This period is also specially important because it gave to England a new language of greater flexibility and power. The old inflections, genders, formative prefixes, and capability of making self-explaining compounds were for the most part lost. To supply the places of lost words and to express those new ideas which came with the broader experiences of an emancipated, progressive nation, many new words were adopted from the French and the Latin. When the time for literature came, Chaucer found ready for his pen the strongest, sincerest, and most flexible language that ever expressed a poet’s thought.
In tracing the development of the literature of this period, we have noted (1) the metrical romances; (2) Geoffrey of Monmouth’s (Latin) History of the Kings of Britain, and Layamon’s Brut, with their stories of Lear, Cymbeline and King Arthur; (3) the Ormulum, a metrical paraphrase of those parts of the Gospels used in church service; (4) the Ancren Riwle, remarkable for its natural eloquent prose and its noble ethics, as well as for showing the development of the language; (5) the lyrical poetry, beginning to be redolent of the odor of the blossom and resonant with the song of the bird; (6) the Handlyng Synne, in which we stand on the threshold of modern English; (7) Mandeville’s Travels, with its entertaining stories; (8) Wycliffe’s monumental translation of the Bible and vigorous religious prose pamphlets; (9) Piers Plowman, with its pictures of homely life, its intense desire for higher ideals and for the reformation of social and religious life; (10) Gower’s Confessio Amantis, a collection of tales about love; and (11) Chaucer’s poetry, which stands in the front rank for the number of vivid pictures of contemporary life, for humor, love of nature, melody, and capacity for story-telling.
An account of the history of this period may be found in either Gardiner, Green, Lingard, Walker, or Cheney. Volumes II. and III. of the Political History of England, edited by Hunt (Longmans), give the history in greater detail. For the social side, consult Traill, I. and II. See also Rogers’s Six Centuries of Work and Wages. Freeman’s William the Conqueror, Green’s Henry II., and Tout’s Edward I. (Twelve English Statesmen Series) are short and interesting. Kingsley’s Hereward the Wake deals with the times of William the Conqueror and Scott’s Ivanhoe with those of Richard the Lion-Hearted. Archer and Kingsford’s The Story of the Crusades, Cutt’s Parish Priests and their People in the Middle Ages in England, and Jusserand’s English Wayfaring Life in the fourteenth Century are good works.