Middle English Literature in the 14th and 15th Century
by D.J. Kingdon
The 14th century can be characterized by these important events or historical changes:
- The beginning of the 100 years war with France
- The peasants revolt and the decline of the feudal system
- The Black Death
- The rise in national consciousness
- The founding of the Lollard Movement
- The new use of English in legal courts, parliament and in schools
The 14th Century saw the rise of the peasant classes in England and the implementation once again of the English language (which had been in major disuse since the Norman Conquest ). In this century English becomes the official language of the courts, parliaments and schools. And interestingly, these social changes were introduced because of the Black Death or Black Plague which devastated England financially and socially around 1350. England lost half of its population and the Black Death respected no social classes. It ravaged the land and claimed people of all social classes.
The population was so decimated that the nobility found it difficult to find laborers. Deaths among the peasants left a lot of land available and no laborers to tend it. The nobility still had so much surplus land that it gave rise to a “middle class” or the “gentry” These were non-aristocrats who would lease or buy the land from the nobility to use it for a profit. All the laborers that were left were able to charge higher wages for a day’s work. As the laborers and the middle class began to grow, literacy began to spread. They had to know the language to administer their business. In 1362, English became the official language of the courts for the first time since the Norman Conquest. As English became widespread, it began to be used in creative writing as well. Chaucer was one of the first writers to use English vernacular in his works.
During the 1340’s and the 1380’s the purchasing power of laborers increased by about 40 percent. Some of this was due to many of them training in specialized crafts which put them in higher demand. However, in 1362, King Edward introduced a poll tax to pay for his Hundred Years War and also enacted sumptuary laws to prevent the peasant class from consuming expensive items that were formerly only available to the upper classes. These laws were not effective. All of these taxes and laws, especially on the peasant class led eventually to the Peasants Revolt of 1381. While it was not entirely successful, it planted the thought in the lower classes that they were indeed, a powerful force when united and that they needed to continue to demand equity and fair laws.
The other characteristic of this time, was that the people began to question the authority of the Roman Church. They became more aware of the widespread corruption that was occurring within the ranks of the clergy. John Wycliffe, an Oxford professor and a Roman Catholic, began to contend that the Bible was the “supreme authority” and not the clergy. He stated that there was no such thing as “transubstantiation” which was considered a heresy at the time. Wycliffe translated the Bible into Middle English and it was the first such translation to be available for all people to read. His questioning of the church and its teachings led to the formation of the “Lollard Movement” which came to eventually mean “heretic”. But the word itself had vague origins and possibly meant “a mumbler” or someone who was perhaps dull or simple. Some of the “Lollard Knights” as followers of Wycliffe’s philosophy came to be known, were reported to be friends of Chaucer. One example of social protest against the church was the work of Piers Plowman, the allegorical work of William Langland.
Yet, this century of skepticism with the Church led to some of the most astonishing spiritual writing. It was as if Christians were yearning for a personal relationship with God without the trappings of the Church itself. Julian(a) of Norwich’s writings were filled with accounts of her mystical visions and they were written with elegance and power. Richard Rolle (1300-1349) was a student at Oxford and Paris and his Latin spiritual works were widely read as well during this time. The Cloud of Unknowing (14th century) was a deeply profound work in which God is met not as a personality, or as a human but as an emergent Source with no earthly definition. Its author is unknown. In some way, the visions and works of the spiritual writers of the 14th century were perhaps a harbinger of the Reformation which was to follow in the next century.
It was in this melee of social changes, in the questioning of the Church as ultimate authority and the rise of the peasant classes that fostered these beautiful high lofty spiritual works alongside some very English vernacular works such as those of Chaucer and his contemporaries. The 14th century managed to reach to the highest heavens with its feet firmly planted on terra firma.
The fifteenth century was marked by the famous “War of the Roses” which was the legendary thirty year war between the House of Lancaster and the House of York which broke out in 1455. It was a dispute for the succession to the English throne. In the end, Henry VII defeated and killed Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. Henry was crowned as King, thereby establishing him the first Tudor monarch.
It was also in this century that both Columbus and Vasco da Gama began their explorations of the “New World”. William Caxton introduced the printing press into England and the first printed book was published around 1476.
Many scholars refer to the 15th century as a “barren time” for English literature, but that is not necessarily true. Chaucer’s oeuvre had been such an monumental contribution in the century before that anything written afterwards seemed to pale in significance.
The fifteenth century was called the “Century of the Ballad” as Chaucerians (or followers of Chaucer’s work) both in England and Scotland composed some beautiful ballads including the “Ballad of Chevy Chase” and the Robin Hood Ballads. It was the Scottish poets (King James I of Scotland, Robert Henryson, William Dunbar and Gavin Douglas) that emerged from this period. The English Chaucerians of note were John Lydgate, Thomas Hoccleve and John Skelton.
Though there were no great poets of note as in the previous century, dramatic plays began to take more important a part in literature of the times. There were the miracle plays, the morality plays and the mystery plays. The miracle plays were simply liturgical dramas on scriptural subjects or perhaps episodic sequences in the life of a saint which were enacted usually in an outside square or venue for everyone to view. The mystery plays were plays that were enacted by the clergy and were of biblical themes. The morality play was usually a play where virtue and vice were personified as characters. There was also the introduction of the “Interlude” play. This was a short work that was lighthearted and was usually placed between the acts of a longer morality or miracle play. The interlude was a device that was introduced by John Heywood and his Four P’s was very popular with audiences. Though the plays during this period were mostly plays with religious messages, they were to give way to more sophisticated and secular works in the century to follow.
Despite the fact that this century was not distinguished by great poetry, toward the end of the century it produced one of the greatest prose works of early English literature: Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory. This is considered to be the first novel ever written in the English language. The interesting fact about this novel is that it was probably written in prison where Malory was serving time for various and sundry offenses he had committed (some that were reportedly connected to the Lancaster-York war). He was indeed a “knight” who came from a noble background and the power of this novel is in how he is able to create this magical world from a prison and how despite his own life being the antithesis of chivalric, he crafted a work based on truth, fealty, honor and glory. Malory’s work has inspired countless modern novels and movies. His influence is still evident centuries after he penned a novel while serving time.