British Literature The Late Medieval Period: From Chaucer to Caxton Historical background:
14th and the 15th centuries form the period of transition from feudalism to pre-industrial era. It was also a period of political, social and ideological conflicts.
- England was in the war with France (Hundred Years War 1337-1453, trade and national war, Edward’s claim to the French throne, to bring England, Flanders and Gascony under a unified political control).
- The defeats in France added to the internal crisis. The decline of agriculture combined with a continuous growth of the population resulted in frequent famines which helped spread in the 14th century so called “Black Death”. After the Peasant’s Revolt (1381), commutation of feudal services went on steadily. In the 15th c., farm leases and financial earnings substituted servile labor.
- Culture: By mid-15th c., England had become a nation, with a sense of separate identity and an indigenous culture
- In 1362, a Parliamentary statute declared English the official language in the law courts and English was also used in schools. The 14th c. witnessed the appearance of the first original literary works written in English.
The Fourteenth CenturyThe poetry of the alliterative revival, the unexplained reemergence of the Anglo-Saxon verse form in the 14th cent., includes some of the best poetry in Middle English. The Christian allegory The Pearl is a poem of great intricacy and sensibility that is meaningful on several symbolic levels. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by the same anonymous author, is also of high literary sophistication, and its intelligence, vividness, and symbolic interest render it possibly the finest Arthurian poem in English. Other important alliterative poems are the moral allegory Piers Plowman, attributed to William Langland, and the alliterative Morte Arthur, which, like nearly all English poetry until the mid-14th cent., was anonymous.
The works of Geoffrey Chaucer mark the brilliant culmination of Middle English literature. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales are stories told each other by pilgrims—who comprise a very colorful cross section of 14th-century English society—on their way to the shrine at Canterbury. The tales are cast into many different verse forms and genres and collectively explore virtually every significant medieval theme. Chaucer’s wise and humane work also illuminates the full scope of medieval thought. Overshadowed by Chaucer but of some note are the works of John Gower.
The Fifteenth Century
The 15th cent. is not distinguished in English letters, due in part to the social dislocation caused by the prolonged Wars of the Roses. Of the many 15th-century imitators of Chaucer the best-known are John Lydgate and Thomas Hoccleve.
Other poets of the time include the Scots poets William Dunbar or Robert Henryson. The poetry of John Skelton, which is mostly satiric, combines medieval and Renaissance elements.
William Caxton introduced printing to England in 1475 and in 1485 printed Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. This prose work, written in the twilight of chivalry, casts the Arthurian tales into coherent form and views them with an awareness that they represent a vanishing way of life.
The miracle play, a long cycle of short plays based upon biblical episodes, was popular throughout the Middle Ages in England. The morality play, an allegorical drama centering on the struggle for man’s soul, originated in the 15th cent. The finest of the genre is Everyman.
The Pearl is usually explained as an elegy for the poet’s young daughter; in an allegorical vision of singular beauty he sees her as a maiden in paradise and becomes reconciled to her death. The second and third poems, Cleanness (or Purity) and Patience, are homiletic poems on those virtues.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the fourth poem, which relates a fabulous adventure of Gawain, is perhaps the most brilliantly conceived of all Arthurian romances. If single authorship is accepted, the artistry displayed in this poem and in The Pearl make the so-called Pearl-poet in some respects a rival to Chaucer.
- He was regarded, particularly in the early romances, as the model of chivalry—pure, brave, and courteous. In later romances, when spiritual purity was valued more than chivalrous deeds, his character deteriorated, becoming treacherous and brutal.
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville
De dominio divino
John de Trevisa
The Vision Concerning Piers Plowman
Revival of alliteration verse, 3 meanings
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Pearl, Purity, Patience
Mirour de l’Omme
The book of the Duchese
The House of Fame
The Parlement of Foules (Ptačí sněm)
Rhyme royal (strophe consisting of 7 verses abab bcc)
Troilus and Criseyde
The Legend of Good Women
New element – heroic couplet (5 iambic feet)
The Canterbury Tales
La Male Regle
The Story of Thebes
The Fall of Princess
The Kingis Quair
Scottish Chaucerian (SCh)
Fables (The Cock and the Fox)
The Testament of Cresseid
The Golden Target, The Thistle and the Rose
The Two Married Women and the Widow
Satirical, comical poem
The Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins
Lament for the Makaris
The Paston Letters
The Histories of Troy
Le Morte d’Artur
The Tunnyng of Elinour Rumming
X Th. Wolsey, morality, satirical