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About this book

This is a comprehensive guide to a literary period characterized by great variety and imagination, and vividly alert to the social transformations overtaking society. Spanning almost two centuries, it introduces the reader to a diverse range of authors writing for a fast-developing readership of both men and women.

Each chapter focuses on a group of genres primarily associated with a particular social class – from the Drama and Saints' Lives accessible to the illiterate, to the sophisticated Romances of Love savoured by the aristocracy and the Court. Lively historical narratives place each group of texts in their social, political and cultural contexts. Significant or typical texts are given more detailed analysis that includes critical issues and questions to guide the reader's own approach, and each section is supported by a detailed bibliography of further reading.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
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.
Anna Baldwin

Chapter 1. The Poor Commons: Literature and Social Change

Abstract
Medieval society was hierarchical; we will start at the bottom, with the poor and underprivileged who made up the majority of it. In this and the next chapter I will be discussing the ‘illiterate readers’ in the countryside and towns, the literature written with this audience in mind, and the literature which (though not necessarily addressed to them) described their changing experience and problems. This first chapter will look at the developments in the lives of the illiterate commoners, at the Black Death and the Great Rising of 1381, and indicate how some of these developments are reflected in the literature, particularly Piers Plowman and Religious Drama. The next chapter will look more closely at other kinds of literature designed for the illiterate poor, and at their educational development and ventures towards dissent in religion. Both chapters will therefore show the commoners experiencing and initiating change, and discuss writing which is in different ways seditious and far-thinking. However, in neither chapter can it be claimed that the rural or urban poor were the sole readers of the literature discussed, for it was written and read by educated people, both clerical and lay, and in the case of the Drama was supported by the very wealthiest and highest groups in society, as well as by the illiterate poor.
Anna Baldwin

Chapter 2. The Poor Commons: Education and Dissent

Abstract
In the early Middle Ages the illiterate laity relied on church experience to acquire and deepen their Christian understanding and much of their knowledge of the world. In church they could see and be taught about the wall paintings, statues and stained glass, hear sermons from the pulpit and be led out on processions, which might include religious songs and even some drama. Pilgrimages could extend their experience but these too were to church buildings, dedicated to local or Biblical saints (see Finucaine 1977, ch. 2; Riches 2006). But in the thirteenth century, under the educational drive promoted by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, bishops instituted a kind of ‘national curriculum’ for the laity, to enable them to deepen their Christian life outside the churches (see Boyle 1985). One very significant way in which this was done was through the Drama, which taught the principal Bible stories in some detail to those who could and who could not read. But Bible knowledge was only part of the educational programme required of the clergy. They were themselves to learn, and then to instruct their flock, in the key principles of Christian belief and practice: the twelve articles of the faith, the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, the ten commandments, the seven deadly sins and the seven remedies for sin. This programme of instruction was an emancipation for the illiterate, and it also had a dramatic effect on the commoners who were not illiterate, and who wanted to develop their own mental and spiritual lives. For it gave rise to a growing body of homiletic literature, that is literature which gave moral instruction (‘homilies’), written in Middle English for the clergy who were not fluent in Latin and for the literate laity. This genre of text became so popular as to make up the largest proportion of literary manuscripts in Middle English.
Anna Baldwin

Chapter 3. The Urban Middle Class: Satire, Debate and Political Advice

Abstract
In the next two chapters we turn to the ‘cream’ of the estate of commoners, the wealthier and better-educated readers who lived principally in the towns. It was this audience who read the religious texts we were discussing in the last chapter, and who joined with their illiterate brothers and sisters to watch plays and listen to sermons, and even to attack Church and State. There are no walls to the reading choices of the literate; indeed it would have been quite natural to discuss drama in this chapter rather than in the first, and to look now at many of the genres I will be considering in Chapters 5 and 6. But those chapters are concerned with religious literature, and in these two chapters I want to consider secular genres and to see how these reflect the life of the towns and cities, in particular the cities of London and Westminster. So these two chapters will focus on literature that we might class as bourgeois and which was written neither in Latin for the clerics, nor in French for the nobility, but freshly in English by some of most significant authors of the period, Langland, Chaucer, Gower and Hoccleve. In the next chapter I will discuss Collections of Tales designed to entertain both the middle and the upper classes (and probably the clergy as well), and examine some of Chaucer’s Tales about townsfolk.
Anna Baldwin

Chapter 4. The Urban Middle Class: Tales of Women and Marriage

Abstract
The urban readership we were looking at in the last chapter included townspeople from most of the different classes, at least to judge by fifteenth-century wills. Such readers were not just interested in social comment, however; they also enjoyed recreational reading, particularly of stories, a genre which will be the subject of three chapters in this Guide, and which included readers from every estate in countryside and town. The nobility had a long tradition of public story-telling, and there are several records of them enjoy­ing convivial evenings hearing oral tales, and readings from written Romances (see the Introduction, p. 7); I will be looking at these ‘high-life’ stories in detail in the final chapter. Gatherings of clergy or of pious laymen and women were more interested in Religious Tales, and I will consider this important genre in Chapter 6. But here I want to consider a more ‘modern’ kind of story — the realistic and secular tales which are so much part of Chaucer’s accomplish­ment. It is a convenience to use them here to illustrate the tastes of the emerging and largely urban middle class, but it is the case that Chaucer’s and Gower’s story collections became best-sellers in London in the fifteenth century.
Anna Baldwin

