The Middle English Period – History, Literary Features and Developments

The Middle English Period


This lengthy time in English history witnessed numerous developments: the formation of the Norman and Angevin dynasties; internal disputes between monarch, nobility, clergy, and people; and countless wars both at home and abroad. However, from a literary standpoint, more significant than specific events were the times’ general movements: the rise of religious orders, their early enthusiasm, and subsequent decline; the blossoming of chivalry and the spirit of romance, which brought new sympathy for women and the poor; the Crusades and the broadening of Europe’s outlook, which gradually expanded into the Renaissance rebirth of the intellect. All of these were manifestations of a developing intelligence that was powerfully represented in the period’s literature.


The period witnesses the formation of Middle English, while the older period’s inflexional system gradually deteriorates. While manuscripts written near the end of the Old English period are written in West Saxon, when they reappear in the twelfth century, they are written in the author’s or scribe’s native dialect. Loanwords from Scandinavia and France are prevalent, the latter in growing quantities. The Old English dialects have continued to develop, and it is customary to divide them into five main dialect areas: Northern, which can be subdivided into Lowland Scots and Northern English, which correspond to the old Northumbrian dialect; East”Midlands and West Midlands, which correspond to Mercian; South-eastern, which corresponds to Kentish; and South-western, which corresponds to West Saxon. Gradually, a standard emerges from the East Midland dialect, which would become today’s Received Standard English; this was partly due to the region’s significance at the time, as well as the capital, London.


The time under consideration contains a wealth of intriguing, significant, and frequently delightful works. The overall characteristics are fairly difficult to summarise, and emphasis will be placed subsequently on special works of exceptional significance.

1.The Transition:  In many respects, this is a time of transition and experimentation. For example, the poets appear to be receptive to new mediums. While the influence of French and Latin works is undeniable, there are certain writers who continue the development of the Old English period. The contrast is noticeable in the fourteenth century with the work of the western alliterative poets, but there are also great examples of this tendency in the earlier portion, most notably Layamon’s Brut. It is clear that oral tradition preserved historical poetic models, despite they do not appear in known manuscripts until the fourteenth century, save from obvious examples.

2.The anonymous nature of the writing is still strongly evidenced. A sizable fraction of the works are wholly unattributed, and the majority of the authors whose names appear are, in fact, pseudonyms.

3.The Domination of Poetry. Much of the period’s surviving work is poetry that is employed in subjects like as history, divinity, and science. While many of the authors are clergy, some of the romances must be of a popular nature.

Due to the prevalence of poetry for issues that one would expect to be expressed in prose, the latter appears to be insignificant in comparison. However, it is necessary to bear in mind that Latin was the language of official papers and, indeed, of education. Much of the extant prose is homiletic in nature, but is no less significant for it. The Katherine Group and Ancrene Riwle are both highly remarkable in their own ways, albeit they bore little interest to the majority of current readers and are mostly known to the common reader through certain ‘purple patches.’ Nonetheless, they are distinctive in style and, while many are translations, they are far from slavish.


This can be grouped into three broad categories for the sake of conveyance depending on the nature of the subject:

1. Chronicles. There are an unusually large number of verse chronicles written during this time period. They are defined by their use of unbelievable stories, their ingenuity, and, in many cases, their vivacity of style. It is worth noting that, despite their use of fantastic experiences and the like, the individual poets regarded their work as history, even though they now appear to fall more into the romance genre.

a) Layamon’s Brut. This was written about 1205 by La3amon, a monk from Arley Kings, Worcestershire, and recounts the history of Britain from Brutus’s landing to Cadwallader’s death in approximately 16,000 lengthy alliterative lines. The Roman de Brut of Wace is the primary source, which is a Norman-French translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannia. The lexicon is old, and the poetic traditions of Old English poetry are preserved.

Layamon’s style is defined by his frequent use of epic formulas to summarise situations, as well as his use of similes. Although the alliterative metre is utilised, it is used liberally and with the addition of assonance and rhyme. Indeed, alliteration and rhyme may occur in the same sentence. As an example of the poem, the following passage will be used:

penne sizep to segges under beorzen, mid hornen, mid hunden mid haezere stefnen:
hunten per taliep, hundes per gahep, pane fox driuep zeond dales and zeond dunes. He flihp to pan holme and his hol isechep, i pan firste ende, i pan hole wendep.
penne is pe balde fox blissen al bidaeled; and mon him to deluep on aelchere haluen. penne bip per forcupest deoren alre pruttest. Then men come towards him at the foot of the hills with horns, with hounds, and with loud voices:
huntsmen shout there, hounds, yelp there, they drive the fox over hill and dale.

