The world of Literature before 1500 AD encompassed the era from the day when the civilizations came into existence till AD 476, when Roman Empire fell and again from the Florentine Renaissance in late 15th century to the renaissance. The literature saw the growth in the lands of Hebrews, Greeks and Romans who made remarkable contributions in poetry, and drama form. The ancient Greeks in the period from 356 BC to 323 BC formulated their work on basis of the works of the well-known and famed Pericles, Plato, and Aristotle using politics and philosophy as their tools under the leadership of Alexander, the Great.
In the same way, Hebrews exerted an enormous impact on world history through their holy book, the Bible, which is still considered sacred by both Jews and Christians. Fragments of the literary works in the ancient era were discovered in nineteenth century “Beowulf,” the Norse sagas, the “Kalevala,” the “Nibelungenlied,” the “Song of Roland. ” Starting g from 2700 B. C and written uptill 2000 B. C, Gilgamesh was the first great heroic narrative. It was lost due to the vagaries of time but it was found again in 1872, and its importance came to be known when the Utnapishtim’s Story of the Flood, was rediscovered.
Gilgamesh is a Saga of spirituality, and the psychology of character is embodied in the character of Gilgamesh who took upon the journey to attain immortality, but he found his journey was fruitless and he lamented, “For whom have I labored? For whom have I journeyed? For whom have I suffered? I have gained absolutely nothing for myself, I have only profited the snake, the ground lion! ” (angelfire. com, online edition) He realized that death was inevitable and should make most of the short life.
The literature came into prominence in the Western world in 100 AD. The earliest of the medieval literature were Epic poems in vernacular language depicting the heroism, myths and supernatural elements derived from oral tradition. Beowulf is a good example of an Old English heroic elegy, written in 700-750. It has 3,183 lines. It is originally Anglo-Saxon poetry but created an indorrebale influence on the literatures of the generation ahead and had become “England’s National Epoc”. The poem composes of legends.
Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, fought battles with three antagonists; Grendel who was always destroying Heorot, its inhabitants in Denmark, Grendel’s mother and later a dragon. Between the years 1340 to 1400 was the age of Chaucer. His period was the age of transition, as this age saw the meeting of the two incongruous periods-the medieval and the modern or the Renaissance. The most crucial aspect of the medieval period is the belief in spirituality and abstract ideas, whereas the Renaissance period believed in sensuous and the concrete.
Medieval period supported communism whereas Renaissance supported individualism. Medieval mind never tolerated free thoughts whereas the period of Renaissance advocated individualism. Chaucer represented his own age and held the mirror to the life of his time. He was truly the social chronicle of England during the same period. His poetry is a reflection of the fourteenth century not in fragments but as a whole. Other poets of this age focused on certain aspects prevalent at that time for e. g. anonymous author of Pearl tells us about the mysticism of the refined minds.
Wycliff gave us the surging wave of religious reformation, but Chaucer focused on wide and variegated life. Chaucer symbolized the Middle Ages and poster the spirit of medieval world but underneath him flowed the spring of Renaissance. Writers of medieval period captured the foibles and follies of the contemporary society in the mysticism nature. Chaucer also used Nature in its full as symbol of life, which is fresh and serene and stirs up the emotion of erotic love in his most enduring and popular “The Canterbury tales. ”
The Canterbury Tales begins with the season of spring in the month of April when the flowers are in full bloom, the birds are swinging from the trees and giving the chirping sounds, which is a symbolic of spiritual renewal. Spring also is a symbol of erotic love and we can have an essence of it in a scene when Palamon looks at Emelye, who is gathering fresh flowers to make garlands in honor of May and the Squire too participates in the beauteous and ardent scene of love. His courtly love signifies the freshness of the month of May.
In the General Prologue, the garments are also symbols signifying characters personality and reveal the true nature of characters. The rich silk and fur gown, which the Physician’s is wearing shows his love for wealth and the flower brocade on the tunic of the Squire shows his youthful vanity and the forked beard of the Merchant symbolizes his duplicate nature. Chaucer also used physiognomy to decipher the temperament of pilgrims in the general prologue. The peasants are shown with the exaggerated figures. And the best example is Miller, who has round and ruddy face with a wart on his nose.
