Part II: The Age of Romance

(Middle English Literature 1066 – 1485)


1066 William, Duke of Normandy, defeated King Harold of England near Hastings.
1070 A Norman (Lanfranc) is appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury.
1086 The Domesday Book was made.
1106 Henry I invaded Normandy and appropriated the Duchy.
1162 Chancellor Thomas á Beckett (of Saxon origin) was made Archbishop of Canterbury.
1170 The controversy between Henry II and Becket ended with Becket's murder in the Canterbury Cathedral.
1190 Richard I the Lionhearted joined the Third Crusade.
1202 – 1204 John the Lackland lost all his French possessions (except Aquitaine).
1215 The Archbishop and the barons forced John to accept MAGNA CHARTA.
1311 – 1312 The barons' revolt against Edward II (Piers Gaveston, his favourite, was captured and beheaded).
1326 Edward II deposed.
1327 The Hundred Years War (1327 – 1453) begins.
1346 The English defeated the French at Crécy, (John the Blind of Bohemia killed).
1348 – 49 The Black Death reduced the English population by a fourth or a third.
1356 The English defeated the French at Poitiers.
1362 English is given priority before French in law pleadings.
1381 John Ball and Wat Tyler led the Peasants' Revolt.
1398 Henry of Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) was exiled by Richard II.
1399 Bolingbroke was declared King, Richard II deposed
1403 Henry IV suppressed the rising of the Lords of the March under Henry Percy "Hotspur".
The battle of Shrewsbury.
1415 Henry V resumed the war against France and won the battle of Agincourt.
1429 – 31 Dunois and Joan of Arc repelled the English
1431 Joan of Arc was burned as a witch.
1455 The Wars of the Roses began with the Battle of St. Alban's.
1453 The French won in Guienne and ended the Hundred Years' War.
1464 Edward IV alienated his chief supporter, Richard, Earl of Warwick.
1470 Richard, Earl of Warwick, deposed Edward IV and enthroned again Henry VI.
1483 Richard, Duke of Gloucester, usurped the throne from Edward IV's son, Edward V, and had him with his brother murdered in the Tower of London.
1485 Richard III (former Duke of Gloucester) was defeated in battle on Bosworth Field by Earl of Richmond (who became Henry VII of the House of Tudor).
cca 1138 Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain
cca 1150 anonymous epic The Voyage of St. Brendan
cca 1200 anonymous epic The Owl and the Nightingale
cca 1310 Nicole Bozon Contes Moralisés
cca 1343 Geoffrey Chaucer was born.
1370 Chaucer's Book of the Duchess.
Chaucer's House of Fame.
cca 1376 – 78 John Gower's Mirour de l'Omme (Speculum Meditantis)
1382 Chaucer's The Parliament of Fowls
1377 – 84 John Wycliffe started public preaching.
cca 1377 William Langland's The Vision of Piers Plowman (B Text).
cca 1379 John Gower's Vox Clamantis
1382 John Wycliffe left Oxford and began translating the Bible.
1385 Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde.
1387 Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.
1390 John Gower's Confessio Amantis.
cca 1440 Only surviving manuscript of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
1440 Death of Geoffrey Chaucer.
1408 Death of John Gower.
1473 The first printing press in English (William Caxton printed History of Troy).
1485 Sir Thomas Malory writes, Morte Darthur (D' Arthur).


In the course of the eleventh and twelfth centuries the situation of Christendom (the geographical term used in that time instead of Europe) was reversed. The slow conquest of Spain from north to south began. The pagan Vikings were repelled or converted and became a spearhead of Christian chivalry. In these altered circumstances, the recovered self-confidence of feudal Christendom found its outlet in the Crusades. Between 1066 – 1300 the Church ruled absolutely over the spirituality of medieval people and its share of secular power was nearly absolute as well.

The early middle period up to 1300 is considered the climax of the English Middle Ages. At the beginning the Norman conquest meant England's dependence on French affairs both political and cultural. However, the quality of the link between the two countries changed. In 1167 English scholars were forbidden to study in Paris (and elsewhere in France) and universities at Oxford and Cambridge were founded. In a very short time medieval English scholarship became a very respected branch of European culture (and its tradition of scholastic philosophy represented by William Occam, Duns Scotus, and Roger Bacon led to all-European reputation of John Wycliffe).

The condition of medieval England also changed politically. After the death of William the Conqueror the country fell into chaos that resulted in almost absolute rule of "barons" who dominated over the weak rule of early Plantagenet kings (e.g. the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes vividly the atrocities of Geoffrey de Mandeville, the hereditary sheriff of Essex). However during the reign of Henry II the situation changed. Henry not only inherited Brittany, Normandy, Maine and Anjou but with his marriage with Elinor of Aquitaine extended his territories "from the Cheviots to the Pyrenees'. The English king thus became predominantly a continental monarch and England herself only one of his provinces. We should be aware that the vast dominions which he ruled were all part of the same cultural and civilization sphere where the upper class talked, behaved. and thought French (Henry II of England included).

The greatest of many benefits that Henry II introduced into England was legal reform. The new judicial procedure that he introduced was to shape the future of English society and politics and to give distinctive habits of thought to all the English-speaking nations. English "Common Law", that is a native system "common' to the whole land replaced the various provincial customs still administered in numerous private jurisdictions.

The procedures laid down in Henry's writs enabled his subjects to bring many kinds of action in the King's courts rather than in the local and feudal tribunals usually tried by jury. England thus became an autocracy ruled by strict (measured by contemporary standards) enforcement of law.

However, Henry's successors were mostly incompetent or weak. John, the Lackland (ruled between 1199 – 1216) brought the country to the point of civil war. The baronial power grew again, however, and the visible result of it, the Magna Charta (the Great Charter of Liberties – 1215) was not only curbing royal powers but also provided the rights of "freemen" to a fair and legal trial.

"No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor will we send upon him except by the lawful judgements of his peers or and the law of the land."

The principal conflict of early Middle English period was the Hundred Years' War. Its social, political, and economic results are probably not yet assessed and the opinion of historians still differ. A few cautious conclusions could be made: The gap between England and Scotland grew wider since the Scots frequently supported the French. England's foreign policy broadened its scope in the search for her continental allies. More or less permanent presence of English military contingents in France brought in definitely wider cultural experience. It changed the technique of warfare and terminated the dominance of chivalry in favour of infantry archers who were invariably commoners. Thus it contributed to the death of feudalism both in England and France. And last but not least, it created strong English national sentiments.

