Study Guide

Medieval English Literature Timeline

How It All Went Down

43-600 CE: The British Invasions 

First came the Romans, who brought Christianity and built Hadrian's Wall. This wall protects Britain from the northern barbarians, known as the Picts. But they say "buh-bye" in 400 and hustle off in their skirty armor to protect their own capital.

That means the Brits were left to subsequent waves of invasions all by their lonesome. They were attacked by a series of fierce Germanic tribes, including the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. Beowulf, here we come.

700: The Lindisfarne Gospels 

The Christian religion combines with native Celtic art forms to form the Lindisfarne Gospels. This is one of the most beautiful manuscripts seen in the entire Medieval Period. Dark ages, shmark ages—this thing is magnificent.

731: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People

So this monk, Bede "the Venerable," writes a history of England. He writes it in Latin, and focuses on the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kings to Christianity. Not much more to say here. Except for the fact that "ecclesiastical" is just a sweet-sounding word that means "relating to the Church."

790s-900: The Viking Invasions

Just when the British thought they were finally safe, the Vikings attack. These fierce northern tribes swoop in on their longships and ravage the coast. They even set up permanent shop in a northern area of England that was called "The Danelaw" for a while.

871-899: King Alfred reigns

Nothing brings people together like a common enemy, and that's just what the Vikings give King Alfred the Great. This dude was able to unite the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms on the island in order to beat back the invasions... well, most of them, at least.

His reign represents a sort of "golden age" of the Anglo-Saxon period. Under King Alfred, education and literature start to flourish. Good job, buddy.

700-1000: Beowulf 

I'm sure you're thinking, "Way to give us a precise date, Shmoop." Well, that's the best we can do here. Sorry. No one really knows when this famous epic was composed. But no matter what year it was written, it continues to teach us all about those manly, heroic Anglo-Saxons.

1066: The Norman Conquest 

William the Conquerer um, well, conquers England in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings. This invasion brings about a more recognizable form of English across the lands (and there is much rejoicing).

1147: A History of the Kings of Britain 

Here, Geoffrey of Monmouth gives us the first significant text that deals King Arthur, along with a number of other "real" and mythic English kings—including King Lear. Basically, he was yet another monk writing in Latin—are you starting to see a pattern here? What set him apart is that he was one of the first to get King Arthur's story down.

1154-1189: Henry II 

Henry II would reign for 39 years, which was a good, long time back then. During his reign, he marries Eleanor of Aquitaine, who is one of the richest landowners in France. Together, they preside over a court that is renowned for its literary connections and refinement.

Romance becomes mega popular as a genre during this time. And so does courtly love. Aw, shucks.

12th Century: The Mabinogi

If you've seen Disney's The Black Cauldron, you've seen one take on one of the tales of The Mabinogi. These are stories of Celtic folklore and myth, and they were originally composed in Welsh. But they've inspired many, many literary and cinematic works since then.

1215: The Magna Carta is signed

The English Barons finally get tired of King John lording over them, and force him to sign this "great charter." It establishes a number of rights that "freemen" (that is, not serfs) will be granted under the King.

On the one hand, old King John certainly isn't thrilled with this whole granting-freemen-rights business. But on the other hand, the idea for the U.S. Constitution comes from The Magna Carta. So, really, from the bottom of our hearts: thanks for being such a jerk, John.

1290: The Expulsion of the Jews 

King Edward I—yes, that would be old Longshanks from Braveheart—kicks all the Jews out of England. And if that weren't enough, he confiscates all of their property and money. Way to show some tolerance for diversity, Longshanks.

Not. Sadly, this law would be in effect until 1656. That's a really long time, Shmoopers.

1337–1453: The Hundred Years' War

As you will note, it was more like The Hundred And Sixteen Years War. But that doesn't sound quite as grand or catchy, we know. In any case, this war was comprised of a long, drawn-out series of battles between England and France.

They were trying to decide who had the right to the French throne. In the end, after all that fightin', France won.

