I am going to divide this topic into four different areas. First of all, I am going to give a brief account of the historical setting of the Middle Ages. Then, I will deal with the orally-transmitted medieval literature. The third area will be related to the legend of King Arthur and the Arthurian romances.Finally, I will give an overview of Geoffrey Chaucer’s works and will focus mainly on The Canterbury Tales.
I am going to start with a brief historical introduction. The first literature in English goes back to the period between AD 410 and 1066. These Anglo-Saxons times are known as the early medieval period. In 410 the Romans left Britain, and in 1066 the Norman conquest began the late medievalperiod of history.
It was a time of wars and invasions – Britain was invaded by many peoples from Europe: Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings and finally Normans. These invasions left many traces in the form of castles and towns, as well as in culture and in language. The language known as Old English is the language of the first literature in English. But it was a long time before it was actuallywritten down: the first stories and poems were spoken, and we do not know exactly when these stories were first told. There were two cultures through the Anglo-Saxon period: the Christian culture, which had arrived in England in 597 with Saint Augustine, and the heroic culture, of leaders and heroes who defended their lands against invaders.
The Norman conquest (1066) was the last successfulinvasion of Britain. The Normans took power and William the Conqueror became king of England. The Normans brought with them many French influences, and the French language began to mix with Old English, into a more modern language. Scandinavian and Latin influences were also important on English language and culture. Out of these influences a new national identity began to develop.
The firstparliament was in 1265 and English became the language of national law in 1362. The Magna Carta of 1215 reduced the power of the kings, giving more power and property rights to the aristocrats.
Once I have introduced a brief account of the historical background of the time, I am going to move on to present the orally-transmitted medieval literature.
The language of the earliest English literaturecame from many different places. The literature itself and its subjects were influenced by different countries and by different places, peoples and cultures. The topics of the first literature are topics which are familiar even now: war, religion, personal sadness and happiness. It was the Christian monks in the monasteries who first wrote down the words of the early literature – they were theonly people who could read and write, and for many centuries they guarded culture and learning.
Poetry was originally oral, whereas prose was mostly preserved in manuscripts. For this reason, I am going to concentrate on analysing the orally-transmitted medieval poetry. About 30.000 lines of the Old English poetry have survived through copies made at the time of the 10th century monasticreformation. Old English poetry can be divided into two genres:
• The pagan epic or traditional Germanic epic.
• The Christian epic.
It is supposed that poetry was originally composed and delivered orally. Old English poets were called scops and were itinerant artists who composed songs and poems and memorised them to be delivered. Poetry was an aristocratic form of entertainment. The kind of poetrycomposed by these scops has some typical features:
• The most important device of this kind of poetry is alliteration.
• The poetic line consisted of two sections or half-lines which have a space between them called caesura. Every half-line has two main stresses and many possible secondary stresses.
• We find an important use of variation or synonyms, that is, expressing the same idea in...