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Thread: Middle English vs. Old English

  1. #1
    Registered User K.K.'s Avatar
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    Middle English vs. Old English

    I've been under the impression that Chaucer and Shakespeare are classified as middle english, but I've recently heard them referred to as old english. I think this is wrong, but there is some disagreement surrounding the classification.

    This leads me to three questions:
    1. What are the specific years distinguishing one era from the other?
    2. What other eras of english lit. exist (aside from-- or subunits of-- the 2 mentioned above?)
    3. What are examples of authors from each period?

  2. #2
    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    Shakespeare is Elizabethan English, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is Middle-English, and Beowulf is Old-English, also known as Anglo-Saxon.

    Old English

    nu scylun hergan
    hefaenricaes uard
    metudęs maecti
    end his modgidanc
    uerc uuldurfadur
    swe he uundra gihwaes
    eci dryctin
    or astelidę
    he aerist scop
    aelda barnum
    heben til hrofe
    haleg scepen.
    tha middungeard
    moncynnęs uard
    eci dryctin
    ęfter tiadę
    firum foldu
    frea allmectig

    Caedmon's Hymn
    Middle English:
    sižen že sege and že assaut watz sesed at troye
    2že bor3 brittened and brent to brondez and askez
    3že tulk žat že trammes of tresoun žer wro3t
    4watz tried for his tricherie že trewest on erže
    5hit watz ennias že athel and his highe kynde
    6žat sižen depreced prouinces and patrounes bicome
    7welne3e of al že wele in že west iles
    8fro riche romulus to rome ricchis hym swyže
    9with gret bobbaunce žat bur3e he biges vpon fyrst
    10and neuenes hit his aune nome as hit now hat
    11ticius to tuskan and teldes bigynnes
    12langaberde in lumbardie lyftes vp homes
    13and fer ouer že french flod felix brutus
    14on mony bonkkes ful brode bretayn he settez

    The opening to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

    And now, Shakespearean English:

    That time of year thou mayst in me behold
    When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
    Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
    Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
    In me thou seest the twilight of such day
    As after sunset fadeth in the west,
    Which by and by black night doth take away,
    Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
    In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
    That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
    As the death-bed whereon it must expire
    Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
    This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
    To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

    Sonnet 73 by Shakespeare.

    If you stick a few more in between Middle and Elizabethan:
    Sumer is icumen in,
    Lhude sing cuccu!
    Growež sed and blowež med
    And springž že wde nu,
    Sing cuccu!
    Awe bletež after lomb,
    Lhouž after calue cu.
    Bulluc stertež, bucke uertež,
    Murie sing cuccu!
    Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes žu cuccu;
    Ne swik žu nauer nu.
    Pes:

    Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
    Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!


    Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
    The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
    And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
    Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
    5 Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
    Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
    The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
    Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
    And smale foweles maken melodye,
    10 That slepen al the nyght with open ye
    (So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
    Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
    And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
    To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
    15 And specially from every shires ende
    Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
    The hooly blisful martir for to seke
    That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

    Beginning of the General prologue to the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer,

    There, in a Meadow, by the Riuers side,
    A Flocke of Nymphes I chaunced to espy,
    All louely Daughters of the Flood thereby,
    With goodly greenish locks all loose vntyde,
    As each had bene a Bryde,
    And each one had a little wicker basket,
    Made of fine twigs entrayled curiously,
    In which they gathered flowers to fill their flasket:
    And with fine Fingers, cropt full feateously
    The tender stalkes on hye.
    Of euery sort, which in that Meadow grew,
    They gathered some; the Violet pallid blew,
    The little Dazie, that at euening closes,
    The virgin Lillie, and the Primrose trew,
    With store of vermeil Roses,
    To decke their Bridegromes posies,
    Against the Brydale day, which was not long:
    Sweete Themmes runne softly, till I end my Song.

    From the Prothalamion by Edmund Spenser




    Notice how the sound of English changes, and even the grammar does. The actual language we speak is really 20th century, though it seems to have solidified in the 18th century.

  3. #3
    Asa Nisi Masa mayneverhave's Avatar
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    My answer is far less detailed than JBI's (as is usual), but:

    Shakespeare wrote in what is considered modern English - the Renaissance period itself starting what is thought of as the modern period - as opposed to the dark ages and middle ages.

    Chaucer wrote in Middle English which is still discernable to even our native modern-English ear, but is still slightly difficult to understand.

    Old English is closer to German, and is absolutely incomprehensible to me. I will take Beowulf in translation, please.

