United Kingdom Literature

By | November 6, 2021


There is a gap, both linguistic and cultural, between Anglo-Saxon literature (ca. 650-1100), Middle English literature (ca. 1100-1500) and modern English. The first is written in a synthetic language, belonging to the West Germanic group of Indo-European languages, closer to German than to modern English. It was profoundly modified in the lexicon, grammar and syntax by Latin and French contributions since the Norman era, so much so that it soon became incomprehensible. This language expresses a “barbaric” vision of existence which is the polar opposite of the gay and harmonious, refined and courteous vision that the Normans would have brought from France. But just as Anglo-Saxon represents the linguistic root and expressive backbone of English, so in Anglo-Saxon literature the origins of English literature itself are contained. The most ancient texts that remain are pagan poetry texts dating back to the sec. VI and VII, among which the so-called “pagan elegies” stand out: (The ruined city), The Wanderer (The wanderer) and The Seafarer (The navigator), in which a characteristic sad and melancholy air blows, in contrast with the fresh and serene vision of natural phenomena that transpires from the Riddles (Riddles). The surviving heroic songs of the period, from the Widsith to the Lament of Deor, from The Battle of Brunanburh to The Battle of Maldon (10th century) belong to a pagan poem just tinged with Christianity: among these, Beowulf excels, the oldest epic poem of modern literature (dating back to the eighth century), in which a world of warrior heroism still mythical and primitive, desolate and violent, finds expression. All these compositions are written in the particular alliterative meter of Germanic poetry, based on the verse of four accents, in which at least three of the stressed syllables begin with the same sound: a meter that gives a strong and rough character, both formal and sustained, to this poetry. Of no less importance are the Christian compositions (mostly biblical paraphrases, hymns, legends or allegorical poems, such as The Dream of the Rood, eighth century, The dream of the cross), which are variously attributed to two poets remained news, Caedmon and Cynewulf. Anglo-Saxon prose, on the other hand, flourished in a later period at the court of King Alfred (849-99) with translations of historical and religious works; the most genuine testimony of its development is given by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, begun under King Alfredo and continued until 1154, when the Normans had already replaced the Anglo-Saxons. The latter, completely Gallicized, brought from France a degree of refined and courteous civilization, while the taste for syllabic verse and rhyme supplanted the alliterative meter. French became the language of the court and of the ruling class and, while Latin remained the international language of the Church and of science, Anglo-Saxon was relegated to the role of vernacular. When two centuries later it rose to literary dignity, it was profoundly transformed by contact with French, so much so that it appeared as the most Romance of the Germanic languages.


According to programingplease, the true strength of the English medieval tradition persists in the fifteenth-century flowering of the popular ballad, which in England took the form of the short narrative-dramatic poem (especially the ballads of love and death, those inspired by the border war between Scots and English and those on Robin Hood), and in the theater. The latter had great development in the English Middle Ages and laid the foundations and premises for the great Elizabethan flourishing. Of the sacred representations (Mystery Plays), as well as fragments and information from another sixteen, five complete cycles remain: that of Cornwall (in Gaelic), of Chester (24 mysteries), of York (48 mysteries), the Towneley cycle or of Wakefield (32 mysteries) and the later Ludus Coventriae. Represented by the guilds in a fixed place (stationary cycles) or more often carried around on special chariots (pageants), these mysteries, among which the two on the Antichrist of the Chester cycle stand out from the literary-dramatic point of view. ‘ Noah’s Ark and the Secunda Pastorum of the Towneley cycle, they dramatized the main episodes of the Bible, from the creation of the world to the Last Judgment, often with the insertion of extra-canonical and popular elements. In this way they fostered a taste for drama “acted out” and represented in extension, with extreme fantastic freedom, without restrictions of time, place or unit of action, which is the polar opposite of classical taste. The mysteries were replaced in the fifteenth century by morality, based on the debate or on the didactic conflict between allegorical characters; among these the anonymous text Everyman (late 15th century; Each) and later the first examples of interludes, comic interludes such as Fulgens and Lucrece (1497, by Henry Medwall), or the farcical dialogues of the later J. Heywood (ca. 1497-ca. 1580), which require a particular care for the plot and which in their characteristic mixture of the sublime and the comic, of culture and popular taste, directly prelude to the Elizabethan drama.