Medieval English Literature 14th to 15th Century

Major Themes

In any culture, the first literature is oral. All the religious texts like the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Ramayana etc were orally memorised and were written down later on.

There were mainly three things in English Literature-religion, war and the trials of daily life; that became the key themes of early writings.

  • RELIGIOUS TEXTS: Caedmon’s Hymn is the first fragment of English Literature. The Hymn was written in the praise of God and religion. These religious texts were preserved by Christian monks and nuns.
  • TEXTS DEALING WITH THE DAILY TRAILS: Doer’s Lament deals with the day-to-day trials of life. He was a distinguished bard who sang for a high-class family. However, another bard took his place and he was left jobless. Hence his work Lament exposes the unemployment in his time.
  • WAR TEXTS: Works like The Seafarer and the Wanderer (written during the end of 10th century) throw light on the suffering of commoners as no protection was provided by the rulers to them.
  • KENNINGS: Old English poetry is characterised by a number of poetic tropes which enables a writer to describe things indirectly and which require a reader imaginatively to construct their meaning. Kennings are the most widespread of these figurative descriptions. Kennings often occur in compounds: e.g. bronrad (whale-road) or swanrad (swan-road) meaning ‘the sea’; banbus (bone-house) means the ‘human-body’.

French Influence

  • Before the emergence of English, Latin was considered as the language of religion and French as the language of conquerors.
  • The Norman (North Men) Conquest was an event that marked the change of the world (though slowly). After the conquest there was bilingualism. However, the French slowly lost its influence and English dominated the country. French was finally rejected in 1415 A.D. by King Henry-V
  • Layamon wrote the first national epic in English (in early 13th century). He focussed on establishing ‘Englishness’ for his country and gradually warriors and heroes instead of weapons took musical instruments in their hands and sang songs.
  • The concept of ‘courtly love’ came in English from a group of poets known as troubadours who lived in the south-east of France (however the term ‘Courtly Love’ was coined seven centuries later).
  • Love was used in terms of religion and thus was passionate and unfulfilled. This love gave rise to the variety of lyric poetry that prevailed for centuries.
  • Le Roman de la Rose (the Romance of the Rose) was the most influential imported text of Early Middle English Period. Rose here means Lady’s love. This love hid the harsh realities of life of women living in the four walls and the male-dominance.
  • There arose Question of Rose which ranges from misogyny to worship of beloved and from immorality to chastity.


  • Story-telling is a fundamental part of Medieval English Literature.
  • Initially, there were texts like The Owl and the Nightingale (in about 1225 A.D.) that debated between two sides (between the old religion and new love) in a comic way. These texts did not reach any conclusion and thus final judgement was supposed to be given by the audience.
  • King Horn that deals with love, betrayal and adventure and shows French influence over the English Language is the earliest surviving verse romance in English.
  • Dream-vision introduced by Pearl (a text) became popular in medieval literature. It was an original story in which the narrator describes another world (mostly paradise) and is compared to earthly life.
  • Paradise Lost written many centuries later also followed the same pattern.

Women Voices

  • Though the Medieval Age is male-dominated yet there are certain women writings as well.
  • Hrotsvitha (a 10th-century abbess from Saxony who wrote Ancrene Wisse or Ancrene Rewle) is generally considered as the first woman writer in Europe.
  • Christine de Pison (who wrote Book of the City of Ladies in France) was the first professional writer who challenged the authority of men’s writing.
  • Moral Proverbs of Christine was the first woman work that was printed in England by Caxton in 1478 A.D. It is here that the word Authoress first appears in English.