The pre-Chaucerian period lasted from 500 to 1340 A.D. This period covers the entire historic period of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman periods.
English is essentially a Teutonic language. The English of the fourteenth century grows out of the Anglo-Saxon of the fifth by a regular course of evolution, and that nothing occurred at any stage to break its continuity. For this reason, the term Anglo- Saxon is now commonly dropped and ‘Old English’ used instead.
Here what was once called Anglo-Saxon is regarded as an early form of English literature. According to this conception, English literature did not begin, as used to be said, with Chaucer. It began far back with the beginnings of the history of English people on the continent of Europe before bands of them had settled on the little island which was presently had become the home of their race.
Before Chaucer, Caedmon’s Old English existed during this period. Caedmon’s Old English is considered as a foreign language; whereas Chaucer’s Middle English is full of words and idioms which puzzle us, we rightly feel that it is only an archaic form of the same tongue that we use today.
Literature before Chaucer constitutes a special field of study, and that it is only with Chaucer that modem English literature definitely begins.
Beowulf. Before the conquest, a considerable body of Anglo- Saxon poetry has been preserved. Among them, one piece of immense interest is the epic ‘Beowulf. Nothing is known to us about this authorship. Moreover, its history is still a matter of controversy. But it is probable that it grew up in the form of ballads among the ancestors of the English in Denmark and South Sweeden, that in this form it was brought by invaders to this country and that it was here fashioned into an epic, perhaps by some Northumbrian poet, about the eighth century. It is considered as the work of a Christian writer.
Contents. ‘Beowulf tells with rude vigor of the mighty feats of the hero whose name it bears; how, first, he fought and killed the monster Grendel, who for twelve years had wasted the land of the king of the Dames; how, next, he slew Grendel’s mother; and how at last, a very old man, he went out to destroy a fiery dragon receiving as well as giving a mortal wound. Added to these vivid pictures of life in war and peace among our remote forefathers add greatly to the value of a fine old poem.
Caedmon. We can cite some other works for old English poetry. They are the works of Caedmon and Cynewulf. Caedmon who died about 680 was a servant attached to the monastery of Whitby in Yorkshire.
According to a pretty tale told by the Venerable Bede, the power of verse came to him suddenly as a divine gift. Suddenly on one night, he was able to sing very beautifully due to the inspiration of an angel that appeared in his dream. Three free paraphrases of scripture available to us have been attributed to him; one dealing with the creation and the fall; the second with the exodus from Egypt; the third with the history of Daniel. According to some scholars, some of these poems are the work of his imitators.
Cynewulf. A miraculous element also enters into the story of Cynewulf’s career. He was a wandering gleeman and a lover of pleasure. But he was converted by a. vision of the cross. Henceforth, he dedicated himself to religious themes.
Cynewulf’s works include a poem called ‘Christ’, treating of the Incarnation, the Descent into Hell, the Ascension and the Last Judgifient; ‘Elene’ an account of the finding of the true cross, according to the legend, by Helena, the mother of Constantine; and ‘Juliana’ a tale of Christian martyrdom.
The character of Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Anglo-Saxon poetry is generally sacred in subject, and profoundly earnest is feeling. It is full of the love of adventure and fighting. Sometimes its martial spirit bursts out into regular war poetry. It is found in ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’ (937). Tennyson has given a spirited translation for it. A fondness for the sea ingrained the English character very beautifully iS another striking feature of it. Anglo-Saxon poetry flourished most in the north; prose developed later in the south.
King Alfred (849-901). Though hardly more than a translator, King Alfred holds an honorable place as the first to put the vernacular to systematic use. His most famous work in this line was the Latin “Ecclesiastical History of the Venerable Bede” (673-735), who wrote at Jarrow in the kingdom of Northumbria.
Under his guidance, the greatest movement Of Old English prose Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was transformed into national history. It was continued till 1154 when it closed with the record of the death of King Stephen.
From Norman Conquest to Chaucer. From the Norman Conquest till the beginning of the reign of John many ups and downs took place in English literature. The famous incident of Magna Carta shows some signs of interest among the people. Now English literature assumes a certain historical interest.
During this period ‘Brut’ the first noteworthy production of the revival was completed by Layamon in 1205. He was a parish priest of Worcestershire. No wonder, this is an enormous poem. It contains some 30,000 lines. It is the legendary history of ancient Britain, beginning with Aeneas, whose descendant Brutus was the supposed ancestor of the British people ending with Cadwallader, the last of the native kings, and including by the way, among innumerable episodes, the stories of Lear and King Arthur.
‘History of Britain’ (1132) by Welsh annalist Geoffrey of Monmouth was based on this great poem. Then came ‘Ormulum’ (1215) in short lines by Orm. He was a priest of Lincolnshire. A prose treatise the ‘Ancren Riwle’ (1225), or ‘Rule of Anchoresses’ was prepared by some unknown writer for the guidance of three ladies entering the religious life.
‘The Owl and the Nightingale’ (1220) was a charming dialogue poem during this period. The sum and substance of this poem is — the two birds discuss their respective merits, is historically interesting because it discards alliteration and adopts French end-rimes. Besides, many literary pieces came into existence during the subsequent years.
Growth of English. So far as the English language is concerned the period between the Norman Conquest and Chaucer is more important than that of literature. During these three hundred years, while little was being produced in prose or verse of any intrinsic value. Gradually modern English was evolving out of the conflict of opposing tongues and assuming national rank as the speech of the whole people.
Later on, Norman French was given decent good-bye and English occupied a prime position in the proceedings of the law courts. Yet there was no standard form of the new tongue to take its (French) place. English was broken up into dialects. There was a Noman English, a Midland English, and Southam English. They differed fundamentally from one another. Moreover, there were many sub-divisions. In other words, there were numerous minor varieties.
In this chaotic condition little by little, East Midland English tended to gain ascendancy, because it was the speech of the capital and of the two centers of learning, Oxford and Cambridge. Then when Chaucer began to write, he chose this, as his vehicle. On account of his influence, the only one of the several provincial dialects attained the dignity of the national language.
READ ALSO: The Age of Chaucer (1340-1400) CONDITIONS DURING THE AGE OF CHAUCER