Literature in English Society

Before 1660


A Historical Survey



Brother Anthony, An Sonjae



Sogang University Press

Seoul,  Korea







 Introduction (below)


1. Literature and Society before 1066

Caedmon's Hymn

Christianity enters England


The Germanic Inheritance

The Dream of the Rood

Relations with the European Continent

The Genesis Poems

Heroic Poetry


The Elegies

The Vikings

King Alfred the Great5

Monastic Revival

From Maldon to Hastings

The Celtic tradition: Ireland, Scotland, Wales


2. The Middle Ages before 1300

Social history

The Universities

The Church

The development of narrative literature

Geoffrey of Monmouth

Layamon's Brut

Fine amor

The Matter of Britain

Tristan and Iseult

Marie de France

Chrétien de Troyes

Arthurian Romance after Chrétien

The Matter of Rome and Antiquity

Le Roman d'Eneas

Le Roman de Troie

Le Roman de Thebes

Alexandre le Grand

The Matter of France

The Song of Roland

The Matter of England

King Horn

Havelok the Dane

Sir Orfeo

Bevis of Hampton and Guy of Warwick

Other narrative forms

Fabliau and beast-fable

Lyric poetry in France

Lyric poetry in England

Le Roman de la Rose

Dante Alighieri


3. The Fourteenth Century2

Social and political history

The Black Death and the Peasants' Revolt

Wyclif and the Lollards

The Hundred Years' War

Alliterative poetry

Wynnere and Wastoure


Piers Plowman

Alliterative romances

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight5

Lyric Poetry in England

Lyric Poetry in France

Religious Prose

Julian of Norwich

Margery Kempe


4. Petrarch and Boccaccio, Chaucer and Gower



Geoffrey Chaucer

The shorter works

Troilus and Criseyde

The Canterbury Tales

John Gower

5. The Fifteenth Century

Poetry after Chaucer

Thomas Hoccleve

John Lydgate (?1370-1449)

Robert Henryson

William Dunbar

Charles d'Orléans

Renaissance Humanism

Saint Anselm


Raimon Lull

Nicolas of Cusa

Marsilio Ficino

Pico della Mirandola

Renaissance Political Thought

Niccolo Machiavelli


6. Drama before 1550

Mystery Play Cycles

The Second Shepherd's Play

Morality Plays


Skelton's Magnyfycence

Bale's King Johan






This book surveys in a very general way the evolution of English literature of the Middle Ages. It focuses on as many individual works and writers as possible, situating them in a broad historical and social context.

Korean students of English literature often have little or no detailed knowledge of British history or culture, yet they use histories of English literature in which the main outlines of English history are assumed to be familiar. This leads to difficulties. On the other hand, in many histories of literature, the individual works are assumed to be familiar and nothing is quoted at length or explained. Again, this causes problems.

In Sogang University, the main textbook for courses in English Literature is the two-volume Norton Anthology of English Literature. This anthology is very useful, but the introductions are often fragmentary and unclear, while students in a survey course can do almost nothing with the huge extracts from the major works that the Anthology provides.

In the pages that follow, surveys of and quotations from as many works as possible are set in a narrative about writers, works, and their historical contexts, English and European. The expected readership is of undergraduate and graduate level, students in survey courses as well as those looking for general background information about a particular period or writer. Some may be surprised to find quite long discussions of French or Italian literature and philosophy; they are included because it is not possible to separate English literature from its European context, the works in question have all played a major role in England and should be familiar to students.

Given the book's very general character, it has seemed best to keep the bibliographical information to a minimum. Each writer and topic has been the object of innumerable studies. Therefore each section or chapter ends with a short list of recently published works in which students will find full bibliographical information for a higher level of detailed research, as well as more precise introductions to each of the topics mentioned.

Every aspect of English literature has been discussed at great length by many scholars. This book is only a general introduction written in a deliberately simple style, the author could never acknowledge in detail the multiple sources he has been informed by at every point. In addition, there are so many different opinions about almost every detail that it has seemed better not to quote directly from critical works, and not to use footnotes or endnotes.

Students wishing to have a rather fuller degree of concentrated information on a particular writer or work may turn first to The Oxford Companion to English Literature or a similar encyclopedic work. Beyond that, and the various general studies indicated after each section or chapter, there is no end to the variety of studies available.

It is a pity that this book cannot provide pictures. Many aspects of medieval culture, be it the buildings, the clothing, or the way of daily life, become much clearer from photographs and illustrations. Students are advised to look for illustrated histories of the period while they are studying.