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Characteristics of Middle English Literature

Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a master's degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

Characteristics of Middle English Literature

Characteristics of Middle English Literature

Middle English Literature

The Middle English Literature means English literature that developed during the period from 1100 to 1500 century. During this unique period, English got maturity and widespread popularity among people belonging to every strata of society. The English literature came into being when the Anglos and Saxton and Jutes came to settle in England in the later part of the fifth century and eventually gave the country its name and its language. The Angles brought the story of Beowulf with them to England in the sixth century. This was about seventy years about the death of Muhammad (PBUH) and in the same age as the beginning of the great Tang Dynasty in China. Three hundred years later, the manuscript that still survives was written down. What happened to it for the next seven hundred years is unknown. In 1706 it was recorded as being in Sir Robert Cotton’s library. Only twenty six years later a disastrous fire broke out in the library, and the Beowulf manuscript narrowly escaped. The charred edges of its leaves can still be seen in the British Museum. Two fragments of another poem, Waldere, which may originally have been as long as Beowulf, were found as recently as 1960 in the binding of a book in the Royal Library at Copenhagen. Gradually, the English literature got maturity and later on Chaucer’s poetry made English as a perfect medium for literature. This was the beginning of English literature in the Middle Ages. Now, let’s discuss some salient features of Medieval English Literature:

Characteristics of Middle English Literature

Impersonality in Middle English Literature

One of the most important characteristics of Middle English Literature is its impersonality. Most of the literature of the Middle Ages was anonymous. We don’t know the names of those who wrote it. It is partly that people were interested in the poem than in the poet. The medieval author was at a disadvantage compared with popular writers today in having no publisher interested in keeping his name before the public. Reproduction of books by hand gave them a communal character. A text was exposed both to unconscious alteration and conscious change. The medieval scribe was as likely as not to assume the role of editor or adapter, so that the different manuscripts of a work often differ greatly from one another.

Originality in Middle English Literature

Originality was not a major requirement of medieval authors. Story material in particular was looked upon as common property and the notion that one could claim property in ideas is seldom encountered. To have based one’s work on an old authoritative source was a virtue. It led Geoffrey of Monmouth and even great writers to claim such a source when none existed. It is not surprising that such an attitude raised translation to the level of original creation. The reader must be prepared for a less personal quality in medieval than in modern literature and to find that the original author of a work is often, for us, without a local habitation or a name.


Religion in Middle English Literature

Religion occupies an important place Middle English Literature. It is an important element of social life in medieval ages. It is often said that men and women looked upon religious life as a means to the next life. They were constantly in fear of hell and its torments and were vitally concerned with the problems of salvation for their souls. That’s why; religious writing forms a greater part of Middle English Literature. De Quincey says in this regard, “ In the Middle Ages, the literature of knowledge and the literature of power are often close together if not much the same thing” Lyric poetry passes easily from ecstasy to warning, and in narrative the will to delight is often partner with the will to teach. Due to authority of church on the lives of people, the Middle English Literature is absolutely didactic in nature. There is much of teachings and warnings instead of entertainment.

Oral Quality of Middle English Literature

Another important characteristic of Middle English Literature is its oral quality. Much of the Middle English Literature was meant to be listened to rather than read. As there was no printing facility in those days, most of the literature was memorized by people. People used to relate the poems or stories to others instead of reading. One of the reasons that hindered the spread of books among general public was the unavailability of books. Books were very expensive and common people could not afford to buy them. That’s why; most of the people were dependent upon song and recitation. As a result, verse is the normal medium for most forms of literature. Much that would now be written prose history, popular instruction, moralizing was put into verse as the form more easily carried in the memory and more pleasant to listen to.

Courtly Love in Middle English Literature

Courtly love is another important feature of Middle English Literature. Gaston Paris was the first person who popularized the phrase courtly love in 1883. Courtly Love is a code of behaviour that defined the relationship between aristocratic lovers in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. There were some requirements for courtly love in the Middle Ages. These requirements were elaborated in Ars Amatoria, The Art of Loving, by Ovid, the Roman poet. According to the conventions mentioned in the The Art of Loving, a knight, who was in love with a married woman of high rank or high birth, was required to prove his heroic deeds as well as presenting love letters to his beloved without disclosing his identity. Courtly love was a secret affair between the lovers. It was tantamount to adultery.

Chivalry in Middle English Literature

Chivalry is a prominent feature of Middle English Literature. Britannica Encyclopedia defines chivalry as, "chivalry, the knightly class of feudal times. The primary sense of the term in the European Middle Ages is “knights,” or “fully armed and mounted fighting men.” Thence the term came to mean the gallantry and honour expected of knights. Lastly, the word came to be used in its general sense of courtesy.” Middle English Poetry is mostly concerned with heroic deeds of knights. Look at the tales of Chaucer, wherein he has given full-fledged coverage to chivalry. Chivalry was the mains subjects for authors of the Middle English Literature. Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, The Arthurian Legends etc dwell upon the heroic deeds of knights.

