Old English to the Middle Ages. Brief Background.
The middle ages marks a period roughly from the collapse of the Roman Empire up until the Renaissance. Scholars forever debate when periods begin and when they end, but for our purposes, the middle ages run from roughly 500 to 1400 AD. After the middle ages is the beginning of the Renaissance, which we will cover in the last half of the course.
Although the Roman Catholic Church and a solidified social structure created a certain continuity to this long period in history, the middle ages are a lot more varied than we tend to think. Despite stereotypes about “the Dark Ages,” there were many centuries during the middle ages of vast advancements in philosophical, theological and economic thought. We do not have as much literature from this period because the middle ages occurred before the printing press, which was not ubiquitously utilized until the 16th and 17th centuries, and well before the publishing industry revolution. On top of the absence of a print-culture, poetry and fictional writing was not valued as highly as philosophical writing, so a piece of creative work was less likely to be “scribed.” In order to reproduce writing, scribes would have to make diligent copies of the original. For important works, like the Bible, or Aquinas’s philosophy, there were gigantic “scribe factories” of scholars and translators madly reproducing works.
There was more than likely a great deal of imaginative literature spoken and written during the middle ages that simply has not survived because it either was not scribed, or whatever reproductions were produced became lost over time. Therefore, any creative piece of writing we have from this 1400 year period is a gift.
The Middle Ages in England and Europe was fully part of an oral tradition. Since there was no printing press, and around 98% of the population was illiterate, any story, history, philosophy or religion was transmitted orally. It is difficult for us, surrounded by print, visual and audio media in 2009, to imagine a culture that transmitted all of its literature orally. In particular, Christian faith was almost entirely based upon an oral tradition–most people knew the Bible through the ear alone–until the print revolution that occurred during the Reformation. One cannot underestimate the shift in world and religious view for an individual when people begin to read the Bible as opposed to hear the Bible.
Like the ancient Greeks, history and stories developed through mythology and years of transmitting stories and information for medieval England. Everything we read up until the Renaissance comes to us as a rare gift of being a poem or narrative that was both scribed and survived the passage of time.
We will divide the literature of the Middle Ages into three different linguistic movements: Anglo-Saxon England, Anglo-Norman England and Middle English Literature. The invaders of the British island from Angel and Saxon– Nordic tribes–brought a tough, Germanic language. As I said, these were pagan cultures whose language valued kinship, bravery in battle, doom and death. There was virtually no language of love, which would not become part of the English language until after the Norman Conquest.
The Anglo-Saxons became Christian around the fourth century, approximately 150
years after their invasion. However, they rapidly assimilated Christianity, combining it with their gloomy world-view to create a sense of hope and renewal that awaits us upon death. This can be seen most readily in “The Dream of the Rood.” There still rage many debates as to whether Beowulf, the only surviving epic poem from the Anglo-Saxon period, is pagan or Christian. Some scholars argue that the Christian nuances of resurrection at the end of the poem were added on at a later date.
Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) poetry combines a sense of heroism and Christianity. In “The Dream of the Rood,” Christ is referred to in warrior like terms. In The Wanderer, Christian and heroic themes are wonderfully blended. The narrator of the poem suffers the worst fate for an Anglo-Saxon: estrangement from one’s king (kinsman) and the tribe. But the poem also juxtaposes transient earthly gains to God’s eternity. The poem falls in an Old English genre that still thrives today known as ubi sunt, or “where did they all go?” This type of poem is usually a lament about the ineluctable passage of time, a reflection upon loved ones and communities who have died, and the pain of aging.
As I said, Old English poetry presents a dominantly harsh world. The only place that seems to be cheerful is the mead hall, where warriors eat and drink in fellowship with their kinsmen. But even there, thoughts always return to battle and the transience of life.
There is hardly any Romantic love in Old English poetry. There was not much of a vocabulary for Romantic love. The introduction of a language for love does not enter poetry until after the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the influence of the French language. The Norman Conquest begins Middle English poetry, and some of the great pieces of English literature, such as Sir Gawaine and the Greene Kinght, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The use of language for love in poetry in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is really the invention of Romantic love, which I believe is one of the most miraculous occurrences in language and literature.