Anglo-Norman literature was a verse literature in which we find a love for word play. The tone was lighter and the themes romantic. Even when the subject was an imaginary historical or religious figure, the overall effect remained romantic. Imagination and fancy ruled the day. These were stories of love and adventure.
Geoffrey of Monmouth related the tale of King Arthur. Soon other found the Arthurian legend great fodder for their stories. Even historical accounts lost their “factual” presentation. Layamon told the history of Britain in rhyme. “Layamon’s Brut (ca. 1190-1215) is a Middle English poem. At a little over 16,000 lines, it was the first historiography written in English since the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The story line for Brut follows the mythical founder of Britain, Brutus of Troy. It is based on the Anglo-Norman poem, Roman de Brut by Wace, which was a version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin Historia Regum Britanniae.
“The versification of the Brut has proven extremely difficult to characterise. Written in a loose alliterative style, sporadically deploying rhyme as well as a caesural pause between the hemistichs of a line, it is perhaps closer to the rhythmical prose of Ælfric of Eynsham than to verse, especially in comparison with later alliterative writings such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Piers Plowman. Layamon’s alliterating verse is difficult to analyse, seemingly avoiding the more formalised styles of the later poets.
“Layamon’s Middle English at times includes modern Anglo-Norman language: the scholar Roger Loomis counted 150 words derived from Anglo-Norman in its 16,000 long-lines. It is remarkable for its abundant Anglo-Saxon vocabulary; deliberately archaic Saxon forms that were quaint even by Anglo-Saxon standards. Imitations in the Brut of certain stylistic and prosodic features of Old English alliterative verse show a knowledge and interest in preserving its conventions.” (Wikipedia via Ackerman, Robert W. (1966) Backgrounds to Medieval English Literature. 1st. New York: Random House, Inc.)
Metrical romances were popular. There were stories of Charlemagne, heroes of ancient Troy, Robin Hood, etc. The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th Century Middle English chivalric romance classified as a “beheading game” story. It is one of the best known Arthurian stories. It is written in stanzas of alliterative verse, each stanza ending with a rhyming ‘bob and wheel.’ Many believe the story line is based in the folklore of the Green Man (a face surrounded by or made from leaves). In it the hero goes on a quest which tests his intelligence, his strength, and his honor.
Religious writing were also widely found. The Ancrene Riwle, Ancrene Wisse (Rules/Guide for an Anchoresses) recommended the proper way of life of people who devoted their lives to religion. It was written in the early 13th Century. The piece is divided into eight parts: Parts 1 and 8 deal with the anchoresses’ outer life, while 2-7 deals with the inner life. Anecdotes are used as examples of the devotional tone of the work. An anchorite customarily lived in a cell connected to a church. Cursor Mundi is an anonymous Middle English religious poem of some 30,000 lines written ca. 1300. It describes the history of the world as seen in the Christian Bible mixed with legends drawn from Historia scholastic. The Cursor Mundi is divided into the seven ages of salvation.
Twelfth century writers included Geraldus of Wales, the French writer Wace, and Walter Map. Gerald wrote an autobiography which reflected his travels. Wace was the author of Roman de Brut, which contained Arthurian stories. Walter Map was an aristocrat who criticized the royal court of the time. He wrote his Courtier’s Trifles in Latin, which were moral lessons and satire on aristocratic ways and manners.
History was a popular subject of the day. William of Malmesbury was a leader among 12th Century historians. His Gesta pontifical Anglorum (Deeds of the English Bishops, Volumes 1 and 2); Gesta degum Anglorum (Deeds of English Kings, Volumes 1 and 2, etc. sheds light on the Bishops and the Kings of England. Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum was a charge from Bishop Alexander of Lincoln to write a history of England from the earliest period to the Present, ending it with the accession of Henry II to the throne in 1154. His Epistles offer insights into 12th Century life. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s is best known for his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), even though the work smacks more of prose romance than history. Jocelin of Brakelonde was an English monk and the author of a chronicle narrating the fortunes of the monastery of Bury St. Edmunds Abbey. The Chronicle of St. Edmundsbury tells the story of the Abbot Samson who revolutionized monastic life. Jocelin “tells us that he was with Samson night and day for six years; the picture which he gives of his master, although coloured by enthusiastic admiration, is singularly frank and intimate. It is all the more convincing since Jocelyn is no stylist. His Latin is familiar and easy, but the reverse of classical. He thinks and writes as one whose interests are wrapped up in his house; and the unique interest of his work lies in the minuteness with which it describes the policy of a monastic administrator who was in his own day considered as a model.” (Wikipedia)
During the 12th and 13th centuries, there was a rise of nationalism. The crusades opened England to an essentially unknown world. The literature of the time was influenced by the importation of Oriental stories, the institution of chivalry, and the elaborate church rituals. Chronicles were written in Latin.
In addition, we find the first works written in English after the Norman Conquest. These included Poema Morale and the Ormulum. The first was a moral poem describing proper Christian conduct. It was an account of heaven and hell and of the nature of good deeds, which lead to eternal life. The second is a biblical exegesis, written by Orm, a monk. It preserves many details of English pronunciation existing at the time.
The Cursor Mundi also appeared in English, as did Robert Mannyng’s Handlynge Synne. It is a devotional verse on the practice of morality. We also have Richard Rolle’s Pricke of Conscience. It is a deeply religious work, which advocates the philosophy of love. A long poem of the time is called The Owl and the Nightingale. At 1800 lines, the poem is a debate between two birds, one representing a life of contemplation and the other a life of frivolity.
Roger Bacon was an early English philosopher and a Franciscan friar known for a study of nature through empirical methods. His Opus Majus deals with mathematics, alchemy, and astronomy. He also authored Opus Minus and Opus Tertium. Opus Tertium discussed the relationship between philosophy and theology. Opus Minus dwelt on the same relationship, but also explored the faulty interpretation of Scriptures. Joining Bacon was John Duns (Duns Scotus), who had considerable influence upon Catholic doctrines. He developed arguments for the existence of God and for the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception.
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