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(2) Anglo-Norman England

- Normans = the name is a contraction from Norsemen, the people were descendants of Germanic adventurers who occupied much of northern France in the 10th century

- Normans adopted the French language of the land they had settled in as well as its Christian religion

- parallelly existing languages: Latin as the language of learning, French of the Norman aristocracy, Middle English of the natives and different branches of the Celtic language group

Celtic Legends

- Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes both claimed to have obtained their narratives from Breton storytellers

- the former speaks respectfully of the storytellers, the latter accuses them of marring their material which he had to weave in a more elegant fusion of form and meaning

- both were 12th century authors writing in French and using romances as a means of exploring psychological and ethical dilemmas and the individual's relation to society

Marie de France (12th century)

- an unidentified author, her signature means only that her given name was Marie and that she was born in France

- author of a series of short romances, e.g. "Lanval"

- a representative of the Breton lay, i.e. the genre of native tales originally performed orally by Breton bards, the word lay refers to a short verse narrative


- a collection of twelve short verse romances, each of them dealing with a single event in the affairs of noble lovers

- portrays various kinds of relationships, both favourably and unfavourably, with both happy and tragic resolutions

> "Lanval": a romance of a mortal lover and a fairy bride, exceptional in the way it criticizes feudal society


- traditional fables making animals stand for types of human characters

St Patrick's Purgatory:

- a translation from Latin of a contemporary monastic poem about a knight's descent to the underworld

- the title refers to the entrance to the underworld supposedly first found by St Patrick

Chrétien de Troyes (12th century)

- the principal creator of the romance of chivalry and courtly love

Ywain and Gawain (c. 1400):

- a Middle English romance, a cruder version of Chrétien's original French romance called The Knight and the Lion


- roman = the word was originally applied in French to a work written in the French vernacular

- romance = eventually acquired the meaning of a story dealing with chivalric adventures and courtly love

- the knight, obliged to obey the gentlemanly code of behaviour, sets off for a quest, often involving the saving of a damsel in distress threatened by monsters, dragons or vicious knights

- the romance contrasts with the previous period (love to a lady was not a subject of Anglo-Saxon literature), started a revolution in thinking about love and today influences our ways of thinking and perceiving

< initiated by the Troubadour poets in Italy and Southern France in 13th and 14th centuries

< Dante's idealisation of love to Beatrice in La Vita Nuova (The New Life, 1283 - 1293)

< also influenced by the worship of Virgin Mary

< might have been influenced by the misunderstanding of the wit and irony in The Remedy of Love, originally by Ovid, then a tale by Chaucer

C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (1936):

- defines the attributes of courtly love

- humility: in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon period and works in Old English

- courtesy: the chivalric code of behaviour, formulas in the way of speaking and behaving

- adultery: illegitimate love affairs were results of pre-arranged marries in upper-classes, also the Crusades left young men free to woo the ladies in the castles (e.g. the love stories of Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Isolde)

- religion of love: compares love to religious experience, both are capable of transforming people

Arthurian Legend

- characters: King Arthur; Arthur's wife Guinevere; the magician Merlin; Arthur's evil half-sister Morgana le Fay; Arthur's best knight Lancelot; Arthur's nephew Mordred

- attributes: Excalibur (the sword in the stone); the Round Table (designed to make all the seated knights equal); the quest for the Holy Grail (the cup used to caught Christ's blood, then used by Apostles); the capital city Camelot; the heavenly city Avalon (to which Arthur retires after his death)

- the myth of Arthur's return: a recurrent myth of the hero being not really dead but asleep somewhere to return to save his people when needed

- later renderings: Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1856 - 1885), Terence Hanbury White's The Once and Future King (1958), Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon (1982) etc.

