Middle English literature (ca. 1100-1500) was thus significantly written in Latin and Anglo-Norman (the French spoken on the island) even before English. The first references to the Arthurian legend, destined to become a national saga, are in fact in a work in Latin, the Historia Regum Britanniae (ca. 1135-39), by Godfrey of Monmouth, and in the Roman de Brut (1155, in Anglo- Norman) by R. Wace, based on the previous work, before finding itself in Layamon’s Brut (1205), a narrative poem in rhymed and alliterative verses that marks the crossing point to English literature proper. In English they wrote lives of saints, biblical paraphrases, homilies and poems to edify the people, such as the Moral Poem (ca. 1200-50) or the Ormulum (13th century), or delicious operettas such as the Ancrene Riwle (13th century); The rule of the hermits), while from France, for the use of the ruling class, came the taste and models of chivalric romances in verse. Here the English examples are not up to par with the continental ones. Alongside the novels of the Germanic cycle, centered on indigenous epic-chivalric motifs, such as King Horn (ca. 1250) or Havelock the Dane (c. 1300; Havelock the Dane), those of the Carolingian cycle are understandably scarce.
More numerous and of greater value are those of the Arthurian cycle, in which, however, the epic-national element has given way to the magical-fairy-tale element connected with the figure of Merlin, or to the love element connected with the figures of Lancelot and Geneva (Morte d’Arthur, ca. 1400, in octave rhymes) and of Tristan and Isolde (Sir Tristram, ca. 1300). Of particular importance are some texts inspired by oriental stories or legends, such as Floris and Blanchefleur (ca. 1250) or Sir Orpheo (ca. 1300, in prose), to which are added delightful poetic “contrasts” such as The Owl and the Nightingale (13th century; The owl and the nightingale) and the exquisite flowering of both religious and amorous-courtly lyrics. However, according to Thesciencetutor, Middle English literature has given its best by reconnecting to native and popular traditions, as happened in the case of the so-called “Alliterative Renaissance” and the writers who in the second half of the fourteenth century were inspired by the human and social reality of their world. The flowering in alliterative verses that took place in this period in the northwestern area of the island is evidence of the linguistic-cultural integration between the vernacular tradition and the courteous forms. Alongside the anonymous poems of moral edification such as Patience (Patience) and Cleannes (Purity) stand out poems such as Pearl (The pearl), which takes place in the allegorical frame of the dream-vision typical of the courtly tradition, or as Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight (Galvano and the green knight), which celebrates the triumph of chastity in the form of the courtly-knightly novel. The masterpiece of the genre, however, is represented by the poem Piers Plowman (Peter the Plowman) by W. Langland (ca. 1330-1400), with a harsh, dark and apocalyptic tone, in which the allegorical scaffolding is as if unhinged from the gloomy and passionate picture that the writer gives of the social evils and the darkest aspects of his time. In Langland, popular and moved by moral indignation, the figure of his great contemporary, G. Chaucer (1340 / 45-1400), the greatest poet of the English Middle Ages, contrasted. “Father” of English to whom he conferred the definitive literary seal, in the multiplicity of his work and his inspiration, culminating in the Canterbury Tales (ca. 1387-89, The Canterbury Tales), Chaucer expresses the courteous vision of the world and the multifaceted social reality of the fourteenth century. A connoisseur of the French and Italians, to whom he paid the tribute of imitation before finding his own voice, the Chaucer of maturity paints a non-theological and divine Middle Ages like that of Dante, but realistic and bourgeois, anchored to the world and to society, graceful and courteous but at the same time active and concrete, tied to tradition and yet crossed by new ferments. In his major work the now unified face of the nation is reflected and recognized, while still his other contemporary J. Gower (ca. 1330-1408), next to a poem in English, Confessio Amantis (1390), he composed works in French and Latin. After the great flourishing of the fourteenth century, the fifteenth century is instead a period of stasis and transition. Throughout the century, torn by the internal war of the Two Roses (1455-85), a host of poets followed in Chaucer’s footsteps, ignoring his major work and drawing inspiration from his early works in a series of narrative poems in which tradition was extinguished. Middle English (a tradition that was also gradually compromised by the profound transformations that Middle English underwent, as it set out to become Modern English).
Among these, the poets of the English school stood out on the one hand, such as Th. Occleve (ca. 1369-ca. 1450), J. Lydgate (ca. 1370-ca. 1450) and the later S. Hawes (ca. 1474-1523); on the other, the poets of the Scottish school, in whom there was greater poetic strength, also because they wrote in a still vigorous native language. In addition to King James I of Scotland (1394-1437), author of the King’s Quair (1423-24; The King’s Book), R. Henryson (ca. 1425-ca. 1506), W. Dunbar (ca. 1460-ca.1520), author of vigorous political allegories, violent anti-feminist satires and gloomy medieval figures; G. Douglas (1474 / 75-1522), inspired translator of the Aeneid; sir D. Lindsay (ca. 1490-before 1555), which was inspired by political-didactic themes, and testifies to the delay in which English poetry debated at the dawn of the sixteenth century compared to other literatures.