According to University of Central Arkansas,

"Romance originally denoted languages (esp. French) derived from Latin (i.e., Roman), later came to refer to something written in French, and then referred as well to anything having characteristics associated with writings in French. The term came eventually to have a very broad application."

Romances in Middle English Literature

Romance is another important characteristic of Middle English Literature. According to Encarta Encyclopedia, " Romance is a literary genre popular in the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century), dealing, in verse or prose, with legendary, supernatural, or amorous subjects and characters. The name refers to Romance languages and originally denoted any lengthy composition in one of those languages. Later the term was applied to tales specifically concerned with knights, chivalry, and courtly love. The romance and the epic are similar forms, but epics tend to be longer and less concerned with courtly love." Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, King Horn, Athelston, Gamelyn, Sir Orfeo are best examples of Medieval Romance.

Other Characteristics of Middle English Literature

It remains but to say a word here about the quality of medieval literature as art. And we must admit at once that judged by modern standards much of medieval literature, continental as well as English, is infra-literary. This does not meant that there are no great works of the imagination in the Middle Ages. There are some, but poems like the Divine Comedy are rare in any age. To admit that most works written between the Fall of Rome and the Renaissance do not claim a place among the world’s greatest books is not to deny real interest and importance to the period. To the true humanist every effort of the race to express itself is of interest. The child is the father of the man, and in medieval literature there is much of the simplicity of the child. Beauty is not to be denied on the grounds of immaturity, and simplicity itself is not without charm. With Gaston Paris we may recognize that it is not always for us to judge and to prove but to know and to understand.

Medieval writing lacks the immediate appeal of the contemporaneous. The human mind grasps more easily the production of its own day. There are fewer obstacles to understanding. The difference of language and custom will always limit the enjoyment of early literature to the cultivated few. But acquaintance with the past brings understanding, and understanding begets sympathy, appreciation, pleasure. One is privileged in this modern world to waive aside the literature of the Middle Ages with the reason that with life so short and art so long to learn, it is better to snatch the pleasure within easy reach, but such a one will not see later literature in historical perspective and he will miss a body of writings which, sympathetically approached, will be found to contain much of interest, and as Rossetti observed, “beauties of a kind which can never again exist in art.”

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© 2015 Muhammad Rafiq


Urooj Khan from Karachi, Pakistan on July 31, 2020:

An amazing and informative hub.

Sabbir on May 02, 2020:

Thanks for ur important information

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on March 11, 2020:

Thanks for your comments!

Ivana Divac from Serbia on March 11, 2020:

Such an informative article! Well done!

Kusuro Eunice on March 09, 2019:

This is work well, thanks!

Sidra kainat on February 28, 2017:


Lenka on December 12, 2016:

its not clear whether Anglos brought Beowulf to England they believe it was so. It may have been someone else.

Iahaq Hussain on June 05, 2016:

Brief but explicity

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on March 06, 2015:

Thanks Marie Flint for your detailed comments! Angels protect you, Sadness forget you.

Marie Flint from Jacksonville, FL USA on March 06, 2015:

Scorpion, this is a valiant attempt at writing about the characteristics of Middle English Literature. There is so much on the subject, that, perhaps, it is not the best topic for traffic. Yet, you must have a passion for the subject; otherwise, you would not have written this hub.

I had to memorize lines from Chaucer in high school, "Whan that Aprile with his shoures soote . . . (Canterbury Tales). Old English is closely related to Old German, at least phonetically.

If I recall, the Code of Chivalry had at least five points to it--one was to protect women and children. I don't recall all the rest, but the knights did recite prayers to Archangel Michael before going into battle. Perhaps a Google search can clarify these codes.

I wrote a hub on Thomas a Kempis, a 14th century monk; the hub is currently unpublished. The Black Plague scourged Europe during this time period and eliminated about a third of the entire population. Anonymity evidenced Thomas' work, IMITATION OF CHRIST, as there was speculation who actually wrote it (Thomas' brother was another consideration).

The reason for anonymity is uncertain. Perhaps it was simply because the printing press had not been invented until 1440, near the end of the time period associated with Middle English Literature. Another possibility is the Roman Catholic Church's stance on humility. Certainly, this had to have been an influence. Money, too, was scarce among monks, who were predominantly copyists. (What's the point of putting your John Doe to something that wasn't going to pay you anyway?)

As you may have guessed, I was an English major.


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