Legendary Histories

- told by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace and Layamon in Latin, French and Middle English respectively

- begin with a foundation myth, a heroic account of national origins modelled on Virgil's Aeneid (in Virgil's epic Rome is founded by refugees from the fall of Troy; in British legends another band of refugees establishes Britain)

- end with the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the native Britons

- fascinated with the prestige and power of ancient Rome

- the figure of King Arthur, who had defeated Rome itself, flattered the ambitions of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy

- at the same time the destruction of Arthur's kingdom served as a lesson of the consequences of civil wars

Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100 - 1155)

- a churchman, probably of Welsh or Breton ancestry

History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1130 - 1138):

- the author claimed it to be a translation into Latin from an ancient Welsh book

- devotes most space to the birth and reign of King Arthur who drives out the pagan Anglo-Saxon invaders, defeats the Roman armies, faces the treachery of his nephew Mordred, but finally fails to preserve his kingdom

- includes many other legendary and historical characters, also e.g. is the first to tell of King Lear and his daughters

Wace (c. 1110 - c. 1180)

- a churchman of Norman origin

Le Roman de Brut (1155):

- freely transformed the Arthurian legend of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History into French rhymed verse

- named after Brut, a great-grandson of Aeneas, the leader of the Trojan refugees who supposedly founded Britain

- created the atmosphere of courtliness by describing dress, speech and behaviour of the characters; also e.g. is the first to mention the Round Table

Layamon (12th century)

- an English churchman

Brut (c. 1190):

- transformed Wace's Le Roman de Brut into a much longer poem in Middle English

- uses both alliteration and rhyme

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (c. 1375 - 1400)

- the finest compact Arthurian romance in Middle English, presented as on oral poem

- by an unknown author, the Gawain Poet, who also wrote allegorical religious poems Pearl, Patience and Purity

- in Northwest Midlands dialect (e.g. Chaucer in contrast used East Midlands dialect)

- shows high sophistication and knowledge of the international Middle Ages culture as well as of the ancient native traditions

- draws on an older tradition of the Arthurian legend: makes Sir Gawain, King Arthur's nephew, the preeminent knight of the Round Table, while Lancelot remains just one of the other knights

- the later 13th century French Arthurian legend presents Sir Lancelot as the best knight and makes Lancelot's adultery with Queen Guinevere the central event (e.g. in Sir Thomas Malory)

- the main plot focuses on the Beheading Game, in which a supernatural challenger offers to let his head be cut off in exchange for a return blow (the theme derives from a Middle Irish tale)

- the first and the last stanzas refer to the Brutus Books, the foundation stories tracing the origins of Rome and Britain back to the destruction of Troy

- belongs to the Alliterative Revival of the late 14th century (together with e.g. Piers Plowman and The Alliterative Morte D'Arthur)

- written in stanzas containing a group of alliterative lines, each stanza closes with five short lines rhyming ababa: the first line, the bob, consists of two or three syllables, the following four lines, the wheel, consist of three stresses each

Sir Thomas Malory (c. 1405 - 1471)

- the author was identified as a violent criminal who wrote his legends in prison

Morte D'Arthur (Death of Arthur):

- the title was chosen by William Caxton, the first English printer

- draws on various 13th century prose romances in French and transforms them into a continuous narrative

- begins with Arthur's birth (the illegitimate son of the Uther Pendragon and the wife of one of Uther's barons, conceived when Uther disguised himself as the husband of the lady in question), ends with the destruction of the Round Table and the deaths of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot

- focuses on King Arthur, but describes in detail also the separate adventures of the knights of the Round Table

- portrays Lancelot's fatal liaison with Guinevere and consequently his torn loyalties between his lord and his lady

- manifests masterly use of a terse and direct prose style, ironic understatement and naturalistic dialogue

- expresses nostalgia for an ideal past that never truly existed and a sense of the irretrievability of past glory

William Langland (c. 1330 - 1387)

- presumably educated to enter the church but his marriage and lack of preferment reduced him to poverty

The Vision of Piers Plowman (composed 1360s - 1380s):

- a long religious allegory in alliterative verse, surviving in three distinct versions referred to as A-, B- and C-texts

- takes the common medieval form of a dream vision, which was then supposed to be revealing a disguised truth

- the dreamer is a humble commoner on a tough-minded, persistent and passionate search for answers in religion

- the theme is the history of Christianity as it unfolds both in the Bible and in the life of an individual Christian

- includes an indignant satire of the corruption of the church and ecclesiastics as well as the wealthy laity which fails to relieve the suffering of the poor

Základní údaje

  • Předmět

    Britská literatura 3.
  • Semestr

    Zimní semestr 2008/09.
  • Přednášející

    David Livingstone.
  • Status

    Povinná přednáška pro III. blok.


Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.

Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. New York: Clarendon Press, 1994.


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