Middle English: Definition & Literature

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  • 0:01 Middle English Period
  • 0:45 Development
  • 1:55 Early Literature
  • 2:18 Literary Characteristics
  • 2:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Debbie Notari
Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

The Middle English period was a time rich in literature and the arts, and it ranged from approximately 1100-1500 A.D. In this lesson, we'll look at some of the key characteristics and literary accomplishments of this era.

Middle English Period

Although scholars differ as to exactly when the Old English period ended and the Middle English period began, it most likely started around 1100 when the English language began to take on an identity of its own. With both Germanic and Viking influences, the English language was first known as 'Englisc.'

After the Normans invaded in 1066, they brought French linguistic influences to England. This language was called 'Norman French.' Oddly enough, the average person spoke Old English, while the upper classes spoke Norman French. The two languages blended together to form 'Middle English,' an 'in between' language that bridged the development of our language from Old English to 'early modern English.'


This blend of Norman French and Old English brought distinct changes to the language that we now refer to as Middle English. For one thing, thousands of French words permanently became a part of the English language, such as the word 'mansion,' for example.

But it was the smaller changes that made this new language more distinct. For instance, the letter 'c' was now used before 'e' instead of the letter 's.' Also, phonemes such as 'qu,' ch' and 'gh' were introduced. It is interesting to note that nearly every letter in Middle English words was 'pronounced.' The use of inflections became less complicated. In addition, the English began to borrow words from other languages. However, some words that were used in Middle English are definitely archaic today.

Other changes from Old English to Middle English included more uniform word orders (such as a subject, followed by a verb). They also included an increase in words that were spelled phonetically, the development of regional dialects, and the establishment of London as the 'standard' for Middle English. All in all, the grammar of Middle English was much more closely aligned with the grammar of modern English than that of Old English.

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Additional Activities

Prompts About Middle English:

Definition Prompt:

In about three to four sentences, define Middle English.

Example: Note the concept of Middle English bridging the gap from Old English to modern English.

Graphic Organizer Prompt:

Create a chart, poster, or other type of graphic organizer that lists the characteristics of Middle English.

Example: All letters of each word in Middle English were pronounced.

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay of approximately one to two paragraphs that explains the influence of Norman French on the development of Middle English.

Example: The mixing of Old English and Norman French helped spawn the use of phonemes.

Essay Prompt 2:

In an essay of one to two pages, explain the main characteristics of Middle English literature.

Example: Heroic characters battling good versus evil were prominent in Middle English literature.

Creative Writing Prompt:

Choose one of the Middle English literary works mentioned in the lesson (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Canterbury Tales, or Le Morte d'Arthur). Read through it, or at least skim it so that you can see its writing style and main plot. Then, write your own Middle English literary mini-tale. Your tale can be short (one to two paragraphs), or you can choose to make it longer.

Tip: Refer to the characteristics of Middle English literature described in the lesson for broad ideas for the plot of your mini-tale.

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