The war broke out in 1338 with the English claim to the French Crown (this claim was repeated again and again) and continued till 1453. The English won the battles at Crécy (1346), where they killed King John the Blind of Bohemia, and at Poitiers (1356) and closed victorious peace at Bretigny (1360) with enormous territorial gains (nearly a half of the South and South-West France). The second phase began in 1369 and lasted till 1415 with alternating success in both parts. The third part began with the English triumph at Agincourt (1415), the conquest of Paris and proclaiming Henry V the King of France. The decisive turn around in the war was brought about by Joan d'Arc and, consequently, the gradual recovery of French forces and French prestige continued. But more than twenty years had to pass after her death at the stake before the English power had been completely worn down and with the French's capture of Guienne in Gascony (!) the war finally ended.

The Black Death (bubonic plague), whose first visitation nearly coincided with the end of the Hundred Years' War, lasted only sixteen months (1349 – 1350) but reduced the English population from perhaps four million to perhaps two and a half million people. For a medieval society accustomed to very slow change it meant a sudden shock worse than the long lasting wars. The market value of labour had been doubled overnight and the peasants and serfs demanded to take their labour where they wanted, to plead in the King's Courts (the right reserved only for freemen), and to be freed of heavy feudal duties. The response of the landlords was partly wise, partly disastrous. The wise replaced the labour in "the deserted village" and the land they tilled for centuries by sheep-pastures. The export of raw wool to Flanders and the growth of cloth manufactures in England not only created a wider national economy more dependent on distant markets but also gradually replaced the economy based on the old manor and small parish. The Peasant Revolt in June 1381 therefore had its roots in socio-economical rather than political issues (even if the actual reason for it was the heavy taxing of the poor for the last, unsuccessful, stage of the Hundred Years' War). It is true that the incompetent government during the minority of Richard II was generally hated but what chiefly brought the peasant from East Anglia and the Home Counties to London were their newly discovered class ambitions. Under the leadership of John Ball and Wat Tyler the peasants rose against the gentry, the lawyers, and the wealthy churchmen; many rebels also demanded the expropriation of the Church, free use of forests, abolition of "outlawry" – a sort of "Robin Hood programme." The rising took the upper classes by surprise, and for some time there was so little resistance that revolting peasants easily entered London and virtually blocked the King in the Tower. The situation was saved by very base means. Richard II. made promises of "charters of freedom" including general pardon, emancipation from serfdom, which he and his counsellors had no intention of keeping. After that, the rebels soon dispersed and the immediate result was a strong and cruel reaction and mass executions.

During this period of social and intellectual unrest began a phenomenon of "Lollardry", a movement resembling later Protestantism. It owed its existence to John Wycliffe, the Master of the Oxford University, from which he was expelled in 1382 by combined action of Church and State. The English translation of the Bible made by Wycliffe and his followers was greatly used and contributed to further development of literary English.

It is significant that the last Englishmen were driven out of France and that the Wars of the Roses began only two years later in the streets of St. Albans. The return of the garrisons and armies from overseas filled England with knights, archers, and infantrymen accustomed to war, licence, and plunder. Yet more dangerous were "companies" of warriors in private employment of prominent (and usually wealthy) nobles, mainly those traditionally guarding (and ruling) the Welsh and Scottish Borders – so called Marcher Lords. (The history as well as the literature of the period recognizes their names – e.g. Mortimer of Wigmore or Percy of Alnwick together with the revival of anarchy, legal chicanery, and military violence).

It is easy to understand (and Shakespeare is of a great help here) that when the Wars of the Roses broke out, no question of moral or legal principle, or even of class interest was involved in the quarrel between Lancaster and York. It was a fight of factions connected to the royal house, contending for power, wealth, and finally for the crown. Each side contained a group of great nobles with their followings of knights, gentry, captains, lawyers, clergymen, some attached personally to them, some living in distant castles and manors, but all fully aware that their lives and fortunes were involved in the rise or fall of their "good lord". Therefore changing of sides was quite frequent in this civil war (mostly led by noblemen), because there was no principle to desert. The mass of the people looked on with little or no interest bargaining only to be spared the horrors of war, but the actual combatants suffered severely. The fighting warlords were cruel, not to say savage, in their treatment of one another. There were many sudden turns of fortune, each, nearly invariably meaning a deposition, confiscation, exile, and very often a head on the block. In the Wars of the Roses the English nobility carried a fatal (and lethal) operation on their own body. The way was thus prepared for the Tudor policy of reducing and curbing their "overmighty subjects" and creating nobility according to their own taste and need. The fights and battles are of no great importance. Firstly, the Lancaster kings took the upper hand (Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI) then Yorkist claimants (Edward IV, Edward V, and Richard III) reversed the tide. They disappeared fast in the battles (Townton, Barnet, Tewkesbury), some were deposed and restored again (Henry VI. of Lancaster as well as Edward IV of York), some were murdered or executed before reaching the crown. Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, was finally able to take advantage of the unpopularity of Richard III (of York) and won the Battle on Bosworth against "a King for whom his English subjects were ashamed to fight." (1485). After Bosworth, England wanted no more adventures and adventurers but peace and, above all, enforcement of order. It was by putting these prosaic ideals on a new institutional basis that Henry VII created a firm position for England to seize her great opportunities in the coming era.


The development of the literature after the Norman Conquest was markedly affected by the influence of French; it became refined and complemented by the contact with and imitation of French literature as well as by new narrative poetic that came into being in France during the twelfth century. From the century or more after the Conquest we possess relatively little literature written in Middle English, that is not an imitation, often a direct translation of the French (and, of course, Latin) original. The literature of the period written in English cannot be properly understood without considering the French and Latin sources. also France provided a classification of secular story telling. So called "matter of France" yielded the stories of French oriented " chansons de geste" (heroic epic of Charlemagne, Roland, etc mostly rooted in the Mediterranean area), while "matter of Britain" (i.e. Britain and Brittany together) comprised the most important set of Arthurian legends and "lays"(short balladic songs) based on Celtic tradition. The third class included "matter of Rome" e.g. the narratives connected with the Troy story, the stories of Alexander the Great usually providing narrators basic material and an inexhaustible source of inspiration. However, it was never thought to be the narrator's task to make it new, no originality was ever demanded of him in the course of Middle Ages. The stories were accepted again and again and replaced (almost completely) the tradition of Germanic heroic epic.