Chapter 5. The Community of the Church: Religious Lyrics and the English Mystics

Abstract
The next two chapters are about religious literature. In this chapter I will look at some of the most expressive and sophisticated of all medieval writing in English: the texts in which religious men and women describe their inner lives and encourage others to try their own spiritual journeys. Here I am not talking about the homiletic texts, and the dramatisations of Bible stories written to educate the laity, which I discussed in Chapters 1 and 2. The largest community of writers and readers in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England lived in religious houses: the monks, canons, friars and nuns, who spent some of every day in reading, prayer and meditation. Most of these could read Latin, and so had access to more than a thousand years of European religious teaching — or at least to those texts which were available in their community’s library. Some developed into very sophisticated writers themselves, whose Latin ranged from the technical and academic, to the personal and imaginative. But not all those in religious communities were proficient in Latin, particularly if they were only on the verge of joining an Order, and it was for new and apprentice (novice) monks and nuns that the male English mystics I will be discussing wrote texts in English, perhaps to encourage their vocations.
Anna Baldwin

Chapter 6. Religious and Moral Stories

Abstract
Religious and moral stories were the most popular kinds of vernacular texts. Like those discussed in Chapter 2, they are generally didactic, responding to the almost universal medieval expectation that what one read should do one good. That would certainly have been the expectation of the poor and illiterate, though they must have much preferred to have the Bible served to them as drama rather than in sermons, and their moral inspiration delivered as exemplary saints’ lives or pious romances rather than as unadorned homilies. These are easily the most popular kinds of narrative in the period, and could also have been discussed in Chapter 2 were it not that they were read by all levels of society, from the lowest to the highest. I will look first at the largest group of ‘literary’ texts in Middle English: Saints’ Lives. Although almost all the saints’ plays in England were destroyed in the sixteenth century, over 350 manuscripts of Saints’ Lives in English and Anglo-French survive. To judge by evidence in the Lives themselves, and from the later owners of manuscripts, this readership included many enclosed monks and nuns, secular clergy and many of the educated laity who lived in the towns, manor houses and castles of medieval England.
Anna Baldwin

Chapter 7. Aristocratic Love

Abstract
The writing about love in the later Middle Ages which has survived is remarkably homogeneous and remarkably European. A few songs and folk tales which seem to be a part of an English oral tradition do survive (see pp. 37, 127). But it was in Europe that human love had been ennobled into art, and some of the most striking and sophisti­cated Middle English poetry is written within the European tradi­tion of fin amour or ‘courtly love’, either in texts wholly concerned with love, or as part of the Chivalric Romances I will be discussing in the next chapter. What this tradition provided was an intellectu­ally and imaginatively rich alternative to the strictly Christian valu­ing of passionate human love only when directed towards God or the family. Instead, philosophers, allegorists and poets had built on pagan and semi-pagan sources to build a proto-humanist tradition which honoured human passion for its own sake and as a mirror of a divine (but not specifically Christian) love. This was an approach which would develop into Renaissance humanism in the Italy of the later fifteenth century. I have called this chapter ‘Aristocratic Love’ partly with reference to the lovers within these texts, who are gener­ally (if vaguely) ‘noble’, to distinguish their stories clearly from the sexual comedy associated with the ‘low-life’ characters discussed in chapter 4. But I also want to indicate that these final two chapters will discuss the reading of the highest classes, the wealthy gentry and the aristocrats, which included the men and women who commissioned and purchased lavish manuscripts of Saints’ Lives and Romances and the works of Chaucer, Gower and their followers. This group, as I will be explaining (pp. 239–40 below), was itself diverse, and of course there was no reason why texts about love should not also be enjoyed by people of a lower social status; Absalom the Town Clerk in the Miller’s Tale was clearly modelling his wooing on fin amour. And this sophisticated readership was destined to become vastly more diverse with the bringing of printing to England by Caxton in 1475.
Anna Baldwin

Chapter 8. Chivalric Romances

Abstract
This final chapter will look at the tradition of courtly Chivalric Romance characteristic of ‘The Matter of Britain’, which in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries generally meant tales of King Arthur and his court. This will be my main focus but I will look more briefly at Lydgate’s contributions to the other main chivalric tradition, ‘The Matter of Antiquity’, or of Greece and Rome. (The non-courtly or Popular Romances have already been discussed in Chapter 6, and Chaucer’s contributions to ‘The Matter of Antiquity’ were discussed in Chapter 7.) Arthurian stories were the more popular because England was at war during this period, the Hundred Years War with France reaching from 1342 until 1453, and the Wars of the Roses continuing the fighting at home until 1485, for the ancient story of the Death of Arthur includes both foreign invasion and civil war. Thomas Malory, the author of the most important collection of Arthurian stories, was himself involved in these dynastic wars, and it is tempting to conclude that his Morte Darthur, completed in prison in 1470, was shaped not only by the texts of the Arthurian tradition from France and England, but also in the heat of his own experience of war.
Anna Baldwin
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