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Evolution of British Literature
Evolution of British Literature
The historical events and mentality of a time period are a major influence on the context and style of that particular times literature. British Literature experienced many metamorphoses through the year’s 449-1660. The literature traveled through four distinct periods. Beginning with the Anglo-Saxons moving through the medieval and Renaissance periods and ending with the writings of the 17th century.
The Anglo-Saxons were the beginning of British Literature. The Anglo-Saxons began the year 440 by advancing on what is today England. The Angles and the Saxons were known as ferocious, they didn’t wage war on the British heartland out of mere spite. They conquered and won over territory enabling them to construct caps which later turned into towns and cities.
Weapons weren’t the only things the invading people brought with them. They used a highly organiz4ed system of tribal units each led by a king. Gradually, these units merged together forming seven large bands. The amalgamation of different tribes produced a new language, “Anglo-Saxon or Old English to distinguish it from our modern form (Bowler 3).”
The Anglo-Saxons also brought with them their pagan beliefs. The people looked at the world through a very depressing window. It was believed that all human life was in the hand of fate and all the gods they worshiped were Germanic. These beliefs shine strongly though in the oral epics and stories of the period.
The next major event of the Anglo-Saxon era was the coming of Christianity. Romans had previously taken Christianity as their belief of choice and aimed at spreading their newfound faith. The Christian’s views and beliefs of the world spread quickly through the land and King Ethelbert of Kent was soon after converted “making Christianity the religion of his realm (Bowler 6).” Again Anglo-Saxon life was changed, the belief in Germanic gods was no longer accepted and Warlords could no longer consider themselves descendants of pagan gods. Christianity also brought education and written literature to the land. The monks of the church are given the credit for pre serving the oral traditions of the Anglo-Saxon period in written form. It is very easy to see the pagan Christian beliefs in the monk’s writings. Take Beowulf. A long epic poem written in narrative form. The epic has an epic hero who displays many different traits such as loyalty valor, selflessness, and a sense of justice, the most admired traits a human can posses then and now. Beowulf, the epic hero, makes references such as “by on death was my errand and the fate (Beowulf 253).” Alluding to the pagan belief that every life was controlled by fate. Also, Christianity crept into the writing as seen in statements like “God must decide who will be given to deaths cold grip” (Beowulf 269), as well as “they gave thanks to God for their easy crossings (Beowulf 143).”
The Anglo-Saxon literature reflects both the historical setting and the mentality of the time period. The literature satisfies all the aspects of life and the beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons whose traditions lasted until 1066.
It was in 1066 that descendants of the Vikings, the Normans, landed in France and began to invade the lands. Gradually, over approximately a five year period, the Anglo-Saxon nobility was suppressed and their lands taken from them by the Normans. The Normans not only brought plundering and war, but also a new system of power to the region.
Feudalism, a system that “had taken root on European Continent at a time when no central government was strong enough to keep order (Bowler 70),” was implemented by the invaders. The system was a strict hierarchy of land and power. A king would grant some land to the Church and then parcel out manors to his knights who agreed to defend and serve the king and his property. The lowest persons in the hierarchy were the serfs who had to work the lands they did not own and had no power or say in anything.
After almost two centuries of the feudalism, there was wide spread corruption throughout the Church as well as unfair laws and taxes imposed on the lower class of society. Revolt and public disapproval of the unfair treatment began to spread. Many people, including the authors of the time, sided with the public opinion “that religion had traveled far from its roots (Bowler 75),” and the Church was portrayed as only interested in making a buck.
One such writer of the Later Middle Ages was Geoffrey Chaucer. He wrote many poems, humorous, satiric and religious. His greatest work, second only to Shakespeare, was the Canterbury Tales. The Tales are a social commentary of the late Middle Ages. Chaucer uses the journey motif of a pilgrimage to describe the social hierarchy and to show how corrupt and astray the leaders had become. The Canterbury Tales gives a very accurate description from “a knight, a most distinguished man . . . to ride abroad and had followed chivalry (Chaucer 43-45)” to the “Monk there was of the finest sort who rode the country and hunting was his s
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