However, the chivalry romances – a predominant genre of the period – are rooted in this tradition, even if they almost completely replaced the way of their telling and gradually shifted the focus. They simply reflected a different society from that of Anglo-Saxon Germanic tribes and represented new values in human and social activities. Bravery in battle and even heroic death became less a value in itself, and less an opportunity to win fame. As "chivalry" (as an institution) came into being courage and fighting bravado (not losing its place completely) became a part of larger and more sophisticated pattern. The virtues of chivalry were an extension and refinement of older (pagan) codes of conduct demanded of a man of noble birth. Courage, generosity, the keeping the word remainded the foundation of virtual behaviour; however, they were incorporated into broader context of Christian ethics and a philosophy of courtly love. The cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice complemented by "theological" virtues" – faith, hope, and charity were the new qualities superimposed on traditional loyalty, bravery, courtesy, honour, and the ideal of pure knighthood. All these concepts had far less institutionalized meaning than they have today. They cover various manifestations of generosity, friendliness, devotion to truth. In the world of romance, fame and life everlasting were to be gained through the service of the Christian faith and of both the Virgin Mary and the earthly lady of the knight's heart. The matter of Britain and the matter of Rome told numerous stories of true lovers, they sometimes (in a very crude form) attempted even to provide a description of the thoughts, beliefs, mental states, and contemplated actions, mostly in a context of a military adventure and fairy-tale magic.

Of course, in this context it is necessary to note that the influence of the Church still prevailed and the fourteenth-century literature had frequently to defend itself against the charge that making fictions means telling lies. In the view of medieval churchmen (and not only them) even secular writings should serve for religious and/or ethical purpose. This applies not only for purely religious texts – treatises, sermons, homilies, and meditations but also for didactic and exemplary prose of various genres.


For the educated and churchmen Latin was a universal communication means of the Middle Ages. On one hand, Latin was the language of Church, State and Justice, it was the sole language of theology, philosophy, medicine and sciences, and frequently (practically always) the language of correspondence among the literate and learned. On the other hand, it is hardly possible to separate Englishmen writing about England for other Englishmen from the English literature on account of purely linguistic reasons. Moreover, if we concede that the influence of great England's scholastic philosophers e.g. Anselm of Canterbury, Duns Scotus, John of Salisbury, or William Ockham, or Roger Bacon on English prose was small their method of logical reasoning and building up an argument was definitely not.

Historical chronicle presented a different situation. Here probably the contents of narration and person of narrator modify essentially the style of resulting narrative. The chronicler (always more than a historian) carries out at least two plot forming activities – selectivity and organization – that brings, in many cases, the genre of medieval chronicle closer to fiction than to aesthetically insignificant prose.

The number of Middle English chroniclers was great but their literary and stylistic talents were limited. They mostly lacked both the sense of history and the ability to organize and analyze the material they were processing; their style was mostly clumsy, their Latin crude, vocabulary limited. However, William of Malmesbury (1095? – 1142), Matthew Paris (died 1259) and the most important of them (and for us, too), GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH (1100? – 1154), are the exceptions to the rule.

William of Malmesbury was probably the first full-scale writer of English history after Bede. He was a librarian at Malmesbury Abbey. His major works were the Gesta Regum Anglorum (History of English Kings) – a history of England from 449 to 1120, the Gesta Pontificum Anglorum (History of Great English Churchmen) – an ecclesiastical history of England between 597 – 1125, and hagiographical the Life of St. Dunstan. He is not only an authoritative and serious historian but also a picturesque and circumstantial writer, keen observer, commentator and anecdote-teller. In the Gesta Regum he critically evaluates many stories about King Arthur.

Matthew Paris, a monk at the monastery of St. Albans, extended the range of the chronicle to include foreign events in his greatest work Chronica Majora. He also wrote Historia Minor (Chronica Anglorum), summarizing the events in England from 1200 to 1250. His work is outstanding for its expressive vividness.

While William and Paris were serious historians animating historial facts with elements of pure fiction, the memory of GEOFFREY OF MONMOUTH (Galfridus Monemutensis, probably a Benedictine monk of Monmouth, Oxford scholar, and bishop of St. Asaph from 1152) will probably survive his times as does the memory of Chaucer and Mallory. Around 1136 he wrote his masterpiece Historia Regum Britanniae that purports to be an account of the kings reigning in Britain over a period of 1900 years and "especially of Arthur and the many others who succeeded him." The story of Arthur covers 41 sections of Historia Regum Britanniae and became a primary source for all the Arthurian legends to come. The life of Arthur may be in Geoffrey's rendering reconstructed like this.

King Uther Pendragon (i.e. "chief dragon"), king of the Britons and father of Arthur, lusted after Ygerna (Igraine), wife of Gorlois, duke of Cornwall. He picked a quarrel with Gorlois and was transformed by Merlin's magic into his shape, whereupon he slept with Ygerna. After the death of Gorlois he married Ygerna who bore him two children, Arthur and Anna. After Uther's death Arthur at the age of 15 becomes king and with his magic sword Excalibur (Caliburn) slays Childric, defeats heathens, conquers Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, and Orkney. He marries Guanhamara (Guinevere) of a noble Roman family, and establishes his court at Caerleon on the Usk. He is summoned to pay tribute to the Roman emperor Lucius, resists and declares war. Guanhamara and the kingdom is left in the charge of Mordred, his nephew. On his way to Rome Arthur slays the Giant of St. Michael's Mount. His envoy Walwain (Gawain) defies the Romans and fights bravely with the Emperor. On entering Rome Arthur is warned that Mordred had captured Guanhamara and seized the kingdom. He returns back but Walwain is killed on landing. Mordred retreats to Cornwall and is defeated and slain while Arthur is mortally wounded. His dead body is borne to the island of Avalon (Fortunate Island). Guanhamara becomes a nun.

There is another section of Geoffrey's History that provided and still provides an inspiration for the times to come and deserves the attention. The fifth chapter of his chronicle is frequently called The Prophecies of Merlin (originally Vita Merlini) and draws on Nennius' chronicle. The story is concentrated on Arthur's magician (whose character and magic oscillates between good and evil), his infatuating love to Nimiane (later renamed Vivien or the Lady of the Lake) who imprisons him in magical/mythical forest in Broceliande, where he dies.

Geoffrey drew heavily on Bede and Nennius and most of all on British, Welsh, and partly Irish oral tradition. The clarity of his style contributed substantially to the (probably ever lasting and ever inspiring) popularity of Arthurian legends. Geoffrey Historia was translated into Anglo-Norman (successfuly competing with Brittanic version – see Ywain and Gawain below) by WACE (the twelfth century author of Geste de Bretons, one of the most prominent reptresentatives of Anglo-Norman(i.e. French) literature) and approximately at the same time into corrupted Old English by the priest of Arley Regis, LA3AMON (or LAYAMON), whose translation includes also the story of Cymbeline and Lear.


The polarity between romance and novel is probably the most essential feature of Western fiction. By definition, it means "courtly romance" (in verse, naturally), or "popular book". In the course of the 13th century the romances were almost any sort of adventure story either chivalry or of love. Romance is usually concerned with characters (and with incidents) who live in a courtly world remoted from the everyday. This suggest elements of fantasy, improbability, also those of extravagance and naivety. It also suggest elements of love, adventure, the marvellous and the "mythical". It describe a narrative of heroic and spectacular achievements of chivalry and gallant love.

