Highlights of Medieval English Literature #2

Highlights of ME lit

Hi there and welcome to Highlight of Medieval English Literature (part 2)!

Part 1 was about literature from the 12th, 13th and 14th century CE.

This time I’m going to talk about the following three points:

  • 15th-century Literature and Medieval Romance
  • West Midland dialect
  • Middle English Lyrics

For this post I’ll also keep to the schedule I had for my tutorials. The texts and other extras 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.

15th-century Literature

An example of 15th-century literature we discussed in class was Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory.
One can safely assume that Le Morte d’Arthur is a romance. However, the definition of romance is not that clear cut. Siân Echard’s article helps with this, stating that romance is ” a recognition of non‐English origins, a name for works whose origins are en romanz; that is, in the romance languages which developed from Vulgar Latin. […] many […] English romances are adaptations or translations from French originals, and many vernacular chronicles in both French and English, themselves a ground for romance, depend on Latin material” (Echard 160). This doesn’t make in any easier to make a definition of a romance. (Echard gives more information including language, audience, place, politics, and more. It’s really worth to look at the article if you have access).
The difficulty in creating an exact definition of romance is due to it being a wide ranging genre in general. Melissa Furrow states that it was a long standing given in literary studies that manuscripts or texts, in general, would be seen as romance only when they were put in A Manual of Writings in Middle English 1050-1500 (43). This notion is now seen as wanting, and Expectations of Romance searches for the correct approach to define this broad genre. It is clear that romance cannot be determined by using an exclusion system, as is argued by Furrow (44). If this system would be used by contemporary scholars, some books would no longer fit into the romance genre, while the contemporaries would have regarded it as such, and vice versa (44). Furrow discusses the idea of a Venn diagram (48) in which the romance circle would be large, and surrounded by smaller circles representing other genres that have certain elements in common with romance. Using this diagram to demonstrate the capacity of this genre can result in an overlap. This can be a problem on several levels, for instance when opting to form a complete definition of the genre causing a text to actually belong to several genres. The genre is then determined depending on the signals of scope, narrative shape and focus (Furrow 48-49). After more research on the genre, several common elements of romance can be identified. First of all, romances concern themselves with sexuality, but this is connected to cultural and spiritual ideals (Furrow 50). Secondly, characters are often involved with the secular court (Gaunt 47), follow an ideal (Gaunt 57), and can become separated and reunited in the story (David Salter 30). Thirdly, there’s often a knight, the hero of chivalry, who has a tendency to be passive and to be guided by a higher power (Salter 30). The texts are generally about the legendary or extraordinary adventures (quests) of these knights (“romance” OED). (Note that extraordinary elements are also often present in romances). The last important feature of a romance is what Stephen Greenblatt (a.k.a the Norton Anthology) refers to as “the comic mode: [it] involves a happy ending in which justice is done, the ravages of time are arrested, and that which is lost is found” (A13). From the previous statement can also be derived that romance can be seen as an overarching genre which has changed through time by people’s perception of it. This can be illustrated by saying that a play as we know it from Shakespeare’s time would never have been categorised as a romance in the 14th century. Another example is prose. A romance in prose would never have categorised as such in the early days of the genre. Due to romance being a broad term, it makes it almost impossible to come up with a short definition or list of common features which accounts for each and every manuscript that is seen as romance today, and was seen as such during to time of composition.

There is not much known about the author of Le Morte D’Arthur, except that he was called Thomas Malory, that he was a knight and maybe a prisoner at the time. He finished the 9th book in 1470 CE. We discussed this version of the story about King Arthur because it’s the text with the most influence in contemporary adaptations of the story. (Click here and you’ll be redirected to a website with the version of Malory). Earlier versions of the King Arthur story are written by Cretien du Troyes, and Geoffrey of Monmouth. Of course, there were a lot of other poems and texts about Arthur, but these are just two of the bigger names.
Another poem (Gododdin, Welsh) was written around 600 CE in which the hero was not Arthur (so people must have been familiar with the story even then).
Within Le Morte d’Arthur there is also some sort of reference to ‘a French book’. However, the difference between the two works is that Malory is considerably (and consistently) more positive about Arthur as a person in his work than the French book was. This makes Arthur even more worthy of looking up to. Not only is he a just king etc, but he is also a good person who isn’t lead by the feeling of revenge.

