British Literature The Late Medieval Period: From Chaucer to Caxton

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 Century

The 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.




John Mandeville

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville

John Wycliffe

De dominio divino

John de Trevisa



The Vision Concerning Piers Plowman

Revival of alliteration verse, 3 meanings


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Court poem

Pearl, Purity, Patience

John Gower

Mirour de l’Omme

Vox Clamantis

Confessio Amantis

Geoffrey Chaucer

The book of the Duchese


The House of Fame

Dream allegory

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

Thomas Hoccleve

La Male Regle

Le Regement

John Lydgate

Troy Book

The Story of Thebes

The Fall of Princess

James I

The Kingis Quair

Scottish Chaucerian (SCh)

Robert Henryson

Fables (The Cock and the Fox)

The Testament of Cresseid

William Dunbar

The Golden Target, The Thistle and the Rose

Love allegories

The Two Married Women and the Widow

Satirical, comical poem

The Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins

Lament for the Makaris

The Paston Letters

William Caxton

The Histories of Troy

Thomas Malory

Le Morte d’Artur

John Skelton

Philip Sparrow

Skeltonic verse

The Tunnyng of Elinour Rumming


X Th. Wolsey, morality, satirical