This Guide will describe literature written during a period of change which transformed England for ever, and which inspired dynamic, varied and excellent writing. One key change was a decisive shift towards the greater use of written English, the language spoken by most people. In 1300 English had already changed from Old English to the various dialects of Middle English (this Guide will not cover Early Middle English literature written before 1300). However, very few texts written before this were in Middle English. Clerics usually read and wrote Latin, and the aristocracy and many townsmen often spoke and usually wrote in French. But by 1400, the central date for this Guide, the picture was very different. From 1362 English was spoken in the law courts and Parliament, and it was much more commonly used in business, administration and education, though records were usually kept in French until well into the fifteenth century (see Salter 1983, p. 36). Though clerks still usually wrote for each other in Latin, they were increasingly writing in Middle English for a widening audience of lay readers; many of these were themselves writing in a growing variety of genres. By 1500 there was a considerable corpus of texts we can think of as ‘literature’ in Middle English, particularly from the rich period of the later fourteenth century, but also from the fifteenth. When Chaucer, Gower and their followers made the decision to write substantial works in English, including within them much culture and learning from Europe, and adopting the London/East Midlands dialect which is the ancestor of Standard English today, the English language and literature had won a place in the world alongside French and Latin.
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