Chaucer rendered meritorious service to the English language and made it an instrument of social, political and literary thought. Chaucer was realistic too as he revealed the truth as he saw it, which he showed in the journey of pilgrims to the holy shrine in this Canterbury Tales. He imparts the solid touch of realism as he portrayed in this characters. With him the literature also saw the beginning of realism in the new emblem and thoughts. The prose literature was almost negligible. Its bulk was very small and the literary quality was also very less.
Though in France and Italy prose writing was in full swing, the English prose was very slow to catch up. Before 1350, there was hardly any prose work written except Ancrene Riwle. It is spiritual and the characteristic of Anglo-Saxon is clearly visible in their works. Higden, a monk wrote Polychronicon in Latin in 1350. In this work, we can find the reflection of the history of the entire world from the early creation to Higden’s own times. By the end of the century, Walsingham of St. Albams compiled Latin chronicles, which are similar to the description of scenes in the pages of Forissart.
John Trevisa translated Higden’s Polychronicon and completed in 1387. Chauser’s contribution towards the English prose is also worth noting but he was more of a translator when he wrote prose. His prose works include the Treatise on the Astrolabe, the translation of Boethius. The most valuable contribution was the addition of the new prose in meters, which had not yet appeared before and added the beauty of Boethius. The Astrolabe is an early scientific treatise and an address to “Little Lewis My son”. This treatise amplifies the scientific application of literature and the literary handling of Science.
The contemporary to Chaucer, there were other three chief writers. One was John Gower, who was a wealthy landowner whose tomb with his effigy is placed in St. Savior’s, Southwark. Gower was conservative and he focused more on the past then on the future. The large part of his works was written in French and Latin. In his “Vox Clamantis” (The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness), he denounced the common people for their revolt against the privileged class and the people of authority. And in this vocabulary, he showed exaggerated bitterness.
After the death of Chaucer in 1400 for complete 150 years, there was no great writer and the main cause for the decline of the literature was the restart of the Hundred Years War, and then the War of Roses, which was nothing more than the butchery of rival factions. In this period, the leading poets were only imitators of Chaucer and many of them were Scots. Among them was the Scottish king, James I who wrote beautiful poem “The king’s Quair”, which is more of an allegory of 1400 lines showing the love of an captive author with a lady who promised to bring him out from the drudgery to the life of riches.
This was the historical and the biographical account of his own eighteen years captivity in England. He incorporated the Chaucer’s stanza of seven lines riming ababbcc, which gave him the name of ‘rime royal. ’ (Fletcher, 1918) The most popular were the ballads written by both the English and Scottish writers. Among all the best ballads written are: The Hunting of the Cheviot, Sir Patrick Spens, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Adam Bell, Clym of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslee; Captain Car, or Edom o’ Gordon and King Estmere among the few.
The ballads, as the old tradition dictates, give the vivid, picaresque and descriptive account of the battles of the Kings and knights. The Author of Par excellence, which fifteenth century saw was the Sir Thomas Malory. His main purpose was to gather important works of Arthurian romance and organize them giving the historical accounts of King Arthur and his knights in his book ‘Le Morte Darthur,’ The Death of Arthur. It was the first English classic, which was published and printed.
Women in the medieval period were not treated equally to men. They were mostly religious writers who were canonized as nuns like Clare of Assisi, Bridget of Sweden and Catherine of Siena, who wrote their experiences and insights into religion. But what ever they wrote, they gave charm and feminine touch to their works and in the secular realm, opportunity came in form of Marie de France and Christine de Pizan and from their soul flowed their repressed feelings. They wrote on courtly love.
Marie de France was born in France but lived in England in 12th century. In most of her manuscripts are found the characteristic features of Anglo-Norman. The medieval French literature is abounding with stories of courtly love focusing on the queen. The queen for the literary world is the “natural feminine object of male heterosexual desire”(Kinoshita, Online Edition) and she remains a figure of desire in the hands of King but the Marie de France’s Equitan1 tells us the story of king’s extra marital affair with Senechal’s wife.
Even though the lady resisted but she succumbed to his advances and the two plotted to kill Seneschal so they both could marry but Seneschal knew about their disloyalty and he blistered them to death in hot bath and the moral she poster is: “He who plans evil for another may have that evil rebound back on him” “Tels purcace le mal d’autrui / Dunt tuz li mals revert sur lui” (309-10). 4 (Kinoshita, Online Edition). What lie beneath are the complexities abounded in the courtly forms and the responsibilities of the king?