The medieval chivalry romances (mostly metrical) were similar to French chansons de gestestes (epic related to the heroic deeds of noblemen on the Charlemagne's court). Some describe wars against Saracens, others are devoted to intrigue, rebellion and war among noblemen. They combine history and legend and give a definition of medieval religious chivalry. They were extremely popular in their times. However, their quality slowly decreased in the course of the 15th century and they were gradually replaced by novel.

"The matter of Britain" was the most popular and most extended. The Arthurian legends drawing from Germanic sources were modified, transformed, compiled, summarized, and rewritten again and again by mostly anonymous English authors till almost the end of the 16th century. Of course, there was a vivid epic material of domestic sources they could draw from, there was well established tradition (e.g. the Round Table is an old Welsh legend). And, of course, practically each of English chivalry romance had its counterpart in French (without any special regard to originality) and in this respect Arthurian plots are no exception. Some of them have even their shorter, popular form – popular ballad – very often only in Middle English.

Around 1150 an Anglo-French author WACE (the Canon of Bayeux during the reign of Henry II) wrote Roman de Brut, that introduced the chivalrous version of the story – he introduced the Round Table and the Return of Arthur. Arthur as a typical Brutish hero set against typically British situations is described in LA3AMON's Brut (cca 1200). Even if he draws heavily from Geoffrey of Monmouth, he is more attractive and definitely more readable. He deepened the line of the Knights of Round Table (stories of Sir Bedivere, and Sir Kay – survivors of Arthur's last battle with Mordred) as well as the magic atmosphere of Arthur's birth and death. Besides LA3AMON there is only one meritory Middle English narrative of Arthur; it is powerful medieval romance "The Alliterative" Morte Arthure (14th century, anonymous – the text should not be confused with Malory's Morte d'Arthur – see below, and Le Morte Arthur, (The Stanzaic) dealing with Launcelot's love affairs with Guinevere and the Maid of Astolat/Laddy of Shalott). The beginning of Arthur's life is closely linked with the Welsh tales of Merlin, then it deals with Arthur's early exploits, his Europen ventures (the war with the Roman Emperor), and the final battle with Modred.

Merlin as a full fledged literary character appears in two independent ANONYMOUS versions – so called "Vulgate Merlin" (Popular Merlin) and Of Arthour and of Merlin. Merlin, a boy of diabolic origin, prematurely adult, was baptized by a hermit and became famous by revealing two underworld dragons – the white one and the red one – to Vortigern, the king of Britons. The white dragon, representing the Saxons, kills the red one, representing the Britons. Vortigern is killed and Uther Pendragon becomes his successor. Subsequently he discovers the Round Table and begets Arthur with Ygraine. Merlin, who was a worthy advisor to Uther becomes a friendly counsellor to Arthur. He shows him where to find the magic sword, Excalibur, and how to get it. It is Merlin that afterwards organizes Arthur's corronation. (Further adventures of Merlin are to be continued in Malory's book.)

Popular and most romantic of the Knights of the Round Table – Launcelot/Lancelot is based on its French origin (by Chrétien de Troyes) and is fully developed in Mallory's Morte d'Arthur. In English tradition he was relatively late and frequently outshone by Arthur, Merlin, and Gawain. He was abducted at birth and brought up by a lake-lady (hence his name "Launcelot of the Lake") before being brought to Arthur's court where he falls in love with Queen Guinevere (details provided again by Chrétien's chivalry romance Lancelot, Le Chevalier de la Charrette, Launcelot the Knight of the Cart). Their mutual love is betrayed, the lovers flee but they are captured and the Queen is restored to Arthur. Launcelot retreats to Brittany where he is pursued by Arthur and Gawain, in the following duel Launcelot injures Gawain. Arthur returns to England to fight the usurping Mordred. Launcelot comes back but arrives too late. He finds that the Queen has become a nun and he becomes a priest. On his death he is burried at his castle Joyous Gard and taken to heaven.

However, the true hero of English medieval romances is Gawain. From the 12th century Gawain, one of the the sons of the King of Orkney, became the leading knight, courageous, pure, and courteous. In later versions his excellence was surpassed by that of Launcelot and his character became harsher, ruthless, often philandering. His fame made him even a protagonist of Chrétien's French chivalry romance Ywain and Gawain (from 1235, soon translated – very successfully, due to its narrative vividness and clarity of diction, into Middle English) where Ywain, who killed a knight endowed by magical powers and married his widow, is persuaded by Gawain to abandon the lady and go and join Gawain and his faithful lion in search of adventures. The two knights have many adventures that end by fighting each other incognito, nevertheles they recognize each other and are reconciled. At the end Ywain is reconciled again with his wife.

The popularity of Gawain's character led to many (mostly very crude) exploitations and adaptations of Gawain's story. Probably the most beautiful and most sophisticated English chivalry romance is anonymous

SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT (written probably around 1375) containing 2530 alliterative stanzas. Its only manuscript is famous Cotton Nero. It probably contains all the typical featutres of traditional medieval chivalry romances of the Britanic type and is divided into four "fitts" (narrative divisions).

  • Fitt l: Arthur and his court are celebrating New Year's feast at the castle of Camelot when a huge green man enters, bearing a battle axe and a holly bough. He chalenges a knight to cut his head off on condition that the knight agrees to have his head cut off a year hence. Gawain accepts the challenge and cuts the green knight's head off. The knight picks it up and rides away.
  • Fitt 2: A year later Gawain sets off on his part of the bargain. After riding through grim landscapes in wintery weather, on Christmas Eve Gawain comes upon a beautiful castle and is graciously received. The lord of the castle makes an agreement with Gawain that each day he himself will hunt in the forests and Gawain in the castle; at the end of the day they will exchange their spoils.
  • Fitt 3: For next three days, the lord hunts and Gawain, famous for his love affairs (!) is approached by the beautiful lady of the castle, who gives him one kiss on the first day, two on the second, and three kisses and a magic (life saving) girdle on the third. Each evening Gawain exchanges the kisses with the lord for slain animals; but on the third evening he keeps the girdle (and thus breaks the agreement), to be protected in the oncoming fight with the green knight.
  • Fitt 4: Gawain goes to the chapel where he knees to receive the green knight's fatal blow. In the three blows the knight is only able to slightly cut Gawain's neck, then he understands that Gawain's invulnerability is due to his breaking the promise. Gawain bitterly curses his failing and the treachery of women. However, the green knight surprisingly approves of his behaviour. On Gawain's return to the Arthur's court the knights declare that they will all wear a green girdle in memory of his achievement (The story is considered to be one of the emblematic explanations of the Order of the Garter).

