What is English Literature?

What is English Literature?



Historical Events

There may have been writings in and about during the times of the Romans, but these are considered Roman Literature, not English 

English literature begins with the arrival of the English (Angles) and Saxons and Jutes from Germany
and Denmark (and maybe from Holland — Frisian is the closest relative to the English language. “Good bread and good cheese is good English and good Fries”).
The Germanic invaders set up many small kingdoms and fought among themselves for 250 years (600-850 A.D.)
Danes attacked in the late 9th century and took over all north and central England
. (An area called the Danelaw). Alfred the Great (871-899) of the Kingdom of Wessex (=“”on">West Saxons“) stopped them from taking all of it.

In the middle of the 11th Century, the country was united under an Anglo-Saxon king.

Just after that happened, in 1066, ”on">Normans (French-speakers from Normandy) conquered England at the Battle of Hastings (or Senlac Hill), ending the Anglo-Saxon period. King Harold got an arrow in his eye, and William, Duke of Normandy became William I, “the Conqueror,” King of England.

Question for Vancouverites: What Vancouver street commemorates a battle that took place in 1066?

The Anglo-Saxon or Old English language.

You wouldn’t recognize it as English, honest. First of all, it was a declined language, like Latin or Finnish, meaning that nouns and adjectives received special endings instead of prepositions. For another, the vocabulary is almost completely Germanic (with a little church Latin), so a lot of words which have been introduced to English in the last thousand years weren’t there. Next, there have been changes in the alphabet. They had two letters that we don’t (“eth” makes the sound of the “th” in “Gareth”, and “thorn” makes the sound at the beginning of … uh … thorn. It’s absolutely beautiful to listen to, though, even if you don’t understand a word. Try to get a recording of “Beowulf,” if you don’t believe me. The need for Anglo-Saxons to talk to Danes simplified English a bit. For example, making all plurals end in “s”.

Types of Anglo-Saxon literature

Epics tell about the deeds of heroic warriors. (“A long narrative poem in an elevated style, relating the heroic deeds of noble or semidivine people”). Beowulf is the only full epic that survives. Two late Christian poems in epic style describe fights against the Danes Battle of Brunanburh Battle of Maldon Riddles are poems in which an object or person is described in an ambiguous manner. Lyric poems are personal and emotional. Prose is straightforward and influenced by Church Latin models. The first prose writer was the Venerable Bede, a 7th century scholar who wrote the Ecclesiastical History in Latin. The most influential prose writer was Alfred the Great (yes, THAT one) who translated Bede into Anglo-Saxon, encouraged the keeping of records of events (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) had the Bible translated into Anglo-Saxon and (I’m told) invented the time candle. Oh, and did I mention that I was born in his part of the country? He may be an ancestor of mine. Or of yours. Remind me to give you the proof that everyone is related.

Anglo-Saxon Poetry

  • No rhyme, and no strict metre.
  • Each line is divided into two half-lines by a break or CAESURA
  • Each half-line contains two stressed words or syllables and a variable number of unstressed syllables
  • Alliteration is used to bind the half-lines together. Alliterating words either begin with the same consonant OR begin with any vowel.
Poetic formulas include:
  • special poetic vocabulary
  • fixed expressions (formula phrases), such as “on hranrade” (“on the whale-road”) or “on seglrade” (“on the sailroad”) both meaning “at sea”. Descriptive phrases often replace proper nouns, so that a person might be referred to as “so-and-so’s son” or “ring-giver,” etc.
  • KENNINGs are compound words that are like riddles, such as “bone-chamber” (body) or “battle-light” (shining swords). Here, like in the riddle poems and the knotwork designs, you see the Anglo-Saxon love of THE MEDIEVAL PERIOD (1100-1500 A.D.)

The Middle English Language

For 300 years after 1066 (what happened then?), England
had French-speaking kings. For a while, the same was true with lords and churchmen. Not surprisingly, the old Anglo-Saxon language merged with a lot of Norman French to create a non-declined language with a huge mixed vocabulary. Fancy words about the law, government, or luxuries entered the language from French (words like “royalty” “nobility” “mortgage” “perjury” and “parliament”). But the old words didn’t necessarily disappear, so English ended up with lots of synonyms and near-synonyms, like kingly/royal/regal/sovereign or ask/question/query/interrogate. The Hundred Years War (1337-1454) lessened the hold of French for patriotic reasons. The Black Death (which arrived in England in 1348 and stayed for about 20 years) lessened the hold of French for reasons of high mortality in both French and English speaking populations — but there were many more speakers of English. By the time of Geoffrey Chaucer, English looked pretty recognizable.

