British Literature

Medieval History and Literary Works

Anglo-Saxon Conquest

450 AD - 600 AD

After King Vortigern allowed Hengist and Horsa to come to England, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes began to take over. The transfer of power was slow, hard, and cruel because the tribes were not a unified political body. They simply came to loot and eventually take over land. The Anglo-Saxons had a warrior culture in which a mead hall was the center of social and political life. The people owed loyalty to a lord who, in turn, was supposed to be generous to his followers (Adams 25-26).

St. Augustine of Canterbury

597 AD

When Saint Augustine of Canterbury arrived in England, he worked to convert the kings and kingdoms to Christianity, which over time would replace paganism as the dominant religion (Adams 28).

Christian Growth/Establishment

597 AD - 700 AD

Though Christianity spread rather peacefully throughout England, it wasn't a simple conversion. Kings and kingdoms converted back and forth, leading to tension and meshing of pagan and Christian beliefs and customs. Christian holy days were made to coincide with dates of pagan festivities, so that a celebration like Eostre's Day (the spring festival) would be converted to a celebration of the resurrection (Adams 29).

Caedmon's Hymn

658 AD - 680 AD

In this poem, the earliest recorded in English, the cowherd Caedmon is told by an angel to "sing the Creation". One significant aspect of this poem is that it used the meter and language of pagan heroic verse to communicate Christian themes (Norton Anthology 24).

The Dream of the Rood

680 AD

In this religious poem, a Dreamer has a vision of Christ's cross speaking to him, telling him its story. Humbled by being made from a tree into a tool for execution, the cross is returned to its former glory after Christ ascends into heaven. The story of the cross inspires the dreamer and allows him to see the hope of redemption (Norton Anthology 27).


750 AD

This poem, an Old English long epic, focuses on the hero, Beowulf, who fights three battle against monsters of preternatural evil. The poet used elements of ancient Germanic oral poetry such as language and style to communicate his tale (Norton Anthology 30-31).

Viking raids

787 AD

In this year, Danes first began to come to England and sack monasteries, burn manuscripts, steal loot, and eventually settle on the land (Adams 34).

King Alfred the Great

871 AD - 899 AD

After taking the throne, Alfred had to fight constantly to defend his kingdom against the Danes. To make things easier, he devised a system of forts, or "burhs", which were fortified market towns that could protect the people and livestock of the surrounding district in case of attack. Later in his reign, King Alfred began to educate the kingdom, sending for scholars from the Continent and establishing schools. Under his influence, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were started and laws and customs were codified (Adams 35-36).

The Wanderer

975 AD

This poem is an elegy depicting "the loneliness of the exile in search of a new lord and hall" (Norton Anthology 111).

The Wife's Lament

975 AD

An Old English poem (elegy) in which a woman is the speaker, living alone in the wilderness. Her husband has left her, perhaps because he is in exile as a result of a feud, and his kinsmen are hostile toward her. It is questionable whether the woman's husband feels the same suffering at their separation, or if he has turned against her. She may have been a "peace-weaver", married off to make peace between warring tribes (Norton 113-114).

The Battle of Maldon

991 AD

This poem depicts the Battle of Maldon, where Ealdorman Byrtnoth fought against Olaf Tryggvason, though greatly outnumbered (Poems and Prose from the Old English 43).


994 AD

Aethelred attempted to bribe off the Danes from attacking by instituting a payment of money (danegeld). This led to heavy taxation as the Danes came back again and again, always demanding a higher price (Adams 38).

Norman Conquest

1066 AD - 1088 AD

William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, came and won the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Saxon land was confiscated and placed in the hands of Norman barons, while revolters were hanged, beheaded, blinded, or mutilated. Norman French became the language of law courts and nobility. Saxons were replaced by Normans in the church, as well, and the common Saxon countryman was held in disdain (Adams 52).


1095 AD - 1291 AD

The Crusades were religious military campaigns undertaken by western European Christians to take back the holy land. For many it was a form of penance, a way of achieving salvation, sometimes at massive personal expense.

Murder of Thomas Becket

1170 AD

Archbishop Thomas Beckett argued against Henry II because, while Henry wanted the king to be the one with primary legal power, Beckett wanted to preserve the special privileges of clergy in court. In 1170 he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral by soldiers who had misunderstood the king's complaints. He was canonized in 1173, and pilgrimages to his shrine began immediately (Adams 55-56)

Magna Charta

1215 AD

Rallying around Archbishop Stephen Langton, English barons forced King John to sign this agreement that placed limitations on executive power. It also demanded predictability in government so men could know what duties they had or did not have (Adams 59-60).

The Hundred Years' War

1337 AD - 1453 AD

This war on France was engaged by Edward III, who thought he was the rightful king of France. The French were weak at the time and suspected of supplying Scots with arms. English victory at the naval battle of Sluys in 1340 gave the English command of the seas, laying foundations for commercial success. The English also had a highly successful battle at Crecy, largely due to the use of the longbow (Adams 62-63).

The Black Death

1348 AD

In this plague, up to a third of the English population was wiped out. As a result, labor became expensive, and a "yeoman" middle class emerged. The influx of laborers also lead to city growth, and English gradually became the speech of the people as the "common" people became more highly concentrated (Adams 64-66).

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

1375 AD - 1400 AD

A poem using alliterative verse and "bob and wheel", telling the story of Sir Gawain of King Arthur's court. Gawain is challenged by the Green Knight to a "Beheading Game", in which a supernatural challenger lets his head be cut off in exchange for a return blow. The Green Knight tests Gawain not only for courage, but also morally, to see if he will uphold truth and a Christian ideal of chivalry (Norton 160-161).

Peasants' Revolt

1381 AD

This short uprising was led by Wat Tyler and John Ball who protested against the taxes under Richard II. New religious ideas encouraged the revolt, because peasants thought distinctions between classes should be abolished, to be more like the kingdom of Christ (Adams 68-69).

Wyclif Translations

1382 - 1395

John Wyclif was the first person to make a vernacular English accessible to the people. He believed in a personal faith based on conscience and the Bible, without the need for clerical intercession. This made his translation highly valuable as a tool for independent spirituality (Adams 71).

The Canterbury Tales

1387 AD - 1389 AD

A work by Geoffrey Chaucer which uses a fictitious pilgrimage to Thomas Becket's shrine as a framework for a collection of tales. The host at an inn challenges the travelers to a contest to see who can tell the best story. The pilgrims represent a wide range of classes and occupations within medieval society, allowing for a variety of genres, styles, tones, and values to emerge from the tales themselves (Norton 216-217).

The York Play of the Crucifixion

1425 AD

Part of a group of mystery cycle plays, which used biblical stories as their subject matter, this Crucifixion scene focuses on the Roman soldiers moreso than on Christ. The soldiers are depicted as ordinary men simply going about their work, and truly "know not what they do" (Norton Anthology, 398).