. Historical Background of the Middle English Period

these works are homilies, sermons in prose and verse, paraphrases from the

Bible, psalms and prayers. The earliest of these religious works, the Poema

Morala (Moral Ode) represent the Kentish dialect of the late 12th or the

early 13th.

Of particular interest for the history of the language is

Ormulum, a poem composed by the monk Orm in about 1200 in the North-East

Midland dialect (Lineolnshire). It consist of unrhymed metrical

paraphrases of the Gospels. The text abounds in Scandinavianists and lacs

French borrowings. Its most outstanding feature is the spelling system

devised by the author. He doubled the consonants after short vowels in

closed syllables and used special semicircular marks over short vowels in

open syllables. Here are some lines from the poem where the author

recommends that these rules should be followed I copying the poem.

Among other works of religious nature we can mention Ancrene Riwle

(The Rule of Anchorites), a prose treatise in the Northern dialect:

Cursor Mundi, an amplified version of the Gospels, and the Pricke of

Conscience, a translation attributed to Richard Rolle of Hampole.

Alongside these religious works there sprang up a new kind of secular

literature inspired by the French romances of chivalry. Romances were long

composition in verse or prose, describing the life and adventures of

knights. The great majority of romances fell into groups or cycles

concerned with a limited number of matters. Those relating to the matter

of Britain were probably the most popular and original works of English

poets, though many of them were paraphrased from French.

One of the earliest poems of this type was Brut composed by Layamon

in the early 13th c. It is a free rendering of the 12th c., which tells

the story of the legendary foundation of Britain by Brutus, the alleged

great grandson of Aeneas of Troy; the last third of the poem is devoted to

Bruts most famous descendant, the mythical British King Arthur and his

Knights of the Round Table, Who became the favourite subject of English

knightly romances. The poem is written in alliterative verse with a

considerable number of rhymes. It is noteworthy that the West Midland

dialect of Brut, thought nearly a century and a half after the Norman

Conquest, contains very few French words; evidently the West Midlands were

as yet little affected by French influence.

Some romances deal with more resemnt events and distinctly English

themes: episodes of the Crusades of Scandinavian invasions. Havelock the

Dane (East Midland dialect of the later 13th c.) narrates the adventures of

a Danish prince who was saved by a fisherman, Grim (the founder of

Grimsby). Another poem in the same dialect and century, King Horn, is

more of a love story. Doth poems make use of characters and plots found in

French sources but are nevertheless original English productions.

Among the Early M. E. texts in the South-Western dialects we should

mention The London Proclamation of the year 1258 and the political poems

of the early 14th c. which voiced the complaint of the poor against their

oppressors. In the poem Evil Times of Edward2 the unknown author

described the vices of the clergy and the nobility as the causes of the

wretched condition of the people. Those were the earliest M.E. texts in the

London dialect.

Early M.E. written records represent different local dialects,

which were relatively equal as forms of the written language, beneath the

twofold oppression of Anglo-Norman and Latin writing. They retained a

certain literary authority until it was overshadowed in the 14th c. by the

prestige of the London written language.

The domination of the French language in England came to an end in the

source of the 14th c. The victory of English was predetermined and prepared

for by previous events and historical conditions. Little by little the

Normans and English drew together and intermingled. In the 14th c. Anglo-

Norman was a dead language; it appeared as corrupt French to those who had

access to the French of Paris through books, education or direct contacts.

The number of people who Knew French had fallen; Anglo-Norman and French

literary compositions had lost their audience and had to be translated into


Towards the end of the 14th c. the English language had taken the

place of French as the language of literature and administration. English

was once more the dominant speech of all social classes in all regions. It

had ousted French since it had always remained the mother tongue and the

only spoken language of the bulk of the population.

It may be interesting to mention some facts showing how the transition

came about. In 1362 Edward 3 gave his consent to an act of Parliament

ordaining that English be used in the law courts, sine French has become

much unknown in the realm. This reform, however, was not carried out for

years to come: French, as well as Latin, continued to be used by lawyers

alongside English until the 16th c. Yet many legal documents which have

survived from the late 14th and 15th c. are written in English: wills,

municipal acts, petitions. In 1363, for the first tome in history,

Parliament was opened by the Kings chancellor with an address in English.

In 1399 King Henry 4 used English in his official speech when accepting the

throne. In 1404 English diplomats refused to conduct negotiations with

France in French, claiming that the language was unknown to them. All these

events testify to the recognition of English as the state language.

