Introduction to Medieval Literature: Old English, Middle English, and Historical Context

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  • 0:44 The Early and High Middle Ages
  • 3:46 Caedmon's Hymn
  • 5:21 Beowulf
  • 7:08 More Old English Works
  • 7:45 Middle English Works
  • 12:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kelly Sjol
We'll go over some quick medieval history to situate some of the major literary works of the time period. We're going from Caedmon and Beowulf, writing in Old English, all the way up to Sir Thomas Malory's collections of the Arthur myths in late Middle English.

Welcome to the wild and crazy world of medieval literature! We've got dragons, we've got King Arthur, we've got knights, we've got some more dragons. It's pretty awesome. I don't know about you, but I played with the Lego castle constantly when I was a kid. I designed booby traps that were dumping stuff on people coming through the portcullis; I was obsessed. And you should be too. Think about all that stuff and get yourself really excited. That should help you through the sometimes frustrating, but also rewarding, study of medieval literature.

Early and High Middle Ages

We're going to start, naturally, with the Early Middle Ages, which basically starts when the Romans clear out in about 400 A.D. The Romans had been hanging out since around 50 A.D. or so. There's a lot of Roman stuff in Britain. There's this town called Bath that's named after a Roman bath that was there and actually still is there. You can go look at it; it's kind of cool. So that's the Romans. They clear out around 400 A.D., and there's a period of chaos and figuring out who should be in charge of stuff. Then the Normans come in and invade from France. William the Conqueror is the guy associated with them, and he comes in and conquers. You can remember his name because he conquers things.

This scoots us along into what's known as the High Middle Ages. That's when all the stuff you might have seen in Robin Hood takes place - King John, Richard the Lionheart's off at the Crusades; they weren't animals, they were real - so that's around 1150-1215. Then we head into the Black Plague, or Black Death, around 1350. You've probably heard of that. Tons of people died, and stuff got crazy. There were these doctors that would go around with beaks on their noses to keep out the vapors; it was weird. Around that time, they're fighting the Hundred Years' War in France, and that lasts for about a hundred years, from 1337 to 1453. Then we're kind of moving out of the Middle Ages in 1485, when the Tudors take the throne, and we're on our way into the Renaissance. (Side note: I don't know if I should be advocating this, but you should watch The Tudors. Don't believe it, but watch it.)

That was a lot of stuff we covered from a long period of time, but we kind of laid out the general sweep of things.

Timeline for the Middle Ages
Middle Ages Time Line

Now it's time to figure out Who was writing? and What were they writing? Per capita, there actually weren't a lot of people writing because not a lot of people were literate. People associated with the church could read, and people who were highborn could probably read. A lot of the oral traditions couldn't survive unless someone who was literate wrote them down. That was the case for the first piece of medieval lit we're going to talk about, which is called Caedmon's Hymn.

Caedmon's Hymn

Caedmon's Hymn is the earliest recorded poem in Old English. Old English has the word 'English' in it, but you won't be able to read it if you try. It's super old (obviously) and pretty far removed from modern English - it's basically a foreign language to us. Caedmon himself was illiterate, so this was composed orally. It was written down by a guy named the Venerable Bede around the seventh century A.D. He wrote it in Latin, and that's the reason we have it, because this literate guy wrote it down.

A few things about it, it's composed in something called alliterative verse, which is kind of interesting. Instead of rhyming, in order to structure the poetry, what they do is have a bunch of words in the same line start with the same letter. You've probably heard of alliteration like 'The angry alligator ate Andy.' It's basically that but in poetry, and instead of a rhyme structure they had an alliterative structure.

Each line in this hymn also had a caesura, which is basically just a break, or pause, in the middle of each line. And, like modern hymns, it was about praising God. So that's Caedmon's Hymn.


Moving right along, next we've got Beowulf (which we'll have a whole lesson on, but I'll give a brief overview). Caedmon's Hymn, we know that a guy named Caedmon wrote it because that's what we call it, but Beowulf, we don't know who wrote it. It's anonymous; we don't know the dude who wrote Beowulf. It's quite similar in some ways to Caedmon's Hymn - a lot of Old English poetry does that alliterative verse and caesura thing. But it's also really, really long, so it's quite different in that respect. It's actually called an epic; that's its classification.

It's about a guy named Beowulf who helps out this guy named Hrothgar who's king of the Danes (that's Denmark a long time ago). Beowulf comes and kills Grendel, who's been terrorizing their mead hall - Oh no, not the mead hall! That's where they'd hang out and drink! - then Grendel's mom comes and takes revenge and Beowulf goes and kills her. Then he goes home and becomes king of his people, ends up fighting a dragon and dies a noble hero's death.

That's the very brief summary of Beowulf, but the interesting thing about it is there's a lot of debate about whether it was passed down in the oral tradition for awhile and then written down or whether it was written down around when it was composed. We don't really know. It was written down around 1000 A.D. and could have been composed as early as the eighth century. It's the kind of thing scholars like to fight about, which is not as exciting as it sounds.

More Old English

Is there anything else in Old English? Yeah, there's a ton of stuff, all pretty small. We won't talk about anything individually. There are poems called elegiac poems that are about life and wisdom; they're not as long as epics. Old English people were also really into writing riddles. Kind of like 'What is black and white and red all over?' but more interesting and cool and ancient. And they also wrote a lot about saints because they were religious folk. There's a genre called Saints' Lives that got a lot of play back then.

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