    It is very common for younger people - and a good amount of older, somewhat literature-ignorant people - to write off Shakespeare as some Old-English writer merely because they have trouble understanding his language. Show those same people some of the Old English poetry JBI quoted above and this will make them beg to return to Shakespeare.
    Last edited by mayneverhave; 04-03-2009 at 11:47 PM.

  4. #4
    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    It's actually fun to parse the Middle-English of Gawain, and sooner or later the words begin to make sense (especially once you figure out the thorn is a th sound). It's also interesting to note the development of the metrics, from the alliterative-accentual verse of Anglo-Saxon to Middle English, to the Chaucerian accentual-syllabic (now called iambic pentameter), and then toward free verse.

    It is also fun to realize the about face the verse made in the twentieth century.

    Midwinter spring is its own season
    Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
    Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
    When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
    The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
    In windless cold that is the heart's heat,
    Reflecting in a watery mirror
    A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
    And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
    Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
    In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
    The soul's sap quivers. There is no earth smell
    Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
    But not in time's covenant. Now the hedgerow
    Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
    Of snow, a bloom more sudden
    Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
    Not in the scheme of generation.
    Where is the summer, the unimaginable
    Zero summer?
    From Four Quartets: Little Gidding section V By T. S. Eliot

    And then went down to the ship,
    Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
    We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
    Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
    Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
    Bore us onward with bellying canvas,
    Crice's this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.
    Then sat we amidships, wind jamming the tiller,
    Thus with stretched sail, we went over sea till day's end.
    Sun to his slumber, shadows o'er all the ocean,
    Came we then to the bounds of deepest water,
    To the Kimmerian lands, and peopled cities
    Covered with close-webbed mist, unpierced ever
    With glitter of sun-rays
    From Canto I by Ezra Pound

    Dawndrizzle ended dampness steams from
    blotching brick and blank plasterwaste
    Faded housepatterns hoary and finicky
    unfold stuttering stick like a phonograph
    From Anglo-Saxon Street by Earle Birney, who actually happened to be a Old - Middle-English academic.


    I think the natural sound of English ultimately is closer to the Germanic accentual 4 beat line. Even "pentameter" writers seem to favor 4 stronger stresses, and surely, the most confident sounding metre in English poetry is 4stressed, the Trochaic Tetrameter Catalectic:

    Come, my Celia, let us prove
    While we may the sports of love;
    Time will not be ours forever,
    He at length our good will sever.

    Spend not then his gifts in vain;
    Suns that set may rise again,
    But if once we lose this light,
    'Tis with us perpetual night.

    Why should we defer our joys?
    Fame and rumour are but toys.
    Cannot we delude the eyes
    Of a few poor household spies?
    Or his easier ears beguile,
    So removed by our wile?

    'Tis no sin love's fruits to steal;
    But the sweet theft to reveal,
    To be taken, to be seen,
    These have crimes accounted been.

    Song To Celia I by Ben Jonson

    Tyger Tyger. burning bright,
    In the forests of the night;
    What immortal hand or eye.
    Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

    In what distant deeps or skies.
    Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
    On what wings dare he aspire?
    What the hand, dare seize the fire?

    And what shoulder, & what art,
    Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
    And when thy heart began to beat.
    What dread hand? & what dread feet?

    What the hammer? what the chain,
    In what furnace was thy brain?
    What the anvil? what dread grasp.
    Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

    When the stars threw down their spears
    And watered heaven with their tears:
    Did he smile His work to see?
    Did he who made the lamb make thee?

    Tyger Tyger burning bright,
    In the forests of the night:
    What immortal hand or eye,
    Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

    The Tyger by William Blake


    Irish poets, earn your trade,
    Sing whatever is well made,
    Scorn the sort now growing up
    All out of shape from toe to top,
    Their unremembering hearts and heads
    Base-born products of base beds.
    Sing the peasantry, and then
    Hard-riding country gentlemen,
    The holiness of monks, and after
    Porter-drinkers' randy laughter;
    Sing the lords and ladies gay
    That were beaten into the clay
    Through seven heroic centuries;
    Cast your mind on other days
    That we in coming days may be
    Still the indomitable Irishry.
    From Under Ben Bulben by William Butler Yeats.


    See, isn't scansion fun? But to the point, you can feel the Anglo-Saxon strength in the language. The best lines of poetry are generally short, snappy monosyllabic Germanic-rooted words.

    — A simple child,
    That lightly draws its breath,
    And feels its life in every limb,
    What should it know of death?