He flees to the hill and seeks his hole, in the nearest place he goes to earth. Then the bold fox is deprived of all joy; and men dig’ to him on each side.

Then there is, there, most unhappy the proudest of all animals.

(b) Robert of Gloucester is well-known as the author of a rhymed chronicle. Internal evidence suggests that this book may have been written by more than one author, but one is certain: Robert, a Gloucester monk who wrote at the end of the thirteenth century. He leaned heavily on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s, William of Malmesbury’s, and other chroniclers’ works. He is neither a poet nor a scholar, yet he always strives to be objective in his approach to history. Above all, he demonstrates a genuine love for his nation, and, as has been been stated, Arthur is the work’s hero for him. It is frequently energetic and sincere, but it is far from exceptional in any sense.

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(c) Robert Manning of Brunne was from Bourne in Lincolnshire and was associated with the priory at Sempringham and then with Sixhill, despite not being in full orders. As he himself states, his rhymed Story of England was completed between three and four of the clock on Friday, May 25, 1338. It begins with Noah and the Deluge and concludes with Edward I’s demise. The first part is a faithful translation of Wace’s Brut, while the second is based on Pierre de Langtoft’s Chronicle, an Anglo-Norman work. There is little creativity, and the work is geared toward the uneducated, yet it is nevertheless enjoyable. Unfortunately, the metre, which is written in alexandrine couplets, is occasionally ruined by internal and tail rhyming.

His other work, Handlyng Synne, was begun in 1303, based on William of Wadington’s Manuel des Pechiez and aimed at the common people. It is written in couplets of four stressed lines. It is a collection of stories that serve as a “an epitome of the various sins,” illustrated with tales and anecdotes. The work is enlivened by these incidents and clearly demonstrates an acute sense of observation, being in many respects more objective than Piers Plowman and a good deal of political verse.

2. Religious and Didactic Poetry.
(a)The Ormulum, written in 1200 by a certain Orm, is dated. It is vast in length (about 10,000 lines and even then incomplete), and is preserved in what is almost certainly the author’s own autograph copy. North-east Midlands dialect. It is a collection of numerous holy homilies addressed to a fellow canon-regular named Walter. The work makes no claim to literary merit and possesses none. The metre is based on the Latin septenarius, which contains fifteen syllables, and there is little variation in the rhythm’s absolute monotony. It has been succinctly stated that “he is a merciless syllable-counter.” The work is distinctive in its intricate system of spelling, with frequent consonant doubling, but experts disagree on the precise interpretation of this trait. There is no need for an excerpt to demonstrate the monotony of the metre; it is made abundantly evident in the one sentence that merely states, “this book is called Ormulum because Orm wrote it.” Forpi patt Orrm itt wrohhte, piss boc iss nemmnedd Orrmulum.

(b) The Owl and the Nightingale, whose authorship is still unknown, was almost certainly composed in the early thirteenth century. It is a lengthy debate between the nightingale, who represents the lighter pleasures of life, and the owl, who represents wisdom and seriousness. The poem is one of the most animated of its kind, and the dispute is, at times, fierce. It is written in short rhyming couplets that are handled deftly. “Scholars have united in praise of the narrative skill of the author, his characterization and sense of form.”

(c) With the exception of the Moral Ode and the Proverbs of Alfred, which may date as early as 1150, the Orison to Our Lady, Genesis and Exodus, the Bestiary, the Moral Ode, the Proverbs of Alfred, and the Proverbs of Hendyng are to be dated in the first half of the thirteenth century. They are all significant from a metrical standpoint, and the Moral Ode is one of the earliest poems. While it lacks originality, it is straightforward and dignified, notable for the stability and maturity of its lines.