The elegance of construction of the plot, as well as the vivid narrative and language are agreed to be one of the greatest literary achievements in Middle English. The interpretation of the rather enigmatic plot concentrates on mysterious theme, sometimes stresses archetypal story of people and nature changing in the course of passing seasons. Gawain's stories were numerous and appeared even in crude Middle English popular form as Syre Gawene and the Carle of Carelyle.

Another key figure of Arthurian legends and their subsequent transformation into heroic figure is Perceval. He is first found in Chrétien's incomplete work Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal (cca 1182) and Parzival by Wolfram von Eschenbach (cca 1205). The appearance of Sir Perceval brings in a new theme: the QUEST FOR THE HOLY GRAIL (Quest is the word denoting a voyage for some sublime and/or noble purpose). Perceval's life was brilliant, short, but full of mysteries and confusions. Perceval is personification of archetypal "simpleton" of traditional folklore; fairy tales always including a character of an innocent and naive boy. His childhood was quite commonplace, his spectacular deeds came later. At the beginning he hardly shows any wit or special destiny, for the lack of wit he even fails in typical quest situations (in. the story of the crippled FISHER KING, where Perceval fails to guess the meaning of a cup and a spear properly and thus save the wounded king and his decaying kingdom). Even later as a Knight of the Round Table he thinks and acts more as an exemplary "masculine Cinderella" than an ideal chivalrous prototype; the chief and succesfull quester for the Grail appears in later versions and mostly not in England. In English literary tradition the response to Perceval's character is relatively less than elsewhere. We have only one Perceval romance Sir Percyvelle of Galles describing Perceval as a fatherless son brought up by his mother in deep forests. Once he meets Sir Ywain, Sir Gawain, and Sir Kay and they decide to take him to King Arthur's Court. There Perceval avenges the insult of Arthur by an intruder, the Red Knight – who incidentally caused the death of Perceval's father. Then Perceval takes an active part in many courtly adventures and he is knighted. Among the knights of the Round Table Perceval is simple, pious, noble, inconvincible but never noble. Thus English Perceval versions differ from the French (where Perceval achieves the Grail) and from the German version (as presented by Wagner's operas).

The quest for the Grail is the final product of Arthurian legends and is traditionally divided into two groups (the first of cycle of stories about Joseph of Arimathea is of less importance here). The second one describing the search for the Grail by Galahad, Lancelot, and Perceval is believed to be the end of the total transformation of Arthurian legends (formerly pagan and/or with strong pagan relics) into impressive medieval Christian myth. In the 13th century Anglo-French narrative Conte du Saint Grail attributed to Walter MAP (cca1140 – cca 1209, archdeacon in Oxford, referred to in The Wife of Bath's Tale) is attractive and adventurous description of the quest by Galahad, Lancelot, Perceval, and Bors who after overcoming many obstacles on their journey find the place where the Grail is being stored. While the latter three fail (Lancelot is paralysed, Perceval tempted by devil, and Bors suddenly loses his strength), Galahad reaches the Grail and is immediately taken to heaven.

The completion of the lengthy cycle of Arthurian legends in English fell to Sir Thomas MALORY (of Newbold Revel, a person of conjectural identity. His biography is unknown before 1450, when he was charged with crimes of violence, theft, and rape and sentenced to long-term imprisonment during which he wrote his masterpiece). LE MORTE D'ARTHUR finished in 1470 (and printed by Caxton in 1485 in 21 books). A later manuscript (Winchester College) is divided into 8 parts and is used as a basis for modern standard editions. Though Malory frequently refers to a "French book" as the source, it is evident that the source were more various and Malory's text is a compilation of or at least from eight different romances:

  1. The Tale of Arthur and Roman emperor Lucius.
  2. The Book of King Arthur (comprising the Merlin story)
  3. The Tale of Sir Launcelot du Lake.
  4. Sir Gareth of Orkney (Arthur's nephew made to work in the Camelot kitchen before he rescues a noble lady – unknown theme).
  5. Tristram de Lyones – thought to be a translation of French 13th century version of. Tristram.
  6. The quest of the Holy Grail.
  7. Launcelot and Guinevere.
  8. The Morte Arthur Based on both "alliterative" and "stanzaic" Morte Arthur(e).

Malory's compilation, however relatively late, has become a canonic source for all later Arthurian adaptations. Nevertheless, it is one of the most important and influential Middle English works, the influence of which can be found in the prose of authors so disparate as Alfred lord Tenysson (Idyls of the King) and modern fantasy writers e.g. J R R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Even if the stories of Arthurian cycle have become predominant and rather permanent literary influence for the periods to come, we should always keep on mind that the genre of medieval chivalry romances did not concentrate solely on them. The 10th, 11th, and 12th century romances drawing from French chansons de geste were numerous and some of them reached higher literary quality than "ready-made" plots, incidents, and characters frequently transferred from one to another. The most prominent Middle English chivalry romances King Horn, Havelok the Dane, Guy of Warwick, Bevis of Hampton, and Athelston were usually simpler, straightforward narratives affected probably by older Celtic tradition. They were rather harsh and stylistically clumsy.

King Horn is the earliest surviving English romance dating from about 1225. Horn, the royal son of the king of Suddene is exiled by invading Saracens and falls in love with the princess of Westernesse. Horn's companion Fikenhild betrays the lovers, marries the princes himself while Horn has to escape to Ireland. After spectacular deeds of bravery and courage there he returns to Westernesse in disguise and makes himself known only the princess. Eventually Horn recovers his land, kills the treacherous Fikenhild and marries his beloved princess who becomes the queen. The plot is over-elaborate compiling many of typical stock incidents and also the characters are rudimentary figures of early chivalry romances.

The Lay of Havelok the Dane is a 13th century romance (probably before 1272). The story tells of the dispossed Havelok, prince of Denmark, and also disspossed Goldborough, the daughter of the Anglo-Saxon king Athelwold. Havelok is brought up by a fisher Grim and becomes a kitchen-boy in the household of Goldrich, the treacherous guardian of princess Goldborough. Havelok's noble orgin is declared to Grim and Goldborough by mystical light that shines over his head. At the end Havelok, fisher Grim, and the princess return to Denmark, hang Havelok's usurping guardian Godard and restore the kingdom. The story has some parallels in Norwegian history but the narrative (very popular and the most admired of all Middle English romances) due to its sustained emphasis on life and action shows surprising coherence and organization of the plot.