Howly and inevitably English regained supremey in the field of

education. As early as 1349 it was ruled that English should be used at

school in teaching Latin, but it was not until 1385 that the practice

became general, and even the universities began to conduct their curricula

in English. By the 15th c. the ability to speak French had come to be

regarded as a special accomplishment, and French like Latin, was learnt as

a foreign language. At the end of the 15th c. William Caxton, the first

English printer, observed: the most quantity of the people understand not

Latin nor French here in this noble realm of England.

One might have expected that the triumph of English would lead to

weakening of the French influence upon English. In reality, however, the

impact of French became more apparent. As seen from the surviving written

texts, French loan-words multiplied at the very time when English became a

medium of general communication. The large-scale influx of French loads can

be attributed to several causes. It is probably that many French words had

been in current use for quite a long time before they were first recorded.

As it was aforementioned records in Early M.E. were scare and came mostly

from the Northern and Western regions, which were least affected by French

influence. Later M.N. texts were produced in London and in the neighboring

areas, with a mixed and largely bilingual population. In numerous

translation from French which became necessary when the French language

was going out of use-many loan-words were employed for the sake of greater

precision, for want of a suitable native equivalent or due to the

translators inefficiency. It is also important that in the course of the

14th c. the local dialects were brought into closer contact; they

intermixed and influenced one another: therefore the infiltration of French

borrowings into all the local and social varieties of English progressed

more rapidly.

As with other foreign influences, the impact of French is to be found,

first and foremost, in the vocabulary. The layers and the semantic spheres

of the French borrowings reflect the relations between the Norman rulers

and the English population, the dominance of the French language in

literature and the contacts with French culture. The prevalence of French

as the language of writing led to numerous changes in English spelling.

The dialect division which evolved in Early M.E. was on the whole

preserved in later periods. In the 14th and 15th c. the same grouping of

dialects was present: the Southern group. Including Kentish and the South-

Western dialects, the Midland group with its minute subdivision and the

Northern group. And yet the relations among them were changing. The

extension of trade beyond the conjines of local boundaries, the growth of

towns with a mixed population favored the intermixture and amalgamation of

the regional dialects. More intensive inter-influence of the dialects,

among other facts is attested by the penetration of Scandinavian loan-words

into the West-Midland and Southern dialects from the North and by the

spread of French borrowings in the reverse direction. The most important

went in changing linguistic situation was the rise of the London dialect as

the prevalent written form of language.

The history of the London dialect reveals the sources of the literary

language in Late M.E. and also the main source and basis of the Literary

Standard, both in its written and spoken forms.

The Early M.E. records made in London-beginning with the Proclamation

of 1258 show that the dialect of London was fundamentally East Saxon; in

terms of the M.E. division, it belonged to the South-Western dialect group.

Later records indicate that the speech of London was becoming more mixed,

with East Midland features gradually prevailing over the Southern features.

The most likely explanation for the change if the dialect type and for the

mixed character of London English lies in the history of the London


In the 12th and 13th c. the inhabitants of London came from the south-

western district. In the middle of the 14th c. London was practically

depopulated during the Black Death (1348) and later outbreaks of bubonic

plague. It has bun estimated that about one third of the population of

Britain died in the epidemies, the highest proportion of deaths occurring

in London. The depopulation was speedily made good and in 1377 London had

over 35.000 inhabitants.

Most of the new arrivals came from the East Midlands: Norfolk,

Suffolk, and other populous and wealthy counties of Malieval England,

although not bordering immediately on the capital. As a result the speech

of Londoners was brought much closer to the East Midland dialect. The

official and literary papers produced in London in the late 14th c. display

obvious East Midland in features. The London dialect became more Anglian

than Saxon in character.

This mixed dialect of London, which had extended to the two

universities (in Oxford and Cambridge) ousted French from official spheres

and from the sphere of writing.

The flourishing of literature, which marks the seconds half of the

14th c., apart from its cultural significance, testifies, to the complete

rustablishment of English as the language of writing. Some authors wrote in

their local dialect from outside London, but most of them used the London

dialect or forms of the language combining London and provincial traits.

Towards the end of the century the London dialect had become the principal

type of language used in literature a sort of literary pattern to be

imitated by provincial authors.

The literary text of the late 14th c. preserved in numerous

manuscripts, belong to a variety of genres. Translation continued, but

original composition were produced in abundance; party was more prolific

than prose. This period of literary florescence is known as the age of

Chaucer; the greatest name in English literature before Shakespeare other

writers are referred to as Chaucers contemporaries).

One of the prominent authors of the time was John de Trevisa of

Cornwall. In 1387 he completed the translation of seven books on world

history - Polychronicon by R. Higden from Latin into the South-Western

dialect of English. Among other information it contains some curious

remarks about languages used in English: Trevisa:gentle men have now

left to teach (i.e. stopped teaching) their children French. Higden: It

sums a great wonder how Englishmen and their own language and tongue is so

diverse in sound in this one island and the language of Normandy coming

from another land has one manner of sound among all men that speak it right

in Englandmen of the East with men of the West, as it were under the same

pared of heaven, award more in the sound of their speech than men if the

North with men of the South.

