Highlights of Medieval English Literature #1

Highlights of ME lit

Hello there!  🙂

This post will be about some works of Medieval English Literature. The period in this post in from 1066 until the end of the middle ages (why not middle ages before 1066? I kinda forgot to write a summary about that in the first part of the semester… that info is no longer relevant for the coming exam and thus that part will appear somewhere in the summer holiday… I hope :D).

For this post I’ll keep to the schedule I had for my tutorials. The texts are also the ones that were discussed during my tutorials. Additional sources will be mentioned in the texts, optional citations will come at the end if the post. If I find any other helpful sources I will either give the link to the website or cite the source at the end of the post.
I don’t claim to be any kind of expert on the subject. If you think I made an error somewhere in this post, please leave a comment and I’ll gladly correct my mistake.

I’ve decided to divide this topic into two posts. This post will only contain the first three points of contents that are mentioned below, the follow up post will contain the last three.


  • 12th-century Literature
  • 13th-century Literature
  • 14th-century Literature
  • 15th-century Literature and Medieval Romance
  • West midland dialect
  • Middle English Lyrics

The overall structure is as follows: an example of a text from that century, background on historical context or genre, and lastly some more information about the text itself.

12th century Literature

A piece of 12th century Medieval Literature we discussed in class was The Owl and the Nightingale. (For a translation click on the link For a non translated version click here).
This manuscript is an example of medieval debate or dialogue literature. These works were usually poems, as said by Steven Kruger (see end of post for citation). “The debate/ dialogue genre includes any text constituted wholly or largely by a dialogue between two or more persons or figures (often allegorical personifications like Nature or Love or Philosophy or The Church)” (Kruger 72). These works are also often framed via a narrative or sometimes lyrics, creating a work which is mediated by a narrator (Kruger 72). The medieval debate poem ” picks up on a wide range of classical, late-antique, and earlier medieval philosophical traditions of dialogue” (Kruger 75). Examples of the origins can be tradition in general, church practices such as prayer (which takes the form of a dialogue), or even legal training (a version of how-to-debate-101). Do keep in mind that what we now see as classical wasn’t seen as such in the middle ages. Mainly Roman texts were available unlike the earlier Greek texts, and thus many of the debate and dialogue works are built upon the Roman structure. Though some of the Roman works were based on Greek ones.
These debate texts were used under several circumstances, either for education (to learn more about certain topics through debate) or for scholastic/theological purposes in general (Kruger mentions the following: “indeed, from the thirteenth century on, much scholastic philosophical and theological reflection took the form of questions that were first debated from opposing viewpoints and only then given a definitive response” 76). Therefor it can be stated that one can separate secular and religious works of debate literature. Although, as will be demonstrated with The Owl and the Nightingale, this distinction is not always so clear cut. This becomes apparent when Kruger mentions that debate/dialogue poems can exist in both ‘realms’ at the same time. The first realm being that of the individual (“What constitutes him […] his place in the world, and beyond), and the second realm concerning the community, social world, and institutions of which the individual is a part (79-80). Ultimately, Kruger suggests that when these two forms or realms are combined, a space is created in which anything which is already accepted can be called into question (Kruger 82).

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor the owl and the nightingaleThe Owl and the Nightingale is part of the debate/dialogue literature and was written in the 12th century CE (or maybe the early 13th century). An argument for this time is because of the mention of one King Henri (who died in 1189 CE). It is also not certain who has written it, but it is said that it was someone called Nicholas of Guildford (a priest in the west midlands) because he is mentioned in the poems and he is the judge of this argument. The poem is also written in the west-midland dialect.
Since the poem was written after the Norman Conquest, it shows some changes when compared to Old English poetry. These changes include the use of French vocabulary, French verb forms, and rhyme at the end of the lines (which was rare prior to the conquest). Influences of the Norman conquest are even more apparent when considering that the Jesus College manuscript was written in Latin, Anglo-Norman, and English, and the Cotton manuscript was also written in Anglo-Norman and English.
When considering manuscript context, one can say that the poem is meant to encourage people to behave virtuously. This is because the poems appeared in two manuscripts (1 at the Jesus College, and 1 at Cotton). Both manuscripts contain chronicles which leads to a religious association, and the poem itself talks about secular themes (love, women, and marriage), and religious ones (sins like adultery). Parts of the manuscript even warn against sin and stress the need to avoid damnation.
Finally, when reading The Owl and the Nightingale the following became clear: within this kind of debate/dialogue literature there appear to be two ‘usual’ patterns. Firstly the authorities on which the arguments are built in order to make the speaker’s argument valid. These authorities are nature, the bible, classical traditions, and proverbs. The second pattern is that the debate/dialogue ends without a clear decision. It is the reader who has to determine who is right or who is wrong.

