The Middle English

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Middle English describes dialects of English in the history of the English language between the High and Late Middle Ages, or roughly during the three centuries between the late 12th and the late 15th century. * In 1066 the Normans invaded England, and the French of Normandy, together with Latin, was to become the language of court, religion and science * English was still used by the common people, but there was no literature written in it for 200 years. * However, this situation of the ruling class speaking one language, and their subordinates the other, could not last long. The Normans had to learn some English in order to communicate. Moreover, Norman kings set off to the Crusades in the 12th century, so they had to persuade people to go there. * 100 years after the invasion the descendants of Norman knights spoke French which was unintelligible by the French people. * In 13th century, England lost control of its French territory, and the Norman nobility had to declare allegiance either to France or to England. Many of them chose England, because they were born there. * During the late 13th and in the 14th century, English was making a comeback. The mood towards France was becoming more and more hostile: it wasn’t seen as a mother country, but as a dangerous rival. Although French and Latin were still languages of prestige, English was becoming the language of communication, even among the nobility. * The Hundred Years’ War with France (mid-14th – mid-15th cent.) marked the definite decline of French and the rise of English as a chief language. * During the late 13th and in the 14th century, English was making a comeback. The mood towards France was becoming more and more hostile: it wasn’t seen as a mother country, but as a dangerous rival. Although French and Latin were still languages of prestige, English was becoming the language of communication, even among the nobility. * The Hundred Years’ War with France (mid-14th – mid-15th cent.) marked the definite decline of French and the rise of English as a chief language. * What we now call Middle English appears after the great silence of 200 years, in the 2nd half of 14th century. * Prior to that time, vernacular (=not in Latin) literature consisted primarily of religious writings. The second half of 14th century produced the first great age of secular (=not religious) literature. * The best representative is Geoffrey Chaucer, ‘the father of English poetry’. By making a conscious choice to write in English, he symbolizes the rebirth of English as a national language. His works also helped the London dialect of English become a standard. * We can read and understand Chaucer’s English fairly well – this shows how much the language had changed. ‘The Canterbury Tales’

* Chaucer’s most famous work is ‘The Canterbury Tales’ (about 1387), a long poem, or a collection of stories in verse. And it is real verse – another novelty. The rhyme has taken place of Old English alliteration. * The story is about a party of pilgrims, the poet among them, traveling to Canterbury to visit the grave of Thomas a Becket. To pass the time, they agree to tell tales. In those tales we get to know the characters themselves. They come from every class of the society of the time, from the nobility, members of the church, merchants and craftsmen, to peasants. What is new and refreshing about Chaucer’s work is that the characters are seen as real people, having both good and bad sides. Although he often makes ironic comments, and sometimes may appear unsympathetic, the poet has, on the whole, a positive attitude towards the characters and a belief in the good in the world. Other Middle English Poetry

On the other hand, the old alliterative verse was still in use in Chaucer’s time. Poems such as William Langland’s ‘The Vision of Piers the Plowman’, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ and ‘Pearl’ (anonymous) were written in it. Middle English Prose

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