(d) In the first quarter of the 14 century, the Cursor Mundi was composed in the north. It is an ecclesiastical piece composed by an encyclopaedic in scope, including nearly all of the Old and New Testaments and a good deal of later religious history as well. It demonstrates significant competence in handling such a large amount of information and was enormously popular in its day and later, influencing to some extent several of the miracle cycles’ pieces. The metre, which is primarily comprised of short couplets, demonstrates tremendous diversity, and the author, who demonstrates a ‘broad humanity,’ masters his form. (e) Richard Rolle of Hampole, who died in 1349, is one of the few literary personalities with specific biographical information. He was born in 1300 near Pickering in Yorkshire, educated at Oxford, and then became a recluse. He later settled in Hampole, near Doncaster, where it is believed he wrote his Pricke of Conscience and died in 1349. He composed a variety of written pieces, and while some are regarded as unmistakably his, others have occasionally been assigned to him. His most significant work is the lengthy poem stated above, albeit its traditional attribution to him is based on a statement by Lydgate and there are severe concerns about its authenticity. The text, which is based on early Fathers’ teachings, portrays the joys and tragedies of a map’s life as he is impacted by both good and evil. The subject is abstract but is handled simply, with numerous remarkable sections, and despite its lack of contemporary appeal, must have been enormously popular in its day, judging by the quantity of manuscripts that have survived. The metre is stressed four times but is far from regular due to the unusual amount of unstressed syllables. The fact that so many pieces have been credited to Rolle demonstrates his popularity, as does the fact that his influence has been linked to an entire’schoold of writers.

(f) Poems with Alliteration. Four remarkable poems written in a West Midland dialect are preserved in a unique manuscript kept in the British Museum: Pearl, Purity, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Although there is no proof of authorship, it is widely believed that they are by the same poet for a variety of reasons. The poems’ date is unknown, however they could be from the third quarter of the fourteenth century. The first three poems are religious in nature, and Pearl is unquestionably the best of all. This poem is allegorical in nature and narrates the storey of a vision in which the poet searches for his prized pearl that he let slide into the grass. He sees his pearl, which appears to be the vision of a dead maiden, and he catches a peek of the New Jerusalem in his vision. The poem, which is structured around a lengthy conversation between the poet and the pearl, features sections of genuine, moving beauty, profound sincerity, and passion. It is a fully realised piece artistically, and its intricate metre is expertly handled. Purity and Patience, with their more didactic themes, are less interesting and beautiful, but they are passionate and realistic, and their exaltation distinguishes them among the period’s poems. Each is written in a long alliterative line, demonstrating a similar level of dexterity. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is unquestionably the finest of all Middle English romances, for its storyline mastery, realism, characterization, descriptive abilities, and use of the alliterative long line. At times, the poet reaches literary heights unmatched by any other period.

3. Romance. The vast majority of romances written during this period can be categorised according to subject, yet it is worth noting that they are both alliterative and rhyming in metre:

a)There are several romances about English history and its heroes. Among these are the vivacious King Horn and Havelock the Dane, as well as the popular Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton. Occasionally, as in the well-known Richard Coeur de Lion, contemporary history was drew upon. This group is frequently referred to as “The Matter of England.” b)Numerous romances are associated with King Arthur, either directly or indirectly. Some are of exceptional worth, while others are worthless. Sir Tristrem, despite its flaws, is far from the worst, while Arthur and Merlin, Ywain and Gawain, and the Morte d’Arthure all make compelling arguments. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as previously stated, is the pinnacle of Middle English romance. This group is frequently referred to as “The Matter of Britain.”

c)Among “The Matter of Rome the Great” romances are those with classical subjects, such as Alexander the Great’s adventures and the Siege of Troy. While King Alisaunder is lengthy, it is more than adequate, as is The Destruction of Troy.

d)The group devoted to Charlemagne stories is fewer and the quality is often inferior, however the late alliterative Rau, Coilzear, a popular romance, possessed remarkable merit. Sir Ferumbras is also remarkable. This group is occasionally referred to as “The Matter of France.”

(J) There is also a category of miscellaneous romances with a variety of themes and differing degrees of quality. Amis and Amiloun is a heartwarming love storey; William of Palerne features the familiar’missing heir’ plot; and Floris and Blauchefleur is one of the most endearing of all romances, relating the love of a king’s son for an imprisoned maid.

A volume would be required to discuss in detail on the romances. Their metre and style vary considerably; but in general, the predominant subject is martial and amorous; mere is the additional interest of the supernatural, which frequently enters the storey; and one of the most appealing features for the modern reader of this type of literature is the frequent glimpses into the customs of the time.