    Strangely enough, the long line, the 10 syllabic pentameter line, generally fits better with meditative verse, or heroic verse, whereas the shorter lines are far more lyrical. I think that's probably why the couplet is so essential to the close of the English Sonnet, because without that reinforced closed feeling, I don't think the language could particularly stand together. Take this Shakespeare lyric for instance,

    Oh Mistress Mine

    O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
    O stay and here your true love's coming
    That can sing both high and low.
    Trip no further, pretty sweeting,
    Journeys end in lovers' meeting
    Ev'ry wise man's son doth know.

    What is love? 'tis not hereafter
    Present mirth hath present laughter,
    What's to come is still unsure.
    In delay there lies no plenty
    Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty
    Youth's a stuff will not endure.

    I think the envelope rhymes builds on the speaker's uncertainty, making a sort of pun. The closing of the first stanza seems to me to actually recognize the defeat of love that will be taken up in the next stanza.


    Well anyway, that was quite the digression, but I hope it was at least interesting.
    Last edited by JBI; 04-04-2009 at 12:09 AM.

  5. #5
    Registered User kiki1982's Avatar
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    I can't be as technical as JBI, but I thought I'd still add something to this.

    The subjects the texts are about also differ from Old English to Middle English to Modern English.

    Truly old stories are about great men who come to their downfall. They date from the Germanic tribes and are often even older than the oldest text. They are linked with mythology. The Germanic tribes believed that after great deeds inevitably there would be great downfall (the equivalent of The Wheel of Fortune). These themes stayed in more modern literature like the downfall of Arthur, but they were a relic of much older times. In this type of epics there are no women, or very few and they get murdered, raped or beaten up.

    In the 11th century the church decided to unite society and be done with fighting amongst each other and nominated a general enemy: the Saracens. The church was the driving force behind the notion of ‘the knight’ as we all know him now: a civilised strong man, who fights for his lady, protects the weak and fights the common enemy for the common good (although we might differ about that now): the Saracens. The church employed stories as the Chanson de Roland in order to convince knights of the merits of such conduct. In came the stories about courtly love: Platonic love for a lady for whose honour the knight would fight and do great deeds. In a more modern version it was employed in Ivanhoe (Scott). I expect the same theme came over with the French to England.

    As the Renaissance came there was a modernisation of all languages: more structured. Like poetry forms became structured (the sonnet) and new genres like ‘the tragedy’ made their entry, language also became something to take on the Latin superior form. Because of the invention of printing, spelling needed to be more uniform and although Shakespeare’s spelling is sometimes a little strange it is less strange than some of Chaucer’s forms. It was a little after Shakespeare that prose made its entry, although not for most works. Before that there are very few prose works.
    One has to laugh before being happy, because otherwise one risks to die before having laughed.

    "Je crains [...] que l'āme ne se vide ą ces passe-temps vains, et que le fin du fin ne soit la fin des fins." (Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac, Acte III, Scčne VII)

  6. #6
    Voice of Chaos & Anarchy
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    Quote Originally Posted by K.K. View Post
    I've been under the impression that Chaucer and Shakespeare are classified as middle english, but I've recently heard them referred to as old english. I think this is wrong, but there is some disagreement surrounding the classification.
    That is definitely wrong. Shakespeare used Modern English, and Chaucer used Middle English. You may have seen a comment by someone who considers anything from before 1950 to be Ancient.

  7. #7
    Registered User K.K.'s Avatar
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    Thanks for the responses. The literary examples are especially helpful in clarifying the differences between the eras.

    Are there specific centuries that define the periods, or is the classification determined by who the author was (in other words: are the Canterbury tales middle english because of when they were written, or because of the style in which they were written?)

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    Drinking San Miguel Daily Neely's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by K.K. View Post
    Thanks for the responses. The literary examples are especially helpful in clarifying the differences between the eras.

    Are there specific centuries that define the periods, or is the classification determined by who the author was (in other words: are the Canterbury tales middle english because of when they were written, or because of the style in which they were written?)
    When they were written.

    Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).

    I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.
    Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.

    Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.

  9. #9
    rat in a strange garret Whifflingpin's Avatar
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    "Are there specific centuries that define the periods, or is the classification determined by who the author was (in other words: are the Canterbury tales middle english because of when they were written, or because of the style in which they were written?) "

    When they were written - but you could not place the boundaries within a century.
    For instance, the demise of the Anglo-Saxon language of Wessex, as a literary language, could be said to begin with the accession of the Danish king, Canute in the early 11th century. Anglo-Saxon, however, was still being written well over a hundred years later.
    Middle English, crudely speaking, was what was left of Anglo-Saxon after most of its case and verb endings had been stripped off for the convenience of the Danish and Norman rulers, plus, of course, the words brought into the country by those rulers. So Anglo-Saxon evolved into Middle English through the 11th century and Middle started becoming Modern, say, once the ruling classes stopped speaking Norman-French, i.e. somewhere in 15th Century.

