Saturday, February 26, 2011

Shoemakers and Green Knights

So, on literature... in the early Middle Ages, oral traditions were very strong and literary works were written to be performed. Epic poems were thus very popular and many, including Beowulf, have survived to the present day in the rich corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature that closely resemble today's Icelandic, Norwegian, North Frisian and the Northumbrian and Scots English dialects of modern English.

From the 12th century, Middle English emerged (the earliest form of English literature which is comprehensible to modern readers, albeit not easily). The most significant Middle English author was Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400), best known for The Canterbury Tales (still a very entertaining read), regarded as the father of English literature. The Canterbury Tales was the first of a kind, written in English rather than French or Latin, demonstrating the legitimacy of the English language.

His name is derived from the French 'chausseur' (shoemaker). In 1324 John Chaucer, Geoffrey's father, was kidnapped by an aunt in the hope of marrying the twelve-year-old boy to her daughter in an attempt to keep property in Ipswich. The aunt was imprisoned and the £250 fine levied suggests that the family was financially secure, bourgeois, if not in the elite.

Chaucer was buried in what became the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, but just because he was local. Edmund Spenser was buried there in 1599, starting the tradition of it being the resting place of most of the countries great writers and poets. Ben Johnson (1572–1637) rests there in an upright coffin to save on costs of the plot.

Incidentally, Edmund Spenser (1552 – 1599), best known for his epic poem The Faerie Queene is the man believed to have crafted the phrase "without reason or a rhyme". He was promised payment from Queen Elizabeth II of one hundred pounds, a so called, "reason for the rhyme". The Lord High Treasurer, however, considered the sum too much. After a long while without receiving his payment, he sent her this quatrain:

I was promis'd on a time,
To have a reason for my rhyme:
But from that time unto this season,
I had neither rhyme or reason.

She immediately ordered Cecil to send Spenser his due sum.

Poet's Corner, Westminster Abbey

Back to the middle-ages: a lot is known of Chaucer compared to other authors of the time. William Langland's Piers Plowman is considered by many critics to be one of the early great works of English literature, which contains the first allusion to a literary tradition of Robin Hood tales: Sloth, the lazy priest, confesses: "I know not perfectly my lord’s prayer as the priest it singeth, But I know rhymes of Robyn Hood."
The "Pearl Poet", or the "Gawain Poet", is the name given to the author of the poem Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (an Arthurian tale – of which there’s a fantastic little animation of on youtube).
The last man who can’t be ignored in this amateurish chronicle of early literature is William Caxton (1420ish – 1492), an English merchant, diplomat, writer, the first English person to work as a printer, the first to introduce a printing press into England and the first English retailer of printed books.

Caxton worked in Bruges, and produced the first book to be printed in English in 1473, his own translation of Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye. It became popular in the Burgundian court and demand for copies was the stimulus for him to set up a printing press. He brought his knowledge back to London and established a press in the grounds of Westminster Abbey in 1476. The first book known to have been issued there was an edition of The Canterbury Tales.

Caxton did not begin printing until he was in his mid-fifties, so he was only able to print for 20 years before his death. In 1485, he published Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur (Middle French for 'The Death of Arthur), perhaps the best-known English-language literature about the legend of King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table.

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