Types of Medieval Literature

Folk ballads, sung by local minstrels. The ballad stanza: four lines alternating between 3 and 4 iambic feet second and fourth lines rhyme refrains (so that the listeners can join in) Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1340?-1400) poems, especially the Canterbury Tales. Written in rhyming couplets. Stories about rich and poor. Amused, fond, satirical, bawdy at times (especially the "Wife of Bath Romances are stories of knights and their adventures. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is one example, contemporary with Chaucer. Sir Thomas Malory’s (1395-1471) Morte D’Arthur (about 100 years after Chaucer, during the Wars of the Roses) is the longest and most famous. It was one of the first printed books in English, thanks to William Caxton who set up a printing press in London in 1476. As everywhere else, this changed the nature of literature from a predominantly oral entertainment to a quiet one.


The Renaissance started in Italy and spread through Europe. As one of the farthest fringes of Europe, it hit England almost last, at the times of the Tudor monarchs (Henry VII, who ended the Wars of the Roses in 1485, Henry VIII, who founded the Church of England, and Elizabeth I, who presided over the height of the English Renaissance). Since Elizabeth was known as “the Virgin Queen,” it isn’t surprising that a new royal family followed her. James VI of Scotland came down and became James I of the United Kingdom of England and Scotland. (That’s the same James who commissioned the writing of the King James version of the Bible, which is still used today).

Three important aspects of the changes during this period

Renaissance: Renaissance means “re-birth” and refers to the renewed access to Classical scholarship and techniques. The proudest boast that Renaissance artists, scholars, architects, poets, and scientists could make was that they did things as well as the ancients. Others felt that they couldn’t possibly be doing work that good, and that it was impious and hubristic to claim that they were. You will read echoes of these debates.
Reformation: The Roman Catholic (which means “universal”) church had a number of unpopular and even corrupt practices. A strong effort to reform the church, called the Reformation, is traditionally said to have started in Germany in 1517 when Martin Luther posted “Ninety-five Theses” on a door of the Wittemberg church. He ignited religious rebellion and started a new variety of Christianity: Lutheranism, the first Protestant religion. He also started the Hundred Years War, as Protestants and Catholics fought over northern Europe. Efforts to destroy Protestantism and restore the unity of the Roman Catholic Church failed. And that is why there are Protestant religions today: A Catholic could define a Protestant religion as a heresy that survived.
The English variety of the Reformation was sparked by Henry VIII’s difficulty in having an heir. He kept having to replace wives in the effort to have a male child, and the Pope refused to allow him to annul or divorce one after another. So Henry effectively made himself the Pope of England. (Still true, in a sense. Although the Archbishop of Canterbury is the senior cleric in the C. of E., the Queen is the head of the church). Henry also confiscated all of the Church’s wealth, destroyed monasteries, and killed people who would not renounce the Catholic faith. After 1.5 millennia of more-or-less unified Christianity in the West, this was a huge break with tradition.
Naval Power: England became a naval power that defeated the Spanish fleet, the Dutch fleet, and planted colonies on other continents. (They planted the English language, too, of course).


Sonnets: “The first major impact of the Renaissance on English literature is observable in the poetry of Wyatt and Surrey, who introduced and Anglicized the sonnet, a verse form that has proved to be both popular and durable. Surreyis also credited with inventing English blank verse.” (McDonnell et al. 1982:113).
Elizabethan Sonnets: 14-line poems, each line is iambic pentameter, and the rhyme scheme is “abab cdcd efef gg.” This can be described as four quatrains and a couplet. Usually, the poet would look at a problem or situation in three different ways (one per quatrain) before summing up his opinion in the couplet.
Petrarchan Sonnets: 14-line poems, each line is iambic pentameter, and the rhyme scheme (if memory serves) is “abbacddc efgefg.” The two parts are called the octet (8 lines) and sestet (6 lines). The poet often uses the octet to describe a situation or a point of view and the sestet to present another point of view.

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