Characteristics of Middle English Period Literature


After Norman Conquest (1066), Anglo-French became the language of highest social class and Anglo-Saxon (that later developed into Middle English) became the language of lower classes. 

English was introduced in law courts in 1362 and used for the first time in parliament in 1363. One of the key differences between Middle English and Anglo-Saxon literature is that the latter used heroic poetry and the formerly used romance verse.

Major Developments


  • Shorter octasyllabic verse narratives, based on folklores, dealing with supernatural things.
  • Best known author of Lias is Marie de France who dedicated his poems to King Henry II.
  • Breton Lay- Anglicized term applied to a group of 14th-century poems written on the model of Lias. e.g. Sir Orfeo, the Lay of Launful and Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale.
  • In the 19th century, lay was used as a synonym for songs. e.g. Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) by Sir Walter Scott.

Medieval Romance

Jaen Bodel (in the 20th century) divides subject matter of medieval romance into three categories:

Matter of France

  • Deals with the activities of Charlemagne (768-814) one of the kings of the Franks.
  • Its tone is nearly that of heroic poems.
  • Chanson de Roland tells a story of a courageous fight against hopeless odds ending with the hero’s death.

Matter of Britain 

  • Concerned with Arthurian stories.
  • Derived from French Arthurian legends.
  • Three important surviving romances in this category are Morte Arthure, Le Morte Arthure, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Matter of Rome the Great

It includes a miscellaneous collection of stories like the lives of Alexander, the siege of Troy, destruction of Jerusalem, Chaucer, Knight’s Tale.

Religious Literature

  • Devotional Works: Katherine Group-it includes lives of three virgin saints-Katherine, Margaret, and Juliana.
  • John Wyclif, along with his followers wrote the first complete translation of the Bible in English.

Verse Debate

The Owl and the Nightingale written around 1200 is the first example in English of verse debate. It is written in Octosyllable couplet. Later on, this technique is used by John Donne into His Coy Mistress.

Continue reading a detailed overview of Middle Ages