A History of English Literature

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As printing and Protestantism established themselves, the manuscripts in which
vernacularwriting survived, outdated and possibly suspect, were neglected. By 1700
some manuscripts were being used as firelighters or worse; Alexander Pope refers to
‘the martyrdom of jakes and fire’ (‘jakes’: lavatory). Survival was chancy: some of
Chaucer’s works have been lost, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was not
printed until 1839.
Even if much more had survived, the story would be neither simple nor clear.
Literature survived in three languages: Latin lived alongside Norman French and an
‘English’ which was a welter of dialects, spoken rather than written. English writing
was local, with too few authors and dates for positive literary history. Only after 1360
did English win parity with French as a literary medium; the English which
‘triumphed’ was Frenchified in language and culture. Avoiding these complexities,
short histories of English literature focus on the modern, leap over its first millen-
nium, land at the Renaissance with relief, and do not look back. This simplification
ignores a vast amount of good writing, and allows the Renaissance to take credit for
earlier developments. In the Middle Ages, the English language evolved its modern
nature and structure. Literature too found modern forms in the medieval period:
prose in Julian of Norwich and Malory in the 15th century, verse in Chaucer and his
many peers in the 14th century, and drama as early as the 12th century. Drama had
been popular for ten generations before Shakespeare.

The impact of French

The Conquest of England in 1066 by William of Normandy displaced English as the
medium of literature, for the language of the new rulers was French. William the
Conquero r tried to learn English, but gave up; Saxons dealing with him had to learn
French, and French was the language of the court and the law for three centuries.
The Normans spoke Norman French; the Norman French of England is called
Anglo-Nor man.By 1076 all bishops were Normans, except Wulfstan of Worcester.
Clerics, writing in Latin as before, recorded some ‘English’ stories: Alfred burning
the cakes, or the Saxon resistance of Hereward the Wake. Educated men for the next
three centuries were trilingual, and many homes bilingual.
Liter ature in English suffered a severe disruption in 1066. Classical Old English
verse died out, reviving later in a very different form, but prose continued: sermons
were still written in English and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was kept up in monas-
teries. When the new writing appeared, it was in an English which had become very
different from that of the 11th century. The reasons for this include the lack of any
written standard to discourage dialectal variety; scribal practice; linguistic change;
and a new literary consciousness.

Scribal practice

With the disestablishment of the English of Winchester and Wessex as the literary
standard, a uniform West-Saxon was not available to scribes, who now used forms
nearer to their own dialects. With the Winchester standard gone, dialectal divergence
became apparent, with a bewildering variety of spellings, word-forms and grammat-
ical forms. This variety was dialectal and geographical, but also structural and
progressive; fundamental changes in grammar and stress kept the language in a
ferment for four centuries after the Conquest.


vernacular(Lat.verna, slave
born in the household) The
native language; West-
European languages other
than Latin.

Middle Ages The name
given by the classical
humanists of the Renaissance
(see p. 77) to the interval
between classical antiquity
and themselves. Historically,

The dialects of Middle English

period c.500–c.1500. The
period after 1100 is often
called the later Middle Ages;
in English political history, this
runs from 1066 to 1485. In
European cultural history the
13th century is often regarded
as the High Middle Ages. It is
not entirely fanciful to see the
12th century as the spring of
the later Middle Ages, the
13th century as summer, the
14th century as autumn, and
the 15th century as winter.
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