Kent. The chief document is Dan Michel, Ayenbite of Inwit ("Remorse of Conscience"), a religious treaty, translated from the French (1340). William of Shoreham, Poems (early 14th century). Poenui Morale (anonymous, early 13th century).
South-West. Layamon, Brut (a verse history of Britain, imitated from an Anglo-Norman poem by Wace, early 13th century. Southern dialect with Midland admixtures), Ancren Riwle ("Statute for Nuns"), early 13th century, probably adaptation of a Midland original. Robert of Gloucester, Rhymed Chronicle (ab. 1300). John Trevisa, translation of the monk Ranulphus Higden's Latin Polychro-nicon (1387),
West Midland. Legends of Catherine, Margaret, and Juliana (13th century). William of Palerne (romance, early 13th century). Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight and other poems by the same (anonymous) author (latter half of the 14th century).
East Midland. King Horn (romance, 13th century). Ilavelok the Dane (13th century), Orm, Ormuluin (religious poem, early 13th century). Robert Mannyng of Brunne, Handlyng Synne ("Manual of Sins", verse translation from the French, ab. 1300). Genesis and Exodus (13th century). Debate of Body and Soul (13th century). Peterborough Chronicle (sequel to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the years 1132-1154).
London. Proclamation by Henry III (1258), the earliest official document in English since the conquest. Adam Davy, Poems (early 14th century). Works by Chaucer and Gower.
Richard Rolle de Hampole, The Prick of Conscience (religious poem, former half of 14th century). Towneley Plays (14th century), York Plays (former half of 15th century).
Barbour, Bruce (poem about Bruce's struggle for the freedom of Scotland, ab. 1375, James I, The Kingis Quhair
("The King's Book"), collection of poems, early 15th century.
Types of ME Literary Documents
ME literature is extremely rich and varied. We find here the most different kinds and genres represented, both in verse and in prose.
In verse, there is, in the 13th century, the religious poem Ormulum, named after its author the monk Orm, who at great length retells in a popular style events of Bible and Gospel history, addressing his narration to his brother, also a monk.
About the same time another monk, Layamon, composed a long poem, Drat, on the early history of Britain. This was partly a translation, or paraphrase, of Wace's Anglo-Norman poem Brut and Layamon also used some other sources. The origins of the Britons are traced back to Troy and the flight of some Trojans after its fall.
The anonymous poems of King Horn and Havelok tell the stories of young Scandinavian princes, who are deprived of their rights by their enemies but eventually regain their throne and reign happily.
Then we must mention a series of moralistic poems, such as Handlyng Synne (Manual of Sins), by Robert Mannyng of Brunne, a paraphrase of a French original; Ayenbyt of Inwyt ("Remorse of Conscience") by Dan Michel, also adaptation of a French original; The Prick of Conscience by Richard Rolle de Hainpole, and others.
Next comes a scries of "romances", that is, stories about knights and their heroic deeds. These are very numerous, all of them anonymous, and some of first-class artistic value, notably the famous story of Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight; also Sir Fyrumbras, The Destruction of Troy, etc.
There are several historical chronicles, such as Robert of Gloucester's Rhymed Chronicle, Barbour's Bruce, etc.
Invaluable documents of the spoken language of the time are the various collections of Miracle Plays, such as the Towneley Plays, (lie York Plays, and Ihe Chester Plays.
And of course we must mention the famous Vision Concerning Piers the Plowman by William Langland (or Langley) century picture of the social conditions in the country, invaluable also as a historical document.
And we close this enumeration by the two great names of John Gower, author of the long poem Confessio Amantis (besides Latin and French works), and the greatest of all, Geoffrey Chaucer, author of Troilus and Criseyde, The Canterbury Tales, and a number of other poems.
As far as prose goes, there is perhaps less variety, and no prose fiction in the true sense of the word. The two prose pieces of The Canterbury Tales are not really stories but rather religious or philosophical treatises.
As an important prose document we must note Ranulphus Higden's Polychronicon, translated by John Trevisa with added passages from other sources. This is a history book containing much useful information about the England of his time, with a most valuable passage on the dialects of the 14th century.
In the 15th century, towards the end of the ME period, we come across the first prose fiction in English. Here we have Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur, a long prose work summing up a number of legends about king Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and at about the same lime prose translations made by William Caxton, the first English printer, from the French.
Owing to this great variety, we are able to obtain a much more complete idea of various speech styles of the ME period than we could of OE. In particular, both Chaucer's and Gower's works and the Miracle Plays contain much colloquial language, which seems to reproduce with great exactness the actual colloquial-speech of the lime. However, much of the material presented by these texts has not been properly made use of. Much remains to be done in this field to obtain a more complete picture of both the written and the colloquial language of those centuries.
Change of Dialect
As a result of the Norman conquest and the transfer of thecapital from Winchester to London, the dialect base of the rising national language was shifted, roughly speaking, to the north-east: instead of the West Saxon, that is the South-Western dialect of ME; the base is now East Midland.
This change-over from one dialect to another in "midstream" causes some difficulty in building up the history of the language. Forms that occupied first place in OE, as they were dominating in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in king Alfred's works, etc., become irrelevant, or take a back seat since the 12th century, while forms little known in OE (Mercian) now become of paramount importance, serving as foundation for the national language of the MnE period. Let us illustrate this by a few examples.
The substantive meaning 'street', borrowed from Latin (via) strata sounded
str t (with long open ) in West Saxon, while in all other OE djalects the se was narrowed to e (long close e). The OC West Saxon se yielded ME lond operi e, which came to be spelt ea in MnE, while the e of all other dialects was preserved as e in ME and got the spelling ee, which is still preserved in MnE street.
Another example is the verb meaning 'hear'. From a reconstructed *hearian (cf. Gothic, hausjan) the West Saxon dialect of OE developed literati, hyran, while all other dialects, including Mercian, had heran. Now it is from Mercian heran that the, ME London variant heren and the MnE hear havl developed. Thus, if we start from the modern form and if we trace it back to OE, we arrive at a Mercian variant, which in many cases differs from the West Saxon variant which we have been accustomed to find in OE West Saxon texts.
This is a difficulty which every student of the history of English has to take into account. It is an extralinguistic factor - the Norman conquest and the transfer of the political centre to another city which caused this important change in the language.
However, since the 12th century the centre remains steadily in London, and the only change to occur after that time is a gradual strengthening of East Midland dialect elements at the expense of South-Eastern (Kentish) ones within the London dialect itself.