1. The Ancrene Riwle is the most significant of the early prose texts of this period, as well as the most influential, as has been frequently stated. Its date is uncertain, however it is believed to be in the twelfth century. It was originally created for three noble ladies who had been appointed anchoresses, but was quickly altered for a larger society. It is a guidebook intended to assist people in living the life they have chosen. The governing premise of this ‘law’ is undoubtedly’moderation in everything,’ and the work’s greatest defining aspect is the author’s broad humanity. The work’s homely aspects appeal to the modern reader. The

The continuity of English writing style is now widely accepted in literary assessment, and the relationship between the Ancrene Riwle’s prose and that of Wulfstan and the Authorized Version is obvious. As an illustration of the text, the following description of backbiters is provided:

Bacbitares, pebiteoopremen bihinden, beoo of two maneres; auhpe latere beo wurse. Pe uorme cumeo al openliche, and seio vuel bi anoyer, and speouweo ut his atter, so muchel so him euer to muoe cumeo, and gulcheo al ut somed pet pe attri heorte sent up to pe tunge. Ac pe latere cumeo foro al an oper wise, and is wurse ueond fen pe yer, auh under ureondes huckel, weorpeo adun pet heaued, and for on uor te siken er he owiht sigge, and make drupie chere; bisaumpleo longe abuten uor te beon betere ileued. And hwon hit alles cume8 ford peonne is hit zeoluh atter.

Backbiters, or guys who bite other men behind their backs, come in two varieties; the latter being the more heinous. The first comes forth openly and speaks ill of another, and spews up his poison in large quantities as it comes to his mouth, and vomits everything out at once that the poisoned heart sent up to the tongue. However, the latter type manifests itself in a completely different manner and is a worse monster than the former; he casts down his head and begins to moan before he speaks and takes on a depressed expression; he moralises for a lengthy period of time in order to be believed. However, when it all comes out, it is yellow poison.

What was true in the twelfth century appears to be true even today!

2.The Azenbite of Inwyt was composed in 1340 at Canterbury by Dan Michel of North-gate. It is a poor translation of a French work. It is of little literary significance and is aptly summarised by the term ‘dull.’ However, from a linguistic standpoint, it is significant since the author’s autograph copy has been preserved, and it is the most important text in the Southeastern and, more specifically, the Kentish dialects.


1. Poetry (a) Metre. One of the major characteristics of this period is the development of rhymed metres, which largely supplanted the alliterative line of Old English poetry, though the poems of the so-called alliterative revival in the fourteenth century serve as a stark reminder (if any were needed) that dogmatism is foolish. Indeed, it is evident that the two forms developed concurrently, even though the alliterative is confined to the west, and more precisely to the north-west, from a literary history perspective. The gap between the end of the Old English period and the beginning of the Middle English period is so sparsely represented in extant texts that no clear indication of what occurred can be discerned. The song about the monks of Ely that King Canute is said to have authored dates at the very least from the twelfth century, if not earlier:

Merie sungen oe Munekes binnen Ely oa Cnut ching reu oer by. Roweo cnites noer the land and here we paes Muneches saeng.
Merrily sang the monks in Ely when king Canute rowed by there.

“Row men near the land and let us hear the song of the monks.”

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There are two couplets in this example. The first rhymes, whereas the second demonstrates assonance.

A significant development is shown in the pieces of Godric, a hermit who died near Finchal around 1170, whose metre is based on that of St Anselm’s hymns. A rigorous syllabic pattern with a persistent attempt at end-rhyme is noticeable. The following four-line stanza is dedicated to St. Nicholas, his patron:

Sainte Nicholaes godes dru8 tymbre us fairs scone hus.
At pi burth at pi bare
Sainte nicholaes, bring vs wel pare.

Lazamon’s alliterative metre demonstrates how wrong it is to see the time solely through the lens of metre as a gradual progression toward rhymed verse, whereas Orm, who uses neither rhyme nor alliteration, is remarkable for the regularity of his metre. Some of the thirteenth-century verse (for example, King Horn, the first of the romances) is in couplet form, as has been demonstrated, the effect of the short French couplet on the long alliterative line. Another example is the popular Havelock the Dane, who, while frequently employing tags, manages his metre properly.

It was a king bi aredawes, pat in his time were gode lawes,  He dede maken an ful wel holden;
Hym loved yung, him lovede holde,
Erl and barun, dreng and tayn,
Knict, bondeman and swain,
Wydues, maydnes, prestes and clerkes,  And al for hise gode werkes.