    But the terms are only a convenience. Anglo-Saxon, or Old English if you must, is a term that covers languages as diverse as modern German and Norwegian. Shakespeare would have been as comfortable reading Chaucer as we are reading Dickens -and he'd have sounded much more like Chaucer than we sound like him - even though we consider him to write in "modern" English.
    Voices mysterious far and near,
    Sound of the wind and sound of the sea,
    Are calling and whispering in my ear,
    Whifflingpin! Why stayest thou here?

  10. #10
    aspiring Arthurianist Wilde woman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by K.K. View Post
    Are there specific centuries that define the periods, or is the classification determined by who the author was (in other words: are the Canterbury tales middle english because of when they were written, or because of the style in which they were written?)
    The best known Middle English authors are Chaucer and the Gawain poet, who lived during the 14th century. Malory, who lived in the 15th century wrote, I believe in fairly modern English so you could probably pinpoint the emergence of modern English sometime between the 14th and 15th centuries. By the time of Shakespeare (16th century), English was well-established.

    The single most important linguistic innovation in evolving Middle English to modern English was the Great Vowel Shift. You can read a little more about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Vowel_Shift. The beginning and ending dates for the GVS vary, depending on which linguistics you're studying, but I think they all pretty much believe that it was in full swing in the 14th century. William Caxton, the compiler of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur wrote essays talking about how varied the English language was in his day (15th century) and he was anxious that there were so many varying dialects; as a translator, he played a big role in homogenizing the English language.

    Another huge difference between Old, Middle, and modern English are the levels of Norman influence in them. Along with the Great Vowel Shift, Normanization helped spur the evolution of the English language from Middle into modern. So one way of identifying Old English from Middle English is that Old English is devoid of any Norman (or Latinate) influence. If you wanted to get specific, you could say that Middle English could not possibly have come about before 1066, the date of William the Conqueror's Norman invasion of Britain. So anything before 1066, at the very latest, would be considered Old English.

    Hope that helps.

  11. #11
    Registered User K.K.'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Wilde woman View Post
    The best known Middle English authors are Chaucer and the Gawain poet, who lived during the 14th century. Malory, who lived in the 15th century wrote, I believe in fairly modern English so you could probably pinpoint the emergence of modern English sometime between the 14th and 15th centuries. By the time of Shakespeare (16th century), English was well-established.

    The single most important linguistic innovation in evolving Middle English to modern English was the Great Vowel Shift. You can read a little more about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Vowel_Shift. The beginning and ending dates for the GVS vary, depending on which linguistics you're studying, but I think they all pretty much believe that it was in full swing in the 14th century. William Caxton, the compiler of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur wrote essays talking about how varied the English language was in his day (15th century) and he was anxious that there were so many varying dialects; as a translator, he played a big role in homogenizing the English language.

    Another huge difference between Old, Middle, and modern English are the levels of Norman influence in them. Along with the Great Vowel Shift, Normanization helped spur the evolution of the English language from Middle into modern. So one way of identifying Old English from Middle English is that Old English is devoid of any Norman (or Latinate) influence. If you wanted to get specific, you could say that Middle English could not possibly have come about before 1066, the date of William the Conqueror's Norman invasion of Britain. So anything before 1066, at the very latest, would be considered Old English.

    Hope that helps.

    It does! Thank you.

  12. #12
    Registered User Judas130's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by K.K. View Post
    2. What other eras of english lit. exist (aside from-- or subunits of-- the 2 mentioned above?)
    These rambled notes may help you:

    Tragedy
    Comedy } 500 BC - 1600AD (Growth of Christianity)
    Epic

    Pagan/Christian Rome.
    Satires/Epistles
    - less controlled, rambled
    - what is personal has an impact socially. letters publicised for a wider audiences
    - Goes hand in hand with christianity
    - It is prose.

    Alongside the creation of prose were Odes and Lyric Poetry

    Odes:
    - on a specific subject
    - occasional poetry

    Lyric Poetry:
    - Three types of theme:
    - 'I am in love and happy'
    - 'I am in love and unhappy'
    - 'Lets celebrate!'

