Middle English love poetry - Dialects and origin

Term Paper, 2001

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0 (B)



1. Introduction

2. Historical Background
2.1 Social Situation
2.2 Language and Literary Situation
2.3 Purpose and Contents of Middle English Love Poetry

3. Dialects and “Isoglosses” In Middle English

4. Origin of Love Poetry

5. Summary



1. Introduction

If somebody is interested in Middle English love poetry and reads poems, he or she will soon find out that the early poems are anonymous. Especially those, which were written in the 14th century.

At the end of the 14th century and at the beginning of the 15th century, there were authors like Geoffrey Chaucer or Charles d´Orléans. They belonged to the cultural sphere of the aristocracy and that was London based. Both were well educated people and, knowing their background, it is easy to find out when or where the poems were written. With the anonymous poems it is not so easy. Questions like: “Where was this or that poem written?” may arise. The question can only be answered vaguely, that means that the social background can be discovered, but not the name of the author.

The origin of a poem can be discovered by taking a closer look at their language.

The poems were written in different dialects. The Northern dialect, for example, differs very much from the Southwestern dialect. One general statement can be made here already: early Middle English love poetry cannot be found in the London area or the northern parts of Great Britain, for example in Scotland. Scotland might have had poetry as well, but, on the one hand, the poetry was Gaelic and, on the other hand, it is not the topic of this paper.

This paper will give general information about the historical background of this period, concerning the social and literary situation and the purpose of love poetry. The main part will illustrate which dialects were used in poetry and literary writing. It will try to locate some of the poems by means of dialect or social background and give a short interpretation as well.

In the final instance, a summary will be given.

2. Historical Background

2.1 Social Situation

Wars, for example the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), and economic developments like the growing textile–industry changed the social background of the population. Other factors also had an impact on the people of that time.

During the 13th and 14th century, England ´s population increased, but in 1348 / 1349 one third was killed by the “Black Death”. Workers became very scarce and the production decreased, so goods and service became very expensive. Extortionate prices for labour and consumer goods were the result.

During the Middle Ages, the social structure of the population differed from that of today. A strict social hierarchy was the common form, that means the Church was at the top of the system, followed by the king and his aristocracy. He deduced his power from the Pope. The Pope and the kings of England often had contradicting ideas of ruling the land, but they ended up in silent arrangements. That is the reason why people were so much influenced by the Church. People were of enormous piety and followed the aims and virtues advocated by the Church in all ways and lived in fear of God. Executions at the stake was very common during the late Middle Ages. This was the answer to revolting people who opposed the system or the Church.

The bourgeois class followed far behind the Church, the king and the aristocracy. The peasants lived at the lowest level. There were many peasants, relatively few bourgeois people and only very few noble men and women. It was not possible to change one´s estate. If one was born as a peasant, he or she stayed a peasant for all of his or her life, no matter how hard they worked. If people were not born an aristocrat, there was no way to ever become one. In addition, it was not allowed for the lower class men to love or even to marry a girl from a higher class, and vice versa. Noble men were not allowed to marry a girl from a lower social status. There were, of course, secret meetings, but if they were discovered, the men or women of the higher status were outlawed, sometimes even executed. The person from the lower status was either executed or imprisoned. [1]

2.2 Language and Literary Situation

Chronologically speaking, the Middle English period can be defined from around 1100 to 1500. From 1150 onwards, the changes in language from Old English to Middle English became apparent, the inflectional endings, for example, disappeared. Up to this date English was the spoken language and Latin was the language of the Church, the language of learning and the vernacular of the learned.

The Norman Conquest in 1066 changed English life and literature. William, the Duke of Normandy, claimed the English throne. He invaded England with an army, consisting of Norman and French soldiers, adventurers, nobles and sons of aristocratic families. His supporters were rewarded with land and titles of the nobility. So it happened, that the aristocracy of England became more or less completely French speaking. They filled all important positions in State and Church. They added practical and enterprising qualities as well as symmetry and order to the English population. These characteristics were reflected in the literature. The introduction of French as the language of the governing class exerted a deep influence on the country. The English language more or less disappeared from the court, but it continued to be spoken by the mass of the population, that means, by the peasants. The problem now was that England was not only divided by social classes but also by the use of three different languages, French, English and Latin.

In the middle of the 14th century, this situation changed. English became more important again, as it started to be used for all practical purposes. These changes also affected the literature in the English language. The native tradition had been forced to run under ground. The main literary works were produced in French, because the aristocracy were the only people who could afford to buy the very expensive manuscripts. English language works were mainly produced by the Church, which would instruct the poor people in biblical history and in the correct ways of living. The period from 1250 to 1350 is therefore known as a Period of Religious Literature.

English returned to the law-courts, schools and parliament as a spoken language because of the Statute of Pleading in 1362. The contents of writing in English changed from religious matters to entertainment. The period from 1350 to 1400, with authors such as Chaucer or Langland, is known as the Period of the Great Individual Writers. [2] The French influence gave a stimulus to English thought and culture and England became more Continental in outlook and manners. Enriched by the French vocabulary, English became more cosmopolitan. Of course, the peasants were not involved in that development. The French forms of poetry provided new models and standards for the English authors. Because of that situation, it is possible determine whether a poem or literature in general was written for the aristocracy or for the middle classes. One more important thing that needs to be mentioned here was the nearly total absence of women authors.


[1]:Kohl, Stephan: „Das Englische Spätmittelalter – Kulturelle Normen, Lebenspraxis, Texte“; Tübingen; Niemeyer; 1986; p.: 21- 60.

[2] Baugh, Albert C.: “ A Literary History Of England – The Middle Ages“; Volume1; Second Edition, Routledge and Kegan Paul; London; 1975, pp. 109 - 116.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Middle English love poetry - Dialects and origin
University of Potsdam  (Anglistics/ American Studies)
Middle English lovelyrics
2,0 (B)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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530 KB
Middle, English, Dialects, Middle, English
Quote paper
Tanja Schwebe (Author), 2001, Middle English love poetry - Dialects and origin, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/5326


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