Experiments with metre are common throughout the period, but probably most notably in the fourteenth century, when the stanza form was popularised by the French. There are twelve-line tail-rhyme stanzas in Amis and Amiloun and The King of Tars, intricate eleven-line stanzas with the bob or short line, as the tenth, in Sir Tristrem, sixteen-line tail-rhyme stanzas in Sir Percyvelle of Galles, thirteen-line rhyming stanzas in The Awntyers of Arthure, These examples demonstrate the variety of stanzaic forms attempted, though Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s excellent metre •’, with its varying length stanzas concluding with five short lines rhyming ababa (the first with one stress, the others with three), should be noted as an example of the use of the alliterative long line concurrently with the rhymed form. While it is impossible to do respect to the period’s diverse metrical forms in a brief discussion, the examples provided will provide insight into what was happening in this field during the Middle English period.

c) Lyric. The lyric is probably the form that has the most attraction to the modern reader during this age. It has been noted that no real lyric exists from the Old English period, and it is impossible to determine when they were originally written in this country. Only a few fragments from the twelfth century have survived, and it is not until the thirteenth century that we have any in substantial quantities. They were undoubtedly affected by French and Latin lyrics, but it is impossible to establish whether they were inspired by them or were of indigenous origin. Many of the early lyrics were devoutly religious in content and tone, with those addressed to the Virgin Mary being particularly remarkable. On the other hand, the secular lyric is strongly represented as well, both in terms of what we might call love-lyrics and those that deal with natural concerns. However, it is difficult to disentangle religious and secular lyric, as it is apparent that they share a great deal of influence. Perhaps the most well-known of the early instances is the Cuckoo Song:

Sumer is icumen in, Summer is coming in Lhude sing cuccu! Sing loud, cuckoo!
Growep sed and blowep med Seed grows, meadow bursts into flower And springp pe wude nu. And the wood now sprouts.
Sing cuccu! Sing cuckoo!
Awe bletep after lomb, The ewe bleats for the lamb, Lhoup after calue cu, The cow lows for its calf,
Bulluc stertep, bucke uertep. Bullock leaps, buck breaks wind.
Murie sing cuccu! Merry sing cuckoo I
Cuccu, cuccu, Cuckoo, cuckoo,
Weil singes pu cuccu. Well do you sing, cuckoo.
Ne swik pu nauer nu! Never cease now! The regularity is particularly noteworthy.

(c) The Romances. It is critical to note that the modern use of the term ‘romance’ can mislead the reader when approaching mediaeval Romance, because, as several scholars have pointed out, it is highly unlikely that a contemporary audience would consider romance to be romanti” its virtue appears to have been its’modernity,’ as its setting was always mediaeval, even if it was an idealised setting. Although the influence was French, romance was thoroughly adapted, and examples appear in larger numbers as the time develops. The varied metre of this genre has already been mentioned, but something must be stated about the other major characteristics. The storey is frequently lengthy, with numerous plot twists; the emphasis is frequently on incident; martial exploits play a large role and are frequently made ridiculous (for the modern reader) by piling battle after battle, exploit after exploit, until the hero becomes a superman; the supernatural is frequently introduced, sometimes with comic effect; characters are frequently stereotyped, though characterization is often excellent; the style is frequently slangy. The courageous approach results in the best adventure stories. Despite their exaggerations, extravagances, and ludicrous features, the best romances are a veritable treasure trove of wonderful stories.

Prose. The prose is mostly functional in nature, but the thread of a distinct evolution has been proved so frequently that the idea of ‘English Prose Continuity’ has been firmly entrenched in contemporary English literary criticism. Finally, the prose of the Ancrene Riwle and the Katherine Group has been recognised for its genuine worth.


While a comparison between, example, Lazamon’s Brut and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight demonstrates that the poetry of the period under examination has evolved significantly stylistically, it is difficult to characterise this evolution precisely in a few words. It is not an exaggeration to assert that the poet transitions from being a ‘artleas’ to being a conscious artist. Frequently enough, when confronted with more difficult material, poets become vague, and in handling some of the more difficult metres they attempted, the same thing occurs. Though humour is frequently absent, there are traces here and there, occasionally of a dark nature. Pathos is also present in a melancholy and exalted form, as well as in a more straightforward genre. At its finest, the style is clear, solid, controlled, and great; at its worst, it contains every flaw imaginable.