    Roman Tragedy:
    Tradgedy improved by the writings of Seneca, who introduced
    - Ghosts
    - Bloodshed/ violent action
    - Man dealing with lust
    - Revenge

    (for things such as drama and tragedy, i'm going to make a small thread on here for it - but all you need to know is that tragedy originates from primitive society/totemic ritual/goat dances)

    C2-3AD regrowth of the theocentric world, through the spreading of christianity. Art and lit focuses on depicting the Divine Image. Ideas of Plato and Aristotle were adopted, as was the contemporary idea that there was a whole range of knowledge from the past that could have been Christian based, had they not died before Christ's mercy - read Dante to see this! Forms of Drama depicted miracles from the New Testament or mysteries from the Old Testament. drama was performed by guilds, who hired permanent professional entertainers for festivals as there was competition between other guilds.

    The growth of the Morality Play - personified human facets: 'Mr Vice, Mrs Greed' etc

    There was a growing Scandinavian Viking tradition of conquest/quest - Beowulf.

    from the 4th century onwards you have scholars moving to Byzantium, until the 14th century whereby they flee from Islam - Oxford University set up, the Renaissance in Britain - with the study of Latin and Greek.
    Literature once theocentric becomes humocentric. When God is no longer the center, there is a break up of old institutions - constituting major political ramifications - the papacy is challenged, seen as corrupt. Art no longer glorifies God, but the epitomy of mankind: the King (causes nationalistic ideals)
    1400+ there is a increasing awareness of classical lit and Art, a celebration of classical antiquity:
    Dante - Epics Paradiso e Inferno, Purgatorio
    Petrarch
    Boccaccio - decameron.
    1389 Canterbury Tales - Chaucer very much adapts the Decameron, human concepts mediated through what is religious - self sacrifice, reflection. Yet both enabled Chaucer, and Boccaccio to analyse his time and society, through satire.

    C14th Frame Poetry - canterbury tales is an example of a Frame story, yet it is a structure, not real - only serving the purpose of estates satire.
    'Trolius + Criseyde', 'Boke of the Duchesse'

    a pattern of idealistic chivalric love is established henceforth. The idea of the lady and knight, he would do great feats for her attention, yet she does not notice. The lady would take pity on the knight, and he becomes her sevant, with three outcomes:
    a) unrequited service and love without expectancy of reward
    b) sex (rare)
    c) marriage (rarer still, roles reverse, woman becomes the knight's property)

    Mock Heroic Tales
    Circumlocution: the more descriptive you are the better the rhetoric was seen, complexity favoured the theocentric world, taking 10 lines to say 'it is morning'
    Fabliau: a story that sticks by the plot, the ending is foreseeable, yet the journey is uncertain.

    1420-1485. War of the roses, civil war
    1500-1660. economic security, surplus income, indulgence in theatre - Shakespeare associated with this stage: 1564-1616m arrives on the scen 1590.
    High Renaissance: Ben Johnson, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Thomas Middleton, John Webster, Beaumont + Fletcher

    *deep breath*

    With the discoveries of Galileo and such increasingly depended upon, discoveries impacted literature - this is known as Metaphysical Literature

    in terms of poetry it applies to such as:
    John Donne
    George Herbert
    John Wilmot

    ''All Human Knowledge is a fit subject for poetry"
    metaphysical poetry is at the heart of 20th century lit, war poets modelled their work upon it, with unlikely metaphors 'my new found America' to describe ones lover (Donne)

    Tragedy around the 1600s becomes darker, more macabre.
    1642+ theatre is banned by Puritans.
    1660-1683: The Restoration.
    John Milton - 'paradise lost'
    Charles 2nd was a catholic, restored theatre, which now had female actresses. an enormous reaction to puritan rule: entertainment, dancing, prostitution, etc

    the years that follow the 30 years war (1618-1648) 'the Enlightenment'. Court Manners/Fashion/spectacle
    Cleverness/argument/reasoned debate.

    the country is neither theocentric or humocentric, but concerned with Rule, and organisation. Religion is replaced by the word 'LAW'.

    1689-1750 Augustine Period, very ordered, written in strict iambic pentameter.
    - John Dryden
    - Alexander Pope 'rape of the lock'. First person to make money from poetry, translated the Iliad and the Odessye.

    The first novel was D.Dafoe - arguably! 'Robinson Crusoe. It digresses, the first deeply psychological novel of Lit, late 1600s. Just before he wrote 'diary of the plague years'.

    bleurgh. I give up. too much history.

    There's also stuff like Romantic, Georgian, Modernism, Post-Modernism, Surrealism. etc

    peace, hope that was useful.





    Periods of political or economical dislocation tend to produce less literature.

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