Bonus: another 15th-century text; Margery Kempe

Yeeeeeeey, how I love surprises! (Or maybe it’s just because I might have almost forgotten about The Book of Margery Kempe. I should be ashamed…).

An illuminationThe Book of Margery Kempe was ‘written’ by Margery Kempe (shocker). Lynn Staley writes this about the book in her introduction (see the citation for source): “Kempe examines the fundamental conflicts and tensions of that world by describing Margery’s gradual and voluntary movement away from worldly prestige. Margery’s disengagement from conventional female roles and duties — and consequently her daring rejection of the values of her fellow townspersons — is a response to her growing commitment to her spiritual vocation. Her attempt to gain personal, financial, and spiritual autonomy is a tale of radical reversal that touches us on many different levels. Margery does what very few are able finally to do, and the fact that she does so as a woman enhances the force of her story — she breaks away.” (The rest of the introduction offers a sort of summary, information on the way of writing, the manuscript, and the author). Fun fact: the entire manuscript was found about 1934 CE.

Interestingly, this book can be seen an early autobiography and an example of affective piety (meaning that the body actually reacts to the divine). Furthermore, this text helps the reader to discover how people at the time would have looked towards certain religious movements (like the Lollards), or any kind of religious misbehaviour, and how one would have reacted to a woman like Margery Kempe.
The book is said to be an autobiography (because there is some authorship and it is her life’s story), however, there is more evidence to support that it is not. One of the most important arguments for this is the fact that it was never seen as an autobiography at the time. Other arguments are that it was not physically written down by her (she couldn’t write), it was written in the third person, and it is more about feeling and emotions rather than events. This manner of narration makes the book less criticised or at least ‘safer’. It was a man who wrote her story down, which gave the narrative more authority, and thus she distances herself from it. Connected to the fact that another writes down the story is the 2 miracles happen during the composition which makes the book ‘divine’. The book was also introduced as educational for religious purposes. There are also several sets of comments in the manuscript which respond to Margery’s character and create a new chronological order. (More on the comments see Staley’s introduction).

West Midland Dialect

The reasons why I put this in here is the fact that some of the earlier poems that I discussed in the previous post were written in the west midland dialect. So, here are some aspects of the dialect to make those manuscripts a little easier to read:

  • it’s a conservative dialect with many Norman influences which were wholly adopted into the colloquial.
  • key features of the spelling:
    • v instead of f
    • short u instead of i
    • u instead of ou
  • verb endings are reduced

For more on the west midland dialect look at Hasenfratz’s introduction from header ‘spelling’ and onwards.

Middle English Lyrics

Middle English lyrics are short (sometimes very short) poems written in the 13th, 14th, and some in the 15th century CE, in which one theme (love, nature, or religion) is in focus. It has a rhyming structure and within the poem itself, there is no room for individual expression (only general). There are around 2000 different lyrics preserved in about 450 manuscripts and most have no known author.
Lyric poetry can be about religious or secular themes (even a combination of both). It becomes a mixture of both when the author discusses a religious theme, but also talks about secular themes in order to make the church jargon relatable (or at the least recognisable). It is true that more religious lyrics have been preserved, but that doesn’t mean that there were no secular lyrics. Since texts, and also poems, were written by the clergy and thus those lyrics might not have been preserved.

Bonus (again?! Yes): Manuscript Culture

Stephen G. Nichols writes an informative piece on manuscript culture. He states that manuscripts are seen as artefacts, but scholars do not appear to register the importance of these documents in shaping the culture of their time, they are archaic precursors of the printed documents (34). The idea that they are primitive is because of three reasons: 1. they’re handwritten, so every manuscript is unique, 2. they lack uniformity and thus accuracy, and 3. the manuscript isn’t necessarily the same as the original (the author’s original intention) (34). Because manuscripts were handwritten and copied by scribes, it is logical to assume that they would end up doing more than just copying. It was not even expected from them not to leave their mark on their copy (35). Therefore philologists wrote critical copies, attempting to restore the original of the author and so ignoring all elements that make a manuscript (illuminations, commentaries, margins etc) (35). Manuscripts differ from printed sources in many ways and so people can only understand the importance of the manuscript when one realises how they differ from printed sources.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor medieval scriptoriumWhile at first manuscripts were copied in monasteries in a scriptorium (the image we all know and love), manuscripts would also be copied in workshops in city centres from the 13th century onwards (35). “This means that manuscript books were products of an urban microculture where every aspect of the production was carried out by artisans living in the same or nearby streets”(36).
All the non-textual components create a different reception and perception per manuscript (since manuscripts are all unique) because manuscripts situate their text in contemporary history (36). In a way, this makes manuscript culture a way of representing the world in accord with the contemporary perception, which creates the opportunity for ‘history’ to support current belief (37).  All the non-textual elements within the manuscripts were originally meant to an active participation on the reader’s part, these non-textual elements contribute to the meaning of the whole.

