the Saxon temperament. The race conquered in war became in peace the conquerors. The Normans speedily forgot France, and even warred against it. They began to speak English, dropping its cumbersome Teutonic inflections, and adding to it the wealth of their own fine language. They ended by adopting England as their country, and glorifying it above all others. "There is no land in the world," writes a poet of the thirteenth century, "where so many good kings and saints have lived as in the isle of the English. Some were holy martyrs who died cheerfully for God; others had strength or courage like to that of Arthur, Edmund and Cnut."

This poet, who was a Norman monk at Westminster Abbey, wrote about the glories of England in the French language, and celebrated as the national heroes a Celt, a Saxon and a Dane. [Footnote: The significance of this old poem was pointed out by Jusserand, Literary History of the English People, Vol. I, p. 112.]

So in the space of two centuries a new nation had arisen, combining the best elements of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman-French people, with a considerable mixture of Celtic and Danish elements. Out of the union of these races and tongues came modern English life and letters.

Gothic Literature
The poems and epics from the time of Theodoric the Goth

The Age of Chivalry and Romance
The introduction of the metrical romance with its three subjects of love, chivalry and religion

Arabic Literature of the Middle Ages
While Europe languished in the Middle Ages, the Arab speaking world experienced a golden age of lyric poetry (from the 4th to 7th centuries). This period ended with the advent of Islam, as the Koran supplanted poetry and became the central object of study.

Early Scandinavian Literature (850 1350)
Overview of Norse literature (the literature of the Northmen, or Norsemen), It survives mainly in Icelandic writings, for little medieval vernacular literature remains from Norway, Sweden, or Denmark.

Early Eastern European Literature
Discussed are the heroic prose tales of Russia, the epics of Serbia, and the songs of Hungary

Authors Related Articles
Robert Wace
Types of Middle-English Literature
Summary of Beginnings
Henry the Second--1154-1189
England During The Latter Years Of Edward III


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