The Middle English period was a time rich in literature and the arts, and it ranged from approximately 1100-1500 A.D. In this lesson, we’ll look at some of the key characteristics and literary accomplishments of this era.
Middle English Period
Although scholars differ as to exactly when the Old English period ended and the Middle English period began, it most likely started around 1100 when the English language began to take on an identity of its own. With both Germanic and Viking influences, the English language was first known as ‘Englisc.
‘After the Normans invaded in 1066, they brought French linguistic influences to England. This language was called ‘Norman French.’ Oddly enough, the average person spoke Old English, while the upper classes spoke Norman French. The two languages blended together to form ‘Middle English,’ an ‘in between’ language that bridged the development of our language from Old English to ‘early modern English.’
This blend of Norman French and Old English brought distinct changes to the language that we now refer to as Middle English. For one thing, thousands of French words permanently became a part of the English language, such as the word ‘mansion,’ for example.
But it was the smaller changes that made this new language more distinct. For instance, the letter ‘c’ was now used before ‘e’ instead of the letter ‘s.’ Also, phonemes such as ‘qu,’ ch’ and ‘gh’ were introduced. It is interesting to note that nearly every letter in Middle English words was ‘pronounced.
‘ The use of inflections became less complicated. In addition, the English began to borrow words from other languages. However, some words that were used in Middle English are definitely archaic today.Other changes from Old English to Middle English included more uniform word orders (such as a subject, followed by a verb). They also included an increase in words that were spelled phonetically, the development of regional dialects, and the establishment of London as the ‘standard’ for Middle English. All in all, the grammar of Middle English was much more closely aligned with the grammar of modern English than that of Old English.
Some of our most treasured and distinguished literary works originated in the Middle English period.
For instance, we have the epic tales of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Canterbury Tales, and other works by Geoffrey Chaucer. We also have the Arthurian legends and medieval literature, such as Sir Thomas Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur. Many of the roots of our early modern English stories, and even contemporary literature were influenced by Middle English writers.
Some key characteristics of Middle English literature include the epic hero, the supernatural, and a strong belief in God or reverence for religion, and the spiritual in general. Heroes were tested to establish the strength of their moral character. Themes included good versus evil and the adventures of both noble and simple people as they often interacted with monsters and magical forces.
The Middle English years were exciting times for the development of the English language and were marked by more standardized ways of spelling and forming words and sentences and the use of phonemes, sounds like qu, ch, and gh.It was during this time that many of our earliest and richest stories were both written and recorded, such as Arthurian legends, The Canterbury Tales and Le Morte d’Arthur. Middle English literature was defined by epic adventures and heroes and a devotion to God.
The stories formed the foundation of much of our modern literature, and they reflected an emerging English culture that had an impact on literature for all time.