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What is English Literature? - History & Definition

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  • 0:02 What Is English Literature?
  • 0:42 Why Is Studying…
  • 1:29 History of English Literature
  • 6:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

English literature is hundreds of years old and continues to be one of the most popular courses of study in high schools and universities around the world. Learn about what defines English literature and a few of its greatest writers.

What Is English Literature?

English literature is the study of literature written in the English language. The writers do not necessarily have to be from England but can be from all over the world. It includes some of history's most famous writers: James Joyce (Ireland), William Shakespeare (England), Mark Twain (United States), Arthur Conan Doyle (Scotland), Dylan Thomas (Wales), and Vladimir Nabokov (Russia), just to name a few.

English literature dates back more than five centuries. It represents writers not only from different parts of the world and time periods, but it covers every major genre and style of writing as well.

Why Is Studying English Literature Important?

Okay, so there are about a thousand things for a teenager, or even a 50-year-old adult, to do in today's wired, 500-channel cable television world. We can watch feature films on our phones or hop in a car and drive a hundred miles away in just a couple of hours. That's not how things used to be. People used to read literature for entertainment because even just 50 years ago, there were simply not many readily available entertainment options.

Despite these other entertainment options, English literature remains popular. It is time-tested and well-worn for a reason. English literature deals with universal themes and values that help us grow in our everyday lives. It also teaches us about different time periods and faraway places.

History of English Literature

It's difficult to discuss such a broad range of work in just a short lesson, so let's take a look at the first three major periods of English literature.

Middle English Literature (1150-1485)

Some scholars would argue that the Middle English period started as early as the 1100s. However, because the English language did not evolve into a dialect we could understand today until about the 12th century, 1150 seems like a better place to start.

By far, the most popular and influential writer during this period was Geoffrey Chaucer. He was considered the first great English poet. His works encompassed a variety of tones, styles, and genres. One of his most renowned works, The Canterbury Tales, is an epic story of pilgrims playfully pitted against each other in a storytelling contest. Each pilgrim's tale takes on a narrative of its own. The poem is structured as a frame narrative, or 'story within a story:' a literary device that would go on to become one of the most popular storytelling techniques in the history of literature.

In the middle part of 12th century, there was a revival in alliterative poetry, or poetry that uses alliteration as its key literary device. Perhaps the most popular example was Pearl, Purity and Patience, a grouping of poems written by an unknown poet. A fourth work found in the same manuscript and presumed to be of the same author, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is one of the finest Arthurian romances from this time period. Towards the end of the 14th century, a philosopher named John Wycliffe translated the first complete vernacular (common people's dialect) English version of the Bible.

Other popular poets from this period include William Langland, Sir Thomas Malory, and John Gower.

16th Century Renaissance (1485-1603)

First off, the word 'renaissance' means revival or rebirth. The Renaissance period marks the true start of a major artistic movement throughout Europe. We can attribute this rebirth in part to the invention of the printing press, which took the written word to a new mass-produced territory. The written word became king of the English-speaking world during this era.

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