Writings in the Middle English period

Bible translations

The Middle English period can be taken to begin with the Norman invasion of 1066 and the subsequent conquest of the whole of England. Norman French replaced English as the language of the aristocracy and the church. By the late 11th century the English higher clergy and nobility had been replaced by French. In the Domesday Book (1086), a detailed record of land property in England, proposed by William and carried out in his name, there are virtually no English landlords mentioned — the higher echelons of English society had been rid of the English.

Sample page from the Domesday Book

A consequence of this is that writing in English only very slowly regains its position in society. There are some remnants of Old English, such as the Peterborough Chronicle, with its final entry in 1154, but these represent the dying throes of a written tradition now virtually extinct. After this Latin and French are the languages of literacy. It is not until the late 12th century that works in English slowly begin to appear again — in a very different guise from the last works in Old English. This time dialectal diversity, and not the koiné of a central region, characterises the scene. For this reason it is appropriate to deal with the literary monuments of Middle English according to geographical provenance.

East Midland

This is the area which includes London, the new capital of England after the Norman invasion. It is the region from which the later standard of Britain emerged. Its chief author is of course Geoffrey Chaucer in the late 14th century whose main work is The Canterbury Tales and who also wrote a significant amount of poetry. The remaining literary documents from the East Midland area, in roughly chronological order, are the following.


Figures from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

The Orrmulum, a verse work of some 10,000 double lines, written ca. 1200, consists of a recounting of the story of the gospels and homilies. Its author is Orrm, a monk who termed his work ‘a little book of Orrm’. This is of linguistic significance because Orrm consistently used double consonants after short vowels.

Havelok the Dane is a legend in verse, written sometime before 1300 in Lincolnshire.

King Horn is a poetical romance about largely Celtic themes and was written ca. 1260 in Surrey.

Handlyne Synne is a translation of a handbook for the lay community in the form of a series of tales. It is about 12,000 lines long and was written ca. 1300 by Robert Mannyng.

The Confessio Amantis (ca. 1390) is a long work of some 34,000 rhyming couplets by John Gower (1330-1408), the next major 14th century poet of London after Chaucer.

West Midland

In the second half of the 14th century there was a revival of interest in alliterative poetry (common in the Old English period). The language of this region can be further subdivided into a southern type — exemplified by Langland — and a northern type — seen in the author of Sir Gawain.

Piers Plowman (1362-3) is by William Langland who died ca. 1399 and about whose life little is known. This work is several thousand lines long and available in three versions, A, B and C.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an allegorical poem composed in the late 14th century possibly by the same author as wrote The Pearl another poem from the northwest midlands.

The Brut by one Layamon is a history of Britain (which starts with Troy) comprising about 16,000 lines of alliterative verse.

The Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous prose work from about 1200, which is a practical guide for nuns.


This area is roughly co-terminous with the West-Saxon region of Old English and is attested quite early in the Middle English period through a number of literary works, some only of linguistic value.

Poema morale is an anonymous work of some few hundred lines in rhyming couplets from about 1150.

The owl and the nightingale is an anonymous religious instructional poem, again in rhyming couplets, from about 1200.

The Chronicle by Robert of Gloucester is a history of England of some 12,000 rhyming couplets from about 1300 and contains an account of the Norman invasion.

The Polychronicon by Higden, a history of the world, was translated from the Latin original by John of Trevisa (ca. 1350 - 1402).


The south-east corner of England was originally settled by Jutes and features of their language are probably responsible for the distinct dialect of Old English in this region and which continued into Middle English. The main documents for this period are 1) the Kentish Sermons from around 1250 which are translations of a French version of the Latin homilies and 2) The Ayenbite of Inwyt ‘The remorse of conscience’, again a translation and rendering from the French by an Augustinian Monk in the 14th century called Dan Michael of Northgate.


The dialect of this region was the most progressive in Old English and the first to absorb material — lexical and morphological — from the language of the Vikings. It is well attested in a large history of the western world in some 30,000 lines of verse, the Cursor Mundi. The author is unknown but was probably a monk from Durham.


English was brought to Scotland in the Old English period and co-existed with Irish — brought from Ulster in the Old Irish period — chiefly in the southern lowlands. Since then there is a continuous tradition of writing in English. The major poet of the Middle English period in Scotland is John Barbour (?1320-?1396) from Aberdeen.

  John Barbour with others

He composed the Bruce (about 1375) about the life and deeds of Robert Bruce (1274-1329) one of the major Scottish kings in the late Middle Ages. In the 15th century other poets were active and contributed to the literary reputation of Scotland; among these are Robert Henryson (?1425-?1506), William Dunbar, (1460-?1530) and Gavin Douglas (?1475-1522). They are sometimes referred to as Makars or Scottish Chaucerians because of the influence which the work of Chaucer had on the form and content of their poetry.

The end of the Middle English period is often taken as 1476 the year in which William Caxton (?1422-1491) introduced printing into England. Caxton is a literary figure of some note as he composed prefaces to many of the works which he printed.

  William Caxton

Documents from the 15th century are quite abundant; one type should be mentioned for its linguistic value here. Personal letters are available from this period which give some clues to colloquial English of the time. For instance, there is a collection of over 1,000 letters from one family, the Pastons who lived in Norfolk and corresponded frequently with each other.

Bible translations

In the history of European languages translations of the Bible play a central role. Such translations often have the effect of standardising the language — to a large extent in written German with the translation by Luther (1483-1546) — or indeed of establishing an accepted written form in the first place as with the Finnish translation by Mikael Agricola (1509-1557). Translations of the Bible or parts of it have been made throughout the history of English. For instance in the Old English period the four gospels were translated into the West Saxon dialect. Another early translation which should be mentioned is that by John Wycliffe and his associates, produced in the late 14th century. It was based on the Latin version by St.Jerome and translated into the East Midland dialect of Middle English.
There is, however, a particular period — the 16th and early 17th centuries — in which a number of translations of the Bible appeared which had an influence on the development of written English.

William Tyndale (c.1494-1536) translated the New Testament in 1525 and revised this in 1534. This is the first printed version of an English translation; it appeared in Cologne.

  Willian Tyndale

Miles Coverdale (?1488-1569) produced a translation of the entire Bible from German which was printed in Cologne in 1535.

Thomas Matthew is associated with the first complete version of the Bible to be printed in England (1537). It is attributed to Matthew but was produced by John Rogers, one of Tyndale’s circle and show his influence along with that of Coverdale.

The Great Bible of 1539 is so called because of its size. Its contents represent a revision of Matthew’s Bible by Miles Coverdale. It contains a preface by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) and is one of the first official versions to be used in Protestant England. This translation was revised and came to be known as the Bishop's Bible (1568), being adopted as the official version by the Protestant church in 1571.

The Geneva Bible (1560) derives its name from the fact that it was printed in Switzerland. It was compiled by Protestant exiles living abroad during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary.

  Title page of the Geneva Bible

The Douai-Rheims Bible (1609-1610) is again called after the towns in Europe where it was printed (in two stages, one in each town). This time it was prepared by Catholic emigrant priests using the Latin Vulgate after the Protestant restoration in England under James I.

The King James Bible (1611) is the main translation of the early modern period and because of its authoritative standing is also termed the Authorised Version. The translation was produced after a commission was issued by James I and is the work of several scholars. The language aspect, while conservative, is regarded as particularly successful in its style. It has had a similar dissemination and influence on written English as did The book of common prayer first produced under Cranmer in 1549, revised on various occasions as late at 1662.