13th century Literature

An example of 13th century literature that we discussed in class was Ancrene Wisse (for the text click here).
This text is a guidebook for anchorites, in particular anchoresses, who were religious, dedicated believers who lived in seclusion and kept to one place. It is not known who the author is, but the text was written in the west-midland dialect in the early 13th century. This is rare, because the common language for such text would have been French or Latin. However, the reason for the use of the vernacular is quite straight forward (as is stated by Robert Hasenfratz in his Introduction to Ancrene Wisse): “it was written for lay people, though of a very special type […], because it was written for women (whose educational opportunities were much more restricted than those of men), and because it was composed in a region which valued English literary culture”. (For more about the specific audience, find the Audience header in the Introduction).

Elizabeth Robertson’s “An Anchorhold of her Own” helps us to understand the particulars about anchorites and  anchoritism. Robertson states that in the middle ages there were fewer options for women to express their devotion than there were for men, and their religious goals were therefor often symbolic rather than literal (13). Robertson continues to state that anchoritism was one of the most popular forms of religious life to women in Norman England (13). It is suggested in her work that the choice to become an anchorite was often made by the upper class women in the time after the Norman conquest. This means that, even though this choice must have been a drastic and hard choice to make, women thought this was their best option. The common explanation for this increasing popularity lies with the growing religious fervor, states Robertson (14). In this period, several new institutions were founded (such as the Cistercians). However, these groups would not accept women, and  “as a result, women in England who wished to follow the ascetic  life may have turned to achorholds simply because no other religious foundation offered them a place to pursue a rigorous ascetic practice” (Robertson 15). She also suggests that not only religious reasons, but also personal reasons, could play a role in making the decision to become an anchorite. Robertson mentions that the women before the Norman conquest would have been considerably independent, and therefor it is possible that, with their diminishing freedom after the conquest, some women would prefer a new kind of independence and intellectual freedom (15). Other reasons might be that their family would fall out of favour, or the changing political climate at the time (15). Although records show that Anglo Saxon women were independent, and could have functions within society, this declined after the Norman conquest. This can be attributed to the influence of the feudal system, states Robertson, which caused women to become the property of men (16). “Given the legal restrictions of marriage, the unpleasantness of married life, and the constant surveillance of widows, it is not surprising that many women preferred to enter religious life (20).  This was a socially accepted option, no matter what drove women to make this decision, because women would be under male supervision, yet they were still somewhat independent in their anchorhold. Robertson gives the reason why many women would decide to become an anchorite rather than a nun. This is simply because the former would become increasingly responsible for worldly things, while the latter would be responsible for nothing, and she would have the time to contemplate on her own (23).

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor ancrene wisseUnfortunately, there is very little known about anchorites, except for the popular stories that circulated even then. What is known are the requirements to become an anchorite, and the ritual that came with becoming one (Robertson 25). One would have to lead a clean and virtuous life, which would be checked by the bishop, and dedication. This same bishop would find a suitable place for the anchorite (often attached to a church). Aside from the personal religious purposes, it was of great importance that there was enough financial support. This is cause to believe that women from the lower classes would not be able to become anchorites even if they wanted to. In theory, these men and women would be separated from the world, and they would even go as far as to be ‘buried’ so that the anchorite would be symbolically cut of from the world (Robert Hasenfratz gives some more information about this, click here and you’ll be redirected to his introduction).
They would have some help in the form of a servant. However servants were not seen as individuals and so the anchorites would still be alone in a way. It is difficult to say anything about the routine of an anchorite, but Hasenfratz gives some more information about this, and other topics, in his introduction.