Equitan1 tells about the function of kings, and the principal element is the lord-vassal relations. The feminist theories of today looked into the various aspects that constituted the feminine role in the medieval age and subsequently in their literature. There were very few female writers who had really left an endurable mark on the society. In the patriarchy society, they enjoyed respectable and encouraging social circumstances, though for a limited period.
Writers such as the Greek poet Sappho, the Alexandrian mathematician and philosopher Hypatia, and the Chinese scholar Pan Chao (Ban Zhao), were the women of great intellectual abilities. Hypatia was born between 350 and 370 AD. She was a mathematician and also taught astronomy and astrology. She was daughter of Theon, a philosopher and a student in a school of Plato and Plotinus. Her notable works are commentaries on Diphantus’s Arithmetica, on Apollonius Conics and Ptolemy works, but all are lost. She was murdered in 415 AD by Christians mobs. With her murder her works too died.
The role of the women was just confined to the domestic affairs which is reflected in the art and literature of the time from Athenian vase paintings to the Homeric verses in both Iliad and Odyssey. In the epics, the woman got the place as mythic figures. Ovid in his Metamorphoses recapitulated women as goddesses who had the power to revenge, as revengeful queens, and on the other hand the cunning witches, and the objects or victims of male aggression and sexual desires. In the classical dramas of Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristophanes and Sophocles, women looked in a different way.
Clytemnestra kills the king; her husband Agamemnon but does not hide instead proclaims her deed openly. Agamemnon had killed his only child as he deemed it necessary but Clytemnestra did not forget it and revenged her death. Here Aeschylus poses ethical question on viewers and makes the reader feel sympathetic for women, a thing, which could not be heard, in the contemporary society and Aeschylus bestows on her with title of tragic heroine. On the other hand, Euripides is seemed to be afraid of women.
His protagonist Medea is depicted more as a devil than a human being that came on this earth from some other world. She has barbaric attitudes. Euripides was fully aware of the fact that the majority of the women are sensitive human beings, but he was looking at the other side of the women who in the Athenian Age had no rights like that of men and are different than men and when the time came, they are capable to be barbaric too. In Bible, women are shown as heroic female figures like Esther and Judith mostly found in the Old Testament Apocrypha.
And the Bible also shows women symbolically as the two opposite poles: temptress Eve and the flawless Virgin Mary. Chaucer in his Canterbury tales presented the women as a dominating personality. Though Chaucer presented the follies of both men and women, he yet gave women her place in the society. In the Knight’s Tale, women find themselves free from the male domination. Emily, Duke Theseus’ sister-in-law, refuses to marry as she considers her chastity as most valuable. His cousins, Palamon and Arcita, both fall in love with Emily.
Palamon loves Emily because he thinks that she is a goddess Venus, “goddess/ But [she] is really Venus [to him]” (Chaucer 1986) whereas Arcita loves Emily because he finds her most beautiful, “Beauty [that is] so fresh it destroys [him]” (Chaucer, 1986) The plays during the Middle Ages were liturgical, mystery plays but they did not get its due place in the society, and most of the plays had religious fervor. Slowly the mystery plays got popularity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries with the most renowned and passionate play being Oberammergau. Along with this, morality plays also gained popularity.
Twenty years later, people began to watch the Chronicle-History plays. These forms of the plays depicted the glory of the English to inculcate among public, the feeling of pride under Elizabeth and an ardent desire to know the historical past. The plays became popular, as there was an enthusiasm among the people due to the defeat of Armada in the struggle with Spain. After that there was an era of Renaissance, the freshness of the new ideas originated from the new order in the social, political, economic fabric of the society. Reference List Angelfire.
com The Epic of Gilgamesh Retrieved on September 10, 2007 from W. W. W: http://www. angelfire. com/mo3/paganfiles/library/ancient/epic_of_gilgamesh. txt Chaucer G. (1986) The Canterbury Tales. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press Inc. Fletcher R H. (1918) A History of English Literature. Retrieved on September 10, 2007 from W. W. W: http://classiclit. about. com/library/bl-etexts/rfletcher/bl-rfletcher-history-3. htm Kinoshita S. Adultery and Kingship in Marie de France’s Equitan1. Retrieved on September 10, 2007 from W. W. W: http://www. luc. edu/publications/medieval/vol16/kinoshta. html
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