When around 1300 a romance of Guy of Warwick appeared, it gained an immediate popularity (there are 13 manuscript surviving till our times). Guy is the son of Siward, master of the household of the earl of Warwick, and the romance describes the deeds and exploits he performs to win the love of the earl's daughter Fenice. He rescues Fenice from the Emperor of Germany, fights the Saracens and returns to England where he is received by King Athelstan (real existing historical hero and protagonist of many Old English works) and allowed to marry Fenice. Nevertheless, he soon returns to the Holy Land where he takes part in many adventurous incidents. After his second return to England (in disguise, this time) he fights the Danish giant named Colbrand, defeats and kills a dragon in Northumberland, and becomes a hermit fed and looked after by Fenice who does not recognize him till Guy's death. (He sends her his ring from the deathbed). The side-effect of the romance is to support King Athelstan's resistance to Danish invaders. The popularity of Guy of Warwick was caused by combining religious elements (the saint's life) with a wild adventure story (the Saracens, the giant, the dragon). For a century or more the romance was accepted as authentic Anglo-Saxon chronicle and as a historical source.

Bevis of Hampton is another popular romance from the end of 13 th century, this time based on Anglo-French Beuves de Hanstone, and on a subject popular throughout Europe. Bevis's mother, the wife of Guy, Earl of Southampton, gets her husband murdered, marries the assasin, and sells Bevis into slavery in the the Lands of the Infidel. The story continues with Bevis's conversion to Islam and marriage to Josian, the daughter of the king of Arabia, and their subsequent adventures in Europe where they kill the Emperor of Germany who, as it appears, is his father's murderer. It is worth mentioning that Bevis's magic sword is called "Morglay" and his talking horse "Arundel".

Athelston is a "historical" romance from about 1350 vaguely connected with the historical figure of Alfred the Great's grandson Athelstan. The romance tells of the chance meeting of four men. Each of them will eventually become famous. Athelston becomes King of England, the second becomes Archbishop of Canterbury, the third becomes Earl of Dover, plots against the King, and is executed, and the fourth, Earl of Stane, is the father of Athelston's chosen successor, the paragon of chivalry, Edmund. The intertwined story of four men whose varied destinies, lucky or disastrous, are followed, is another variety of stock plots of medieval romances.

A more or less independent variety of Arthurian legends is the cycle connected with characters of TRISTRAM AND ISOLDETristram and Isoud – describing the love of Tristram and Isoud. It is probably older than the Arthurian story of the love between Launcelot and Guinevere (and it was incorporated into the Arthurian legends only at some late stage). There are many French, Provencal, and Norman versions of the story that became a prototype of the courtly love. (Chrétien de Troyes's romance Tristram from 1170 being the most popular). The first English version is Sir Tristram attributed to Thomas of ERCELDOUNE (alias Thomas CHESTER, alias Thomas The Rhymer – cca 1220 – 1297, a landowner in the village of the same name, author of many fabricated but highly popular oracles). In Malory's Morte d'Arthur (Part 5), Tristram is the child of Meliodas, King of Lyonesse, (the most westerly part of England between the Isles of Scilly and Land's End, the place of the last battle between Arthur and Mordred) and Elizabeth of Cornwall, who dies soon after Tristram's birth. The child is brought up at the court of the king of Cornwall (his attitude to the boy varies in different versions from affection to jealousy). Tristram kills Sir Marhalt (Marhaus), the brother of Isoud, Queen of Ireland. Tristram is sent to Ireland to recover from his wounds and is cured by Isoud and falls desperately in love with her daughter of the same name. When Queen Isoud discovers that Tristram (whom she too holds in special esteem) is the killer of her brother, she sends him back to Cornwall. Later Tristram travells to Ireland again to ask for the hand of princess Isoud for his Lord, the Cornish King. The princess's maid Brangwayn has been given a love-potion to bind Isoud and the King in unending love. By mistake the love-potion is drunk by Tristram and Isoud who are bound in everlasting endless passion, though Isoud has to marry the King. The story continues with the description of the doomed love Tristram and Isoud. Tristram is forced to leave the Cornish court and while fighting in Brittany, he falls in love with a third Isoud – Isolde of the White Hands, this time he marries her but the marriage is not a happy one. At the invitation of queen Isoud of Ireland he returns to Cornwall and is killed by the King while playing the harp before his wife, Isoud of Cornwall. The Middle English version ends here.

In some (later) versions Tristram sends a ship for Isoud while he lies dying in Brittany. A white flag would indicate her presence on the returning ship. The flag is white indeed but Isoud of the White Hands tells Tristram that it is black and Tristram dies of sorrow. When Isoud comes to his bedside she dies too. The story is often considered a classic of medieval romances with its strong mythical overtones and some stock (frequently recurring) themes – Tristram's madness, the sword lying between Tristram and Isoud as a token of their chastity, Tristram's playing of the harp, the blood from his wound, his passionate love.

In this context it is impossible to elaborate on "the matter of France" i.e. medieval romances stemming from French inspiration – mostly Chanson de Roland. Studying Arthurian legends and stories after or simultaneously with English chivalry romances we probably find all the themes and incidents (modified or untouched) and/or characters renamed (e.g. Arthur becomes Charlemagne, instead of Lancelot and Gawain there is Roland and Olivier, etc.). Only the accent on different themes and characters is slightly different (see e.g. Perceval above).

From the "matter of Rome" only The Lyfe of Alisaunder, cca 1325, deserves more attention. It compiles the whole set of legends connected with the life of Alexander the Great. Some parts draw heavily on Arthurian legends, some from the French version of the same theme.

The tradition and formal arrangement of romance remained untouched from their early appearance (in the 12th century) till the end of the 14th century when the genre started to feel too conventional, too formally rigid (its sophisticated versification being an example) and more and more debased varieties of romance came into public circulation (evidently due to the invention of printing press). The genre was frequently satirized or replaced completely by other medieval genres among which fabliau is probably the most important. Romance did not disappear but in the long course between Chaucer and Defoe it lost its unique position and eventually formed the other member of the binary: romance – novel.


The literary production of the Middle English period was mostly anonymous till the end of the 14th century. After 1300 the educated "men-of-letters" began to claim their authorship. John Wycliff, John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, Thomas Malory, who wrote their works on respected traditional model (romance, fable, pastoral, fabliau, morality) but frequently added some charming originality of their own.