Now that we know this, let’s quickly discuss an example of the importance of manuscript context with the lyrics. It is true that some manuscripts are put together just because it could be done. However, some manuscripts have been compiled deliberately, such as Cambridge, Trinity College B. 14.39. No, no fancy illuminations. But there are more than a 140 religious and didactic texts in here, together with more secular texts which can indicate the importance of religious and didactic texts (for either the compiler, the client, or the time period). This proves that the context, in means of compilation, also belongs to the non-textual components of a manuscript.

Works Cited

Echard, Siân. “Insular Romance,” The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature in English, ed. E. M. Treharne and Greg Walker, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, 160-179.

Furrow, Melissa. “The Name and the Genre.” Expectations of Romance: The Reception of a Genre in Medieval England. Boydell & Brewer, 2009. 43-94.

Gaunt, Simon. “Romance and Other Genres.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Ed. Roberta L. Krueger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 45-59.

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

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

Nichols, Stephen G. “What is a Manuscript Culture? Technologies of the Manuscript Matrix,” The Medieval Manuscript Book: Cultural Approaches, ed. Michael Johnston and Michael Van Dussen Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015, 34-40.

“romance, n. and adj.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017.

Salter, David. “Kinds of Romance”. The Edinburg Introduction to Studying English Literature. Ed. Dermot Cavenaugh, et al. 2nd Ed, Edinburg University Press, 2014. 25-34.

Staley, Lynn The Book of Margery Kempe: Introduction’ The Book of Margery Kempe, Kalamazoo, Medieval Institute Publications, 1996.

Image Sources:


Margery Kempe


This was the second and last post. I hope it was informative and, as usual, if you have any feedback or something nice to say; leave your thoughts in the comment section below ^_^


7 thoughts on “Highlights of Medieval English Literature #2

  1. I don’t quite follow your argument in respect of Furrow and the exclusion system, unless you are using ‘contemporary’ in two different meanings.
    However, many of the elements in the definition you offer – heroes, adventure, sexuality etc, are present in modern fiction and, indeed, we can argue that all modern fiction has evolved from that mediaeval form – The Romance. This century, most readers look at ‘romance’ in a rather different way, that is, as something SPECIFICALLY relating to sexuality – which is a pity because it obscures the true nature of the modern novel. The Venn diagram approach is an intriguing one and I venture to suggest that we will be hard pressed to find ANY modern novel that does not overlap with the larger ‘romance circle’ to a greater or lesser degree.
    Thus The Romance is both our history and our heritage. It is alive and well in the work of Tolkien, CS Lewis, George RR Martin and many others.
    Thank you for two very interesting articles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for your comment!
      You’re right in saying that I use contemporary as in scholars in our time and people back in the day when the work was written. I should have pointed that out. Thanks for that!

      I thought that the Venn diagram was an interesting approach as well. I wrote my essay about courtly love and how this returns in Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale, so while researching romance and other g


    2. Other genres I discovered that almost every genre contains a little bit of what can be defined as romance. It’s actually quite fascinating how broad a genre it actually is.
      (Something went wrong with my comment so that was the rest of what I wanted to say haha)

      Thanks again for your comment ^^ I am thinking on putting my essay on my blog. So if you’re interested you can read the rest ^^

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I study at Leiden University in the Netherlands ^_^

        Also, do you think a dystopian novel can have characteristics of a Romance?


  2. Gosh, what a question! In theory, I suppose not, since at least SOME of the romance elements can be there. One that is usually missing is the comedic ending (- that is an important defining element as you mention in your article -) But I’d have to get back to you on specifics.
    Many of the ‘new’ genres that spring up are experimental and, maybe, as time goes by, literature will diverge more and more from its ‘romance’ origins and come to escape from that imaginary central circle altogether. For the present, most of us, I think, love to escape into the world of The Romance. Is that not the main reason why high fantasy is so popular?
    I wish you all the very best in your course at Leiden.


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