1348–1349: The Black Death kills a ton o' people

The horrific disease kills off approximately one-third of the European population during this time. Unfortunately, there's a plague o'er most people's houses.

1377: Richard II inherits the throne

A true boy king, Richard II is only 11 when he ascends the throne. In reality, some older uncles take care of things until he's more mature. Like fourteen. Then, he reigns for twenty-two years before he's unseated by Henry IV. But at least we get the "famous four" poets during Richard II's reign: Geoffrey Chaucer, William Langland, John Gower, and the Gawain Poet. Huzzah.

1381: The Peasants' Uprising

As you can imagine, taxing the poor peons in order to have money to fight expensive wars didn't go over all that well with the working classes. They finally take their rage to the streets and riot in London. Sadly, many people die during the Uprising, including the movement's ringleaders.

1382–1388: Troilus and Criseyde 

Geoffrey Chaucer composes his epic romance during these years. And no, "epic romance" is not an oxymoron. The poem includes both elements of epic and elements of romance.

Here, Chaucer takes up the story of Troilus and Criseyde (duh): two star-crossed lovers. But unlike Romeo and Juliet, the reasons their stars are crossed have less to do with their family histories per se and more to do with the Greek army. Read, learn, enjoy.

1387–1400: The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer's at it again, this time with his best-known work. What's it about? In short: a group of pilgrims who travel to Canterbury, and tell stories along the way. Unlike Troilus and Criseyde, The Canterbury Tales remains incomplete. Maybe you can finish it for him, dear friends?

1400: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

An anonymous poet gives us this tale of Sir Gawain and the fun game he plays with the fearsome Green Knight. Lucky for us, it's very readable; the Gawain poet writes in a much more recognizable version of English than Chaucer.

1381–Early 16th Century: The Lollard Heresy

Regarded by the Catholic Church as a heresy, this popular religious reform movement is started by John Wycliffe. Mr. Wycliffe is a religious advocate who translates the Bible into the vernacular languages so that people can read it for themselves… and once they do, those who subscribe to this movement call for the Church to get rid of its wealth and landholdings.

You know, like, to be fair and all. But many of those who follow John Wycliffe are burned at the stake.

1342–1416: Julian of Norwich 

Julian is credited with being the first known female English author. She was an anchoress, which means she lived a life of seclusion locked in a tiny room. And like Margery Kempe, she wrote her book, Revelations of Divine Love, after experiencing a series of mystical visions.

1373–1438: Margery Kempe

With The Book of Margery Kempe, Margery writes the first autobiography in English. Her work outlines the spiritual life she leads after having a series of visions, which are all about Hell and Jesus and stuff. An outspoken woman, she goes against Church teachings by preaching to others. She even faces heresy charges. Several times, actually.

Late 14th to 15th Centuries: Cycle dramas hit the scene

Also called the "mystery plays," these early dramatic presentations were performed in town streets. They usually told the entire cycle of Biblical history, from the Creation to Judgment Day. Phewf, that's a lot of material to jam into some plays, don't you think? We're tired just thinking about it.

1455–1487: The War of Roses

Shortly after the end of the Hundred Years' War, England thought it would be a great idea to start a really bloody and bitter civil war. It was called the Wars of the Roses because the two warring noble families in England each used a different rose as a family symbol. Kind of poetic, if you ask us. Not the battles, obviously. But the roses.

1473: The Printing Press Comes to England

William Caxton, an upper-class merchant, writer, and printer, brought the printing press to England. And he printed the first book there in 1473: The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (The Collection of the Histories of Troy).

1485: Le Morte D'Arthur 

Although this major work of Arthurian literature is printed in 1485, Thomas Malory actually writes Le Morte D'Arthur sometime between 1468 and 1471, while he is a guest of the state (read: cooling his heels in prison). This text becomes highly influential. It's the original source for virtually all of the modern renditions of the King Arthur story… even the deplorable, though highly laughable, First Knight.

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