Popular genre that flourished in France between 1150 and 1400 was fabliau (pl. fabliaux) – usually ribaldly comic and crude realistic tales in octosyllabic verse. They were satirical, in a rough ready manner, often at the expense of clergy. Their sarcastic attitude towards women may have been a reaction against the apotheosis of women and the cult of refined courtly love. On the other hand, its dealing for the most part with incidents of ordinary life of lower middle class or middle class (merchants, students, townsmen, craftsmen, etc.) with explicit openness brought in an interest in realistic narrative. As to so called exempla (sg. exemplum), another popular fictional genre of the period, it is usually a short narrative used to illustrate a moral message. For long the term applied only to illuminating stories used in medieval sermons. In the 13th and 14th centuries exempla found their way into literature frequently combined with fable – a classical narrative in which animals are behaving, acting, and thinking like human beings. Stories of archetypal human qualities are ascribed to various animals (intellect to owls, cunning to foxes, treachery to snakes, gluttony to pigs, etc.) and they often end in explicit moral messages.

Towards the end of the 14th century nearly all the medieval literary genres (some of them satirized or even parodied) reached its peak in the works of GEOFFREY CHAUCER (cca 1343 – 1400), who was the son of a wealthy London wine-merchant (vintner) probably born between 1339 and 1346. In 1359 he served in Edward III's invading army in France. Perhaps in 1366 he married Philippa a relative of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and the father of Henry IV, who became Chaucer's lifelong patron and supporter. He held a number of positions at court and travelled abroad on numerous diplomatic missions in the course of which he could (theoretically) have met Boccaccio and Petrarch. In 1374 he was appointed controller of customs in the port of London (a highly profitable post) and he advanced in various royal offices till 1398.

His writings developed through his career from a period of French influence of which the culmination is The Book of the Duchess, a dream-poem of the poet falling asleep after reading a romance story and he follows a hunting party. He meets a knight who laments the loss of his lady. The party appears again and a bell strikes twelve, awakening the poet with the book still in his hands.

Then followed Chaucer's "middle period" with both French and Italian influences including The House of Fame – a dream fiction again containing more than 2000 lines strongy under the influence of the Aeneid. The poet dreams that he is in the Temple of Glass and sees an eagle who becomes his guide through the Home of Fame and explains how Fame works in its arbitrary ways and presents a philosophical vision of the world. Then the eagle departs and Chaucer enters the Palace of Fame where he sees the most famous biblical and classical stories. Finally comes a vision of bearers of false news – shipmen, pilgrims, pardoners, and messengers, whose confusions are resolved by the appearance of "A man of great auctorite..." (probably highly authoritative medieval personality – Latin philosopher BOETHIUS); but there the poem ends.

The Parliament of Fowls, a poem mostly considered to be written in celebration of a marriage of the young Richard II to Anne of Bohemia in 1382. The narrative (in rhyme-royal – seven decasyllabic lines called Chaucerian stanza) is focused on a conference of birds to choose their mates on St. Valentine Day. The poet has a vision of a garden in which the godess Nature presides. Three eagles pay court to a beautiful "formel" (female) eagle and then follows a long discussion about the criteria of true love. The argument centres on the opposition between the courtly love of noble eagles and pragmatic "bourgeoise" approach of ducks. The debate ends unresolved.

"The mature period" includes Troilus and Criseyde, written about 1385, which is the longest Chaucer's completed work. Chaucer drew heavily on Boccaccio's Il Filostrato and follows approximately the same narrative pattern. Troilus falls in love with Criseyde whose cousin Pandaro persuades her to become unwillingly Troilus's lover. In the end Criseyde has to leave the Trojan camp to join her father who had defected to the Greeks. In the Greek camp she betrays Troilus by falling in love with Diomedes. The most admired are the poetical and philosophical deliberations between Criseyde and her uncle, Pandaro, and the moral message with advice to the young to refrain from worldly vanity and to place their trust not in unstable fortune as Troilus did, but in God. The theme was considered highly topical and was dealt with later by William Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida beside others.

"The mature period" also includes THE CANTERBURY TALES, Chaucer's most celebrated work (started about 1387), containing 17000 lines in prose and verse in rhyming couplets.

The General Prologue describes a meeting of 29 pilgrims in The Tabard Inn in Southwark (detailed pictures are given of 21 of them). It is the beginning of April and they travel to Canterbury to pay homage to St. Thomas á Becket, the saint and martyr buried in the Cathedral. The host proposes that the pilgrims should shorten the journey by telling four stories each, he will join them and award a free supper on their return to the winner. The work is therefore an enormous fragment; only 23 pilgrims were able to tell one story (Chaucer, who is among the present, tells two). In the scheme the stories are linked by narrative exchanges, by prologues and epilogues to the individual tales, however, the order of the stories is not certain.

The Knight's Tale, a shortened version by Boccaccio, tells the story of the love of Palamon and Arcite, prisoners of the Athenian king Theseus, for Emelye, sister of Hippolyta Queen of the Amazons, whom Theseus has married. Palamon and Arcite fight, Palamon is defeated, but Arcite is injured by his horse through the intervenion of Venus and Saturn, and dies. Palamon and Emelye are united.

The Miller's Tale – a typical specimen of ribald fabliau focused on marital infidelity and deception. The tale is considered to be a parody on model courtly love in medieval romances.

The Reeve's Tale – a fabliau again about two clerks robbed by a miller taking their vengeance by sleeping with the miller's wife and daughter.

The Cook's Tale – a ribald fabliau famous by Chaucer's introduction of a prostitute into his narrative.

The Man's of Law'Tale – a parody on "matter of Rome" stories. Constance, a daughter of Christian Emperor, marries the Sultan of Syria who becomes a Christian and is being percecuted by his jealous mother.

The Wife of Bath's Tale – draws on the medieval anti-feminist tradition telling the story of the wife and her five husbands.

The Friar's Tale – tells how a summoner met the devil dressed as a yeoman, and how they decided to travel together. The story presents different layers of population (a carter, an old woman) and their (mostly moralistic) reflections.

The Summoner's Tal – tells of a greedy friar who undertakes a deathbed legacy and his stratagem to divide it with perfect justice.

The Clerk's Tale – is based on Petrarch and Boccaccio. The story tells of the patient Griselda and her trials by her husband the Marquis Walter.

The Merchant's Tale – is a sort of sequel to the Clerk's Tale. He tells the story of January, an old man, and his young wife, May. A rather lascivious dispute on the fidelity and marital relations between an old man and a young woman.

The Squire's Tale – is the story of Cambuscan, king of Tartary, to whom on his birthday an envoy from the King of Arabia brings magic gifts, including a ring for the King's daughter Canacee, which enables her to understand the language of birds. A female falcon tells her the story of her own desertion by an eagle.

The Franklin's Tale – Dorigen, wife of Arveragus, makes her consent to sleep with her lover, the squire Aurelius, depending upon a condition that all the rocks on the coast of Brittany be removed. When the condition is satisfied by the aid of a magician, the lover Aurelius releases her from her promise.

