In the study of English literature, the medieval period and the Renaissance represent two distinctly different eras. Not only did the language itself change between the two periods, but the scope and subject of literature changed. Broadly speaking, medieval literature revolved around Christianity and chivalry, while Renaissance literature focused on man himself, the progress of arts and sciences, and the emergence of humanism.
English medieval literature is a product of the Middles Ages, from the Norman Conquest of 1066 to the end of the 15th century. This period was characterized by serfdom, monarchs and knights, as embodied in the various characters of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.” For example, the homely, world-wise woman known as “The Wife of Bath” reflected the daily struggles and heartache of commoners. Literature of the English Renaissance was produced during the royal dynasties of the 16th and 17th centuries. This historical period was influenced by the early Italian Renaissance and a return to the classical art of ancient Greece and Rome. Philip Sidney’s allusive love poems, “Astrophil and Stella,” demonstrate this return to antiquity and classical mythology.
Medieval literature was written in Middle English, a linguistic period running from 1150 to 1500. Middle English incorporated French, Latin and Scandinavian vocabulary, and relied on word order, rather than inflectional endings, to convey meaning. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” an Arthurian tale penned by an unknown author, is a prime example of literature produced during this linguistic period. Renaissance literature was written in Early Modern English, a linguistic period running from 1500 to 1700. Early Modern English literature reflected widespread efforts to make English more uniform grammatically and to elevate it to the eloquence of a classical language. The prolific plays and poetry of William Shakespeare were written in Early Modern English.
Medieval literature was rooted in Christian themes such as good and evil, death and resurrection, and heaven and Earth. For example, William Langland’s “Piers Plowman” served as a religious allegory in which the main character, “Will,” set out to find eternal salvation, guided by the Holy Church, Conscience and Scripture. In contrast, Renaissance literature focused on “here and now,” on humanistic themes of inner character, moral complexity and change. John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost,” for instance, presented Satan as a sympathetic character, a tragically flawed hero who longs for power, not unlike Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”
Philosophically, medieval literature interpreted the world in absolute theological terms. The end of “Piers Plowman” portrayed a fallen world that spiritual pilgrims had to traverse to reach salvation. Renaissance literature, on the other hand, embraced man’s capacity for change and political reform, precipitating a shift from religious concerns to secular concerns. One of the best examples of this shift is Thomas More’s “Utopia,” a fictional narrative that criticized contemporary society while envisioning a new way of living based on communal property and religious tolerance.