These plays were written to teach people how to improve their moral behaviour. They were used by the Catholic Church to educate the common people in the principles of Christianity. There are 2 recurrent formulas: the first is the vision of human life as a pilgrimage to salvation, the second looks at the developments in the life of a man living in the Middle Ages (in his youth he is inclined to sin, he turns to virtue in maturity and he moves towards salvation in old age).
The solemn lessons are often mixed with comical passages.
The Angles, the Saxon and the Jutes (449) first imposed their language: Old English. The Celtic language has survived only in Wales, Ireland and the north-western part of Scotland.
St. Augustine and his followers enriched the English language with Latin words and gave Christian meanings to a few old words (God, Haven).
1066: Battle of Hastings. The Normans invade England. The Normans were descended from Vikings who stayed in the NW of France, they had French customs and they spoke Norman-French.
There were 3 languages in England: French among nobility and at the court, Latin among the clergy and English among the common people.
The Normans introduced the Feudal System: others helped the king in the administration of territories. The manors were shared out among Normans and bishops who replaced English nobles.
In 1170 the conflict between the State and the Church led to the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
In 1215 King John signed the Magna Charta. The following years saw the foundation of Parliament, initially formed by nobles, and later also by gentry and merchants.
The latter part of this period was characterised by the Peasant’s Revolt. The leaders of this revolt were executed but slowly the peasants won their freedom.
Abroad England fought against France in the Hundred Years War (1337-1453). The ensuing peace was broken by a civil war between the supporters of two houses: Lancaster and York (The Wars of the Roses). The end of the conflict marked the beginning of the Tudor reign.
The social system was characterised by a social scale: at the top there was the nobility, below them the knights, then the traders, the craftsmen and the freemen of town. At the bottom there were the “villains”. The middle class was beginning to emerge. The woman’s position was inferior to the man’s: they had to cook food and keep the house in good order; they had to obey their husbands. Also the hierarchy of the Church was firmly established (“war” between “regular” clergy and “secular” clergy).
Craftsmen and traders created associations of people with the same job to regulate prices.
After the Battle of Hastings (1066) the king and authorities in London spoke French and wrote Latin. English was spoken by the majority of people. In the next two centuries the English language grew, while French started to disappear.
Compared to Old English, Middle English had a wider vocabulary and simpler structures. There were many varieties of English but the dialect of London established its supremacy because it was used by Chaucer and Caxton.
Born in 1572, his father was a Roman Catholic merchant during the period when the Church was trying to impose the Anglicanism. He was educated privately at home, then sent to Cambridge and Oxford; however, being catholic, he was not allowed to take a degree.
In the words of one of his contemporaries he was “a great visitor of ladies, a great frequenter of plays, a great writer of verses”. He became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, one of the highest officials of Queen Elizabeth’s government. He seemed to have opportunities for a political career but he ruined himself when he married Ann More without permission. He was imprisoned, he lost his job and became poor. This crisis caused a change in him: he became an eminent preacher. He decided to take the holy order in 1615.
His writing career covers both phases of his life and mirrors the complexities of his time.
His love lyrics were published in 1633 but they also circulated during his lifetime. His religious poetry appeared in 1609 and shows some continuity with his early works.
His lyrics are in the form of dialogue and they use vigorous colloquial language and complex images.
To understand his poetry we have to comprehend two terms: wit, the capacity to relate ideas. The poet displays his wit through the use of conceits: unusual comparisons between objects that don’t seem to have anything in common.
We consider Donne a Metaphysical because he uses the language of philosophical speculation (metaphysical) in inappropriate contexts (love poetry).
His poems contain many similes. Metaphors, conceits, puns and paradoxes.
Italian sonnets were composed of 14 lines: two quatrains and 2 tercets. When Sir Thomas Wyatt introduced the sonnet in England he altered its form: the 6 final lines became a quatrain and a couplet.
The main theme of Renaissance sonnets was courtly love: the poet’s passion for an unattainable Lady. Other minor themes were the lady’s beauty and virtues, the transience of life and the immortalising power of poetry. The development of subject is a challenge to the poet’s creativity.
Sonnets would often take the form of monologues, with an apostrophe to someone, or dialogues, or narrations.
Very often the discourse follows the division in quatrains, each group of lines presenting one aspect of the argument. Many rhetorical figures are used. The final couplet became an epigram. The language used is refined with Latin words, suitable for poetic effects.