Of Greatest linguistic consequence was the activity of John Wyclif

(1324-1384), the forerunner of the English Reformation. His most important

contribution to English prose was his (and his pupils) translation of the

Bible completed in 1384. He also wrote pamphlet protesting against the

corruption of the Church. Wyelifs Bible was copied in manuscript and read

by many people all over the country. Written in the London dialect, it

played an important role in spreading this form of English.

The chief poets of the time, besides Chaucer, were John Gower, William

Langland and, probably, the unknown author of Sir Gawaine and the Green


The remarkable poem of William Langland The Vision Coneerning Piers

the Plowman was written in a dialect combining West Midland and London

features; it has survived in three versions, from 1362 to 1390; it is an

allegory and a satire attacking the vises and weaknesses of various social

classes and sympathizing with the wretchedness of the poor. It is presented

as a series of visions appearing to the poet in his dreams. He susdiverse

people and personifications of vices and virtues and explains the way to

salvation, which is to serve Truth by work and love. The poem is written in

the old alliterative verse and shows no touch of Anglo-Norman influence.

John Gover, Chaucers friend and an outstanding poet of the time, was

born in Kent, but there are not many Kentisins in his London dialect. His

first poems were written in Anglo-Norman and in Latin. His longest poem

Vox Clamantis (the Voice of the Crying in the Wilderness) is in Latin;

it deals with Watiylers rebellion and condemns all roans of Society for

the sins which brought about the terrible revolt. His last long poem I is

in English: Confession Amantis (The Lovers Confession), a composition of

40000 acto-syllabis . It contains a vast collection of stories drawn from

various sources and arranged to illustrate the seven deadly sins. John

Gower told his tales easily and vividly and for long was almost as popular

as Chaucer.

There was one more poet whose name is unknown. Four poems found in a

single manuscript of the 14th c. Peasl, Patience, Cleanness, and

Sir Gawaineand the Green Knight have been attributed to the same

author. Incidentally, the latter poet belongs to the popular Arthurian

cycle of Knightly romances, though the episodes narrated as well as the

form are entirely original. The poems are a blending of collaborate

alliteration, in line with the OE tradition, and new rhymed verse, with a

variety of difficult rhyme schemes.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) was by far the most outstanding figure of

the time. A hundred years later William Caxon, the first English printer,

called him the worshipful father and fist founder and embellisher of

ornate eloquence in our language. In many books on the history of English

literature and the history of English Chaucer is described as the founder

of the literary language.

His carried works more of less imitative if other authors Latin,

French or Italian though they bear abundant evidence of his skill. He

never wrote in any other language than English. The culmination of Chaucer

s work as a poet ; his great unfinished collection of stories The

Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer wrote in a dialect which in the main coincided with that used

in documents produced in London shortly before his time and for a long time

after. Although he did not really create the literary language, as a poet

of outstanding talent he made better use if it than contemporaries and set

up 2 pattern to be followed in the 15th c. His poems were copied so many

times that over sixty manuscripts of The Cantervary Tales have survived

to this day. No books were among the first to be printed, a hundred years

after their Compositon.

Chausers literary language, based in the mixed (lavgely East Midland)

London dialect is known as classical M.E. In the 15th and 16th c. it

became the basis of the national literary English language.

The 15th c. could produce nothing worthy to rank with Chaucer. The two

prominent poets, Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate, were chicfly

translators and imitators. The style of Caucers successors is believed to

have drawn farther away from everyday speech; it was highly effected in

character, abounding in abstact words and strongly influenced by Latin

rhetoric (it is termed aureate language).

Whereas in English literature the decline after Chaucer is apparent,

the literature of Scotland forms a Northern dialect of English flourished

from the 13th until the 16th c. The Bruce , written by John Barbour

between 1373 and 1378 is a national epic, which describes the real history

of Rolert Bruce a hero and military chief who defeated the army of Edward 2

at Bannockburn in 1314 and secured the independence of Scotland. This poem

was followed by others, composed by prominent 15th c. poets: e.g. Wallace

attributed to Henry the Minstel; Kinds Quhair (Kings Book) by King

James of Scotland.


1. Iliyish B. History of the English Language, Leningrad, 1983, 351p.

2. Rastorgueva T.A. A History of English, Moscow, 1983, 347p.

3. . . ,

., 1969.

4. . . , . 1953 360.

5. . . 9-15 . .,

6. , , . , .: 1996

: 1, 2