Writers from the Middle English period
See also Middle English writings
Anonymous Many of the works of literature from the Middle English period are anonymous and obviously the authors are not listed here. There are anthologies of Middle English literature (see below) in which the works in question – or extracts of these – are to be found, e.g The Owl and the Nightingale, The Fox and the Wolf (both poems in the popular ‘debate’ genre, from the late 12th century and early 13th century respectively), The Bestiary (a set of animnal descriptions in verse which survives in an East Midland manuscript) and the Poema Morale (an early Middle English work). Verse romances are also found in the Middle English period, e.g. King Horn (mid 13th century) and The Lay of Havelock the Dane (late 13th century), both tales of adventure with sub-plots concerning love. Other works one might mention are The South English Legendary (a collection of saints lives and events in verse form), the Acrene Wisse (a guide for closed-order nuns, cf. modern English anchorite, anchoress ‘reclusive monk or nun’), Cursor Mundi (a history of the world), see Laʒamon and Trevisa below for other examples of this genre.
Bacon, Roger (1214?-1294) English philosopher and scientist. Bacon is one of the most prominent figures in 13th century scholastic philosophy. He was born in Somerset and educated at Oxford and Paris. On his return from Paris he became a Franciscan and carried out much experimental research in natural science and in his Opus majus ‘Major work’ he expounded on all branches of knowledge accessible at the time including grammar and logic along with mathematics and moral philosophy.
Caxton, William (c.1422-1491) [Early Modern Period] A merchant and later a writer who set up the first printing press in England in 1476. A few years earlier Caxton had visited Cologne where he acquired his knowledge in the technique of printing and returned to England via Belgium to apply this new art. He established his base at Westminster and during his career as publisher produced more than 90 editions of well-known and lesser known authors. Among the former are Chaucer (Canterbury tales), Gower (Confessio amantis), Malory (Morte d’Arthur). Caxton himself prepared some translations of works in Latin and French. He is also famous for the prefaces which he wrote to his editions and which are revealing documents of literary attitudes in late 15th century England.
Chaucer, Geoffrey (c.1340-1400) [literary writing] The major poet of England in the late Middle Ages and the most significant writer before Shakespeare. Born and educated in London, Chaucer served in the court and the army and went abroad on diplomatic missions. His oeuvre can be divided into three periods, an early one based on French models, such as the Roman de la rose, and which contains the allegorical Book of the duchess (1369). The second period lasted to about 1387 and is characterised by his use of Italian models above all Dante and Boccaccio. The main works of this period are The house of fame, which concerns the adventures of Aeneas after the fall of Troy, The parliament of fowls, a story about the mating of birds on St. Valentine’s Day, The legend of good women (an unfinished work on classical heroines and Troilus and Criseyde, for which he drew on Boccaccio.
The third period is that of greatest maturity and contains his masterpiece, The Canterbury tales, an unfinished work of approximately 17,000 lines. It tells the story of a group of pilgrims travelling to their patron saint and who pass the time of day by telling each other stories. A number of literary genres are represented such as the light-hearted fabliau or the more serious homily. Chaucer also offers much insight into medieval social attitudes to love, marriage and religion. The linguistic importance of Chaucer is that he established the dialect of London (south-east midlands) as the input form for the standard in the late Middle English period. Later modifications of this language took place with the introduction of printing in the 15th century.
Coverdale, Miles (c. 1488-1569) [religious writing] One of the main translators of the Bible in the 16th century. He was born in Yorkshire and studied in Cambridge and became bishop of Exeter in his latter years. For much of his life he lived and worked in Germany, producing the first complete Bible to be printed in English (1535) and worked with others on the Great Bible of 1539.
Gloucester, Robert (late 13th century) The author of a chronicle which can be dated to about 1300 and was written in the southern dialect. The chronicle consists of about 12,000 rhyming couplets and is noted for comments on the political and linguistic state of England at the time, with special refernece to the behaviour of the Normans in the country.
Gower, John (c. 1330-1408) An English poet of courtly love who is remembered as the author of the Confessio Amantis, a collection of exemplary tales (from both classical and medieval sources) about courtly and Christian love. To judge by the language of this work, Gower was from Kent.
Kempe, Margery (c. 1373- c.1439) An East Anglian women who is known to posterity from The Boke of Margery Kempe. This is a text dictated by Kempe which recounts her religious experiences, including visions and pilgrimages. Kempe had withdrawn from society and married life to became a religious recluse and dictated this work – essentially her autobiography, the first in the English language – towards the end of her life, probably in the 1420s. She knew Julian of Norwich and had travelled to meet her.