The Doctor of Physique(Physician)'s Tale – based on Livy's Historia. Virginia who, at her own request, is killed by her own father to escape the designs of the corrupt judge Apius.

The Pardoner's Tale – is a moral tale about three rioters setting out to find Death who has killed their companion. A mysterious old man tells them that they can find him under a mysterious tree but they find only a pile of gold when they get there. By constantly cheating each other to get the gold, they quarrel and eventually kill each other.

The Shipman's Tale – inspired again by Boccaccio. The wife of a niggardly merchant asks for a loan from a priest to buy finery. The priest borrows the sum from the merchant husband and the wife grants him her favours. Then the priest tells the merchant that he has already repaid the debt to the wife who has to admit it.

The Prioress Tale – a child is murdered by Jews because of singing a song to the Virgin Mary and continues in the singing even after death.

Chaucer's own Sir Thopas's Tale – is an elegant and witty parody of the slowly declining genre of chivalry romance. The plot is a usual (if confused "quest") and inspiration is taken from various Middle English romances, mostly King Horn and Bevis of Hampton, and few unidentified (probably lost) texts. The Host interrupts Chaucer's tale and Chaucer immediately offers a completely different story The Tale of Melibeus of violent Melibeus and his wife Prudence according to old Italian story by Alberto da Brescia.

The Friar's Tale – is composed of a number of tragic stories of persons fallen from high estate in Boccaccio style.

The Nun's Priest's Tale - draws on very popular medieval comic cycle centered on Reynard the Fox, telling of a fox that beguiled a cock and his being beguiled in turn by the cock when he releases him to boast properly at his victory. The mock-heroic story is full of rhetoric and exempla (see above) and regarded as the most typically Chaucerian.

The Yeoman's Tale – is told by a yeoman who accompanies his master, the suspicious Canon, with alchemical skills. The story describe very specifically the arcane practices of alchemists and their futility. The plot proper deals with the often discussed topic of the period – the dishonesty of alchemists.

The Maunciple's Tale – a moral fable about the white-feathered tell-tale crow that reveals to Phebus the infidelity of his wife. Phebus kills the wife in rage and later on, in remorse, he plucks out the crow's white feathers, deprives her of speech and throws her "unto the devel" which is the reason why crows are black since then.

The Parson of the Town's Tale – concludes the work and is a long treatise in prose dealing at lengthy way with the Seven Deadly Sins.

Of all Chaucer's works, The Canterbury Tales are the best, the most versatile as far as the variety of medieval genres is concerned, and have always been the most popular. We can only guess at when most of the tales were composed and what was Chaucer's intention. We may carefully conclude that his purpose was not only to present the variety of medieval genres (at least romances, exempla, fabliaux are evident beyond any doubt) but also give an educated, understanding and well read reader Chaucer' s own kind and sophisticated parodies.


Basically, a morality is an allegory (mostly in dramatic form) usually depicting the battle between the forces of good and evil in human soul resulting either in salvation or damnation. It is a highly explicit presentation of inward spiritual struggle; a man's need for eternal salvation and the temptations which beset him on his way to death.

THE VISION OF PIERS PLOWMAN by William LANGLAND (perhaps cca 1330 – 1386 – biographical data mostly unknown, the various "lives" of Langland are reconstructed from the works ascribed to him) Piers Plowman survives in about 50 manuscripts, in three widely varying versions, known as the A-text (2567 lines), B-text (a considerable extension of the previous one – 7277 lines), and C-text (with the length same as that of B-text but substantially revised)

  • Vission 1: While wandering on the Malvern Hills, the narrator (it later transpires that he is called "Will") falls asleep and has a vision of a Tower, where Truth dwells in a deep Dungeon and between them there is a field full of people where all the order of human society can be seen. The spiritual as well as wordly values are presented by Lady Holy Church in the course of the trial of Lady Meed (Frivolous).
  • Vision 2: The narrator observes a Sermon preached by Reason, a Confession by Seven Deadly Sins, and then the Pilgrimage to Truth lead by Piers the Plowman who appears here as the just guide to salvation. A Pardon is sent to Piers by Truth but it is torn by a priest when its validity is questioned, and the priest rejects it as a mere moral statement. This conflict with the priest awakens the dreamer.
  • Vision 3: shows Will (now given the proper name) turning to the faculties and sources of knowledge and understanding. Will successively consults Thought, Wit, Study, Clergy, Scripture, Ymagynatyf (Imagination – an inspired description of the working of Nature), and Reason.
  • Visions 4 and 5 are devoted to the issue of Charity. Piers Plowman appears in a transfigured form resembling Jesus Christ.
  • Vision 6 is the description of the Passion of Jesus Christ.
  • Vision 7 and 8 are the descriptions of attempts to perfect the Church often frustrated by evil-doers, as Piers Plowman was before he set on his pilgrimage and the vision ends with Conscience setting out to find Piers to lead the search for salvation.

The quality of Piers Plowman does not lie in its structure or argument, both of which are partly confusing and fuzzy. But the passages of greatest imaginative power or the metaphor of the "plant of peace" have a sublimity beyond the reach of any other medieval English literary work.

JOHN GOWER (about 1330 – 1408, of a family of Kentish and Yorkshire gentry, probably trained in law, a lay brother in St. Mary's priory in Southwark). Gower's considerable learning is attested by his famous trilinguism. In French he wrote Cinkante Balades and Mirour de l'Omme (The Mirror of the Man) , an allegory on virtues and vices written about 1376. In Latin was more considerable Vox Clamantis (The Complaining Voice) an apocalyptic poem containing vivid epic reflections on the disturbances during the early years of Richard II and the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. In English he wrote his principal work Confessio Amantis (The Confession of a Lover) from 1390.

The Confessio exists in three manuscripts and its framework is the confession of a lover, Amans, to Genius, a priest of Venus. The confessor helps to examine the lover's conscience, tells him exemplary stories of behaviour and fortune in love, organized under the headings of the Seven Deadly Sins and drawing widely on classical story and medieval romance. Gower's stories usually lack the development and dramatic scope of Chaucer's, but the clarity and pointedness, as well as stylistic accomplishment, of Gower are admirable too. Perhaps his significance, especially in our context, is to have brought into the literary mainstream the possibility of disparate narrative (intergeneric textuality) of the classics and the popular romance.

Middle English literature still mostly adhered to the high ideals of Christian knighthood. The codes of Christian chivalry always helped define the true path of human advance towards spiritual integrity (remaining always the only aim of human perfection). Some slow shift in accent is, however, perceivable, the attention to human lapses frequently set in a broader social context, accompanied by explicit moral messages is hinting at a gradual turn to secular, everyday issues demanding new formal means.

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