14th century Literature

An example of 14th century literature that we discussed in class was Sir Orfeo (you can find the text and a short introduction to it when you click here).
This text belongs to the Breton Lay genre. These are often short stories (short romances) in which adventure plays an important role. Overall, the general pattern of a Breton Lay is that there is a hero who leaves court, he has a transformative experience and then returns home.
This genre is attributed to any texts written between 1150 and 1450 respectively which are said to be a literary version of lays sung by ancient Bretons to the accompaniment of a harp (Laskaya). According to the Greenblatt (a.k.a the Norton Anthology) the lay is “ A short narrative, often characterized by images of great intensity; a French term, and a form practiced by Mary de France” (A18) . In English, the lay refers to a short narrative poem in verse (Greenblatt 142). Greenblatt further states that de lays of Marie de France form the basis of the genre; they all contain elements of magic and mystery, and deal with a single event or crisis in the affairs of noble lover (142). According to Marie, she had heard Breton story tellers who were professional minstrels from the French province of Brittany or the Celtic parts of Great Britain, perform the works before she put them in writing (142). Therefore, an accepted definition of a Breton Lay is this: the tale is written by Marie de France, or it names itself as a lay, or it is set in Brittany, or it contains a reference to Brittany.  Laskaya also states that these poems called themselves all kinds of different names including romance, which suggests that they felt no clear need for generic types of genres (this also explain why such a text can be seen as a short romance). For more information on the genre, read the general introduction by Laskaya. In that introduction she also discusses the Celtic influences in the Breton Lay genre.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor sir orfeo manuscriptSir Orfeo was written around 1331-1340 CE in the south mid-land dialect (pre-chaucer dialect), and is a rewritten version of the Greek tragedy of Orpheus. The immediate source for the poem nor the author are known, but it is certain that the original tragedy was well known at the time of writing. However, in this version there are several changes, such as the ending, the transposition from the classical world to England, and the genre change itself. It’s already clear from the beginning that the genre is no longer a tragedy, since Sir Orfeo declares itself to be a Breton Lay, but by making the adaptation end in a happily ever after, the story is no longer a tragedy and therefor it enhances the change of genre.
It was also common during this period to read a text by using the four levels of interpretation: literal, allegorical, tropological and anagogical (more information on allegory and interpretation click here). When this manner of interpretation (in this case allegorical interpretation) is applied to Sir Orfeo, the underlying event of The Harrowing of Hell can be discovered. However, it is also possible to interpret this text as being a guide to kingship where it is discussed what makes a good leader, and how-to-leave-your-kingdom-when-you’re-gone (maybe it is the early version of how to be, or not be, king for dummies?) For more information on Sir Orfeo read the introduction to Sir Orfeo by Laskaya. In that part she talks about differences between the original and the adaptation, folklore motives (Celtic influences), and allegorization.

Works Cited:

Steven F. Kruger, Dialogue, Debate, and Dream Vision” in The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Literature 1100–1500, ed. Larry Scanlon, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, 71-82.

Elizabeth Robertson, “An Anchorhold of her Own,” in Early English Devotional Prose and the Female Audience, Knoxville: U of Tennessee Press, 1990, 13-31.

Robert Hasenfratz, “Introduction” in Ancrene Wisse, Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000).

Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, “The Middle English Breton Lays: General Introduction,” in The Middle English Breton Lays, Kalamazoo: Medieval Inst. Publications, 1995.

Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, “Sir Orfeo: Introduction,” in The Middle English Breton Lays, Kalamazoo: Medieval Inst. Publications, 1995.

Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2012. 142, A1-A26.

Sources for images:
The Owl and the Nightingale
Ancrene Wisse
Sir Orfeo

This was the first post of this two part ‘series’ about Highlights of Medieval English Literature. Next time I will discuss: 15th-century literature, the west midland dialect, Middle English lyrics, and medieval romance.

Until next time! (click here for part 2)


7 thoughts on “Highlights of Medieval English Literature #1

    1. Thank you! Even though the texts can be difficult to read in the original dialect it’s so worth it in the end. Just a small insight into people’s way of life/interests at the time ^^

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Right…this is interesting.. I’ll have to bookmark this post to read it when I’m not at work and actually proper read it not give a halfarsed attempt at it! 🙂 Thanks for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

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