Laʒamon A late 12th century author from Worcestershire who is known as the author of the Brut, a history of Britain from the earliest times to his day. It contains information on early kings such as King Arthur and King Lear. The language is that of the West Midlands and the poem is written in alliterative verse.
Langland, William The supposed 14th century author of Piers Plowman, an allegorical poem on a variety of religious themes written in simple language which could be understood by the laiety at its time. The poem contains the figure of the Dreamer who is sometimes regarded as a veiled portrait of Langland himself. The identification of William Langland as author rests on a reference to him in a manuscript of the poem held in the library of Trinity College Dublin. Langland was probably from the West Midlands and the language of the poem reflects West Midland usage in the Middle English period. Traditionally three versions – A, B and C – are assumed and version B is often used as a reference version.
Mallory, Sir Thomas (c. 1405-1471) The author or at least compiler of Le Morte d”Arthur. Little definitive information is known about him, though he was twice voted into Parliament and apparently was involved in criminal behaviour during his life, something for which he was imprisoned a number of times; he is also known to have been explicitly excluded from a number of pardons by Edward IV. Mallory wrote the Morte at the end of his life. Le Morte d’Arthur is an account in prose of legendary Celtic King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (based on previous French romances), a topic which had captured the imagination of many writers then and since. The work was printed by William Caxton in 1485.
Sir Galahad and Knights of the Round Table
Mandeville, Sir John (mid 14th century) The Travels of Sir John Mandeville was an immensely popular book of the 14th century which has survived in a couple of hundred manuscripts. The name ‘Sir John Mandeville’ was probably adopted by a doctor form Liège called Jehan de Bourgogne who would have written in French. Hence the English version is a translation though it is not known who prepared it. The travels described in the book are entirely fictitious though they may be based on genuine travel descriptions by other writers.
Manning, Robert (c. 1298-1338) An English poet who is remembered for his didactic work Handling Sin, itself an adaptation of a French-language original Manuel des péchés by William of Wadington.
Norwich, Julian of (c. 1342- c. 1416) An English mystic of the 14th century. A near-death illness at the age of 30 led to a series of visions which formed the basis for The Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love or simply The Revelations of Divine Love, a devotional work which she wrote some 20 years later. The language is that of the East Midlands. Julian (whose name is of uncertain origin) was the first woman in England to have a book published.
Julian of Norwich
Occam, William of (c.1285-1349) English philosopher and scholasticist. He was original in his teachings and writings and represented a new turn in medieval philosophy. Occam was an adherent of nominalism — as opposed to realism, supported by Thomas Aquinas — which maintained that universals do not exist in nature but only in the mind and in language. The term Occam's Razor, which states that one should not assume more than is absolutely necessary, derives from him. Occam denied the use of reason in matters of faith and was a precursor of later philosophers who separated theology from philosophy.
Orrm An English writer who flourished around 1200 and who wrote a religious work, known after him as the Orrmulum. This is of interest to linguists as it shows the use of double consonants to indicate short vowels, a practice which was an innovation at the time.
Trevisa, John of (c. 1350 1402) A writer from Cornwall known for his translation of the Polychronicon by Ranulf Higden – a history of the world – from the Latin original. He also translated De Proprietatibus Rerum an encylopedia of science by Bartholomew de Glanville. Both translations were widely known in the 15th century and were later printed.
Tyndale, William (c.1492-1536) English scholar and clergyman, an early translator of the Bible into English. Tyndale was born in Gloucestershire and studied in Oxford. He was one of the early converts to Protestantism, moving from London to Worms, Germany where his translation of the New Testament was printed (1524-5). While in Antwerp he was betrayed to Catholic officials and was subsequently put to death. In keeping with his attitudes, his style of translation was simple and direct and this won his work much popularity.
Wycliffe, John (?-1384) Wycliffe is known as an early reformer in the Catholic church, one of the pre-Reformation figures who foreshadowed the reforms instigated by Luther in the early 16th century. Between 1380 and 1384 Wycliffe, together with his followers, was responsible for producing a translation of the Bible (deriving from the Latin version of St.Jerome). Wycliffe’s style is close to the original and the version contains a large number of Latin loans.
Burrow, J. A. and T. Turville-Petre 1996. A book of Middle English. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell.
Dunn, Charles W. and Edward T. Byrnes 1973. Middle English literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Freeborn, Dennis 2006. From Old English to Standard English. 3rd edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Burnley, David 2000. The history of the English language. A sourcebook. 2nd edition. London: Longman.