Middle English Literature is an umbrella term for medieval works written in the English language during the High Middle Ages, approximately between the mid-12th and mid-15th centuries The period covers the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, the Gawain Poet and other anonymous poets, as well as works of prose such as The Canterbury Tales, Piers Plowman, and Ancrene Wisse. This literature was written in English dialects, but it did not necessarily reflect the common English spoken by the people who would later come to adopt the language.
Middle English Literature is often seen as a bridge between Old English and Early Modern English. The period saw innovative use of English to express complex ideas, as well as a shift away from the traditional French and Latin forms of writing common during the medieval period. Its importance lies in the way it shaped the English spoken today and shaped the literary tradition that followed.
As such, the study and appreciation of Middle English Literature is an important component of the English literary canon. Examples of some of the best Middle English works are listed below.
1. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: One of the most famous works of the period, The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories told by a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury Cathedral. It is a brilliant example of medieval storytelling, using different voices and stories from a wide spectrum of medieval life, from the noble court to the everyday working class.
2. The Gawain Poet's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Written anonymously, this poem is believed to date to the late 14th century and is an important example of Middle English alliterative poetry. The story follows Gawain as he goes on a quest to prove his courage and honour.
3. William Langland's Piers Plowman: A religious dream vision of a man named Will, Piers Plowman is a critique of 14th century life, especially the Church and its moral decline. It is also a moral allegory in which Will has to do battle with characters representing the seven deadly sins.
4. Ancrene Wisse by the Ancrene Riwle: Written for the nuns of the Abbey of St. Michael in Ancrene, England, the Ancrene Riwle is a spiritual guide that teaches the nuns about their vowed religious life, as well as provides them with stories and explanations of Christian dogma.
5. The N-Town Plays: This cycle of forty-two plays was written by an unknown author around the mid 15th century, and is an example of the English Mystery Play tradition. They follow a variety of stories from the Bible, such as Moses and the Exodus and the story of the Virgin Mary, and contain some of the earliest known examples of English prose.
Overall, Middle English Literature is an important part of the history of the English language and the literary tradition that followed. Through the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, the Gawain Poet, William Langland, the Ancrene Riwle and the N-Town Plays, we can see the development of the English language and gain insight into the medieval worldview.