An Introduction to the Evolution of British Literature and Historical Events

The historical events and mentality of a time period are a major influence on the context and style of that particular times literature. British Literature experienced many metamorphoses through the year’s 449-1660. The literature traveled through four distinct periods. Beginning with the Anglo-Saxons moving through the medieval and Renaissance periods and ending with the writings of the 17th century.

The Anglo-Saxons were the beginning of British Literature. The Anglo-Saxons began the year 440 by advancing on what is today England. The Angles and the Saxons were known as ferocious, they didn’t wage war on the British heartland out of mere spite.

They conquered and won over territory enabling them to construct caps which later turned into towns and cities.

Weapons weren’t the only things the invading people brought with them. They used a highly organiz4ed system of tribal units each led by a king. Gradually, these units merged together forming seven large bands. The amalgamation of different tribes produced a new language, “Anglo-Saxon or Old English to distinguish it from our modern form (Bowler 3).

” The Anglo-Saxons also brought with them their pagan beliefs. The people looked at the world through a very depressing window. It was believed that all human life was in the hand of fate and all the gods they worshiped were Germanic. These beliefs shine strongly though in the oral epics and stories of the period.

The next major event of the Anglo-Saxon era was the coming of Christianity. Romans had previously taken Christianity as their belief of choice and aimed at spreading their newfound faith.

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The Christian’s views and beliefs of the world spread quickly through the land and King Ethelbert of Kent was soon after converted “making Christianity the religion of his realm (Bowler 6).” Again Anglo-Saxon life was changed, the belief in Germanic gods was no longer accepted and Warlords could no longer consider themselves descendants of pagan gods. Christianity also brought education and written literature to the land. The monks of the church are given the credit for pre serving the oral traditions of the Anglo-Saxon period in written form. It is very easy to see the pagan Christian beliefs in the monk’s writings. Take Beowulf. A long epic poem written in narrative form. The epic has an epic hero who displays many different traits such as loyalty valor, selflessness, and a sense of justice, the most admired traits a human can possess then and now. Beowulf, the epic hero, makes references such as “by on death was my errand and the fate (Beowulf 253).” Alluding to the pagan belief that every life was controlled by fate. Also, Christianity crept into the writing as seen in statements like “God must decide who will be given to deaths cold grip” (Beowulf 269), as well as “they gave thanks to God for their easy crossings (Beowulf 143).” The Anglo-Saxon literature reflects both the historical setting and the mentality of the time period. The literature satisfies all the aspects of life and the beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons whose traditions lasted until 1066.

It was in 1066 that descendants of the Vikings, the Normans, landed in France and began to invade the lands. Gradually, over approximately a five year period, the Anglo-Saxon nobility was suppressed and their lands taken from them by the Normans. The Normans not only brought plundering and war, but also a new system of power to the region.

Feudalism, a system that “had taken root on European Continent at a time when no central government was strong enough to keep order (Bowler 70),” was implemented by the invaders. The system was a strict hierarchy of land and power. A king would grant some land to the Church and then parcel out manors to his knights who agreed to defend and serve the king and his property. The lowest persons in the hierarchy were the serfs who had to work the lands they did not own and had no power or say in anything.

After almost two centuries of the feudalism, there was wide spread corruption throughout the Church as well as unfair laws and taxes imposed on the lower class of society.

Revolt and public disapproval of the unfair treatment began to spread. Many people, including the authors of the time, sided with the public opinion that religion had traveled far from its roots (Bowler 75),” and the Church was portrayed as only interested in making a buck.

One such writer of the Later Middle Ages was Geoffrey Chaucer. He wrote many poems, humorous, satiric and religious. His greatest work, second only to Shakespeare, was the Canterbury Tales. The Tales are a social commentary of the late Middle Ages. Chaucer uses the journey motif of a pilgrimage to describe the social hierarchy and to show how corrupt and astray the leaders had become. The Canterbury Tales gives a very accurate description from “a knight, a most distinguished man … to ride abroad and had followed chivalry (Chaucer 43-45)” to the “Monk there was of the finest sort who rode the country and hunting was his sport (Chaucer 169-170).” All the while in his descriptions making subtle accusations against the power abusing noble men. His writing was an excellent description of the feudalistic society in which he lived. He reflected the majority of the peoples’ views in his works and carried English literature into its next stage, the Renaissance.

The Renaissance began with the end of the War of Roses and the founding of the Tudor dynasty. The crusaded sparked an influence of art and scholarship of ancient Rome and Greece. The devotion to religion inspired people to ponder on why man was on Earth and learning became increasingly deeper and people wanted to know more about life and the way things worked. This thirst for knowledge forced people to think more about themselves rather than the Church and to express their true feelings through writing rather than writing about the Church and the ethical standards of society. Thus it was a liberal era with a liberal style of writing.

The greatest literary developments during the Renaissance were that of poetry and drama. Poems evolved from long and narrative epics to short and tightly structured lyrics, more specifically sonnets. “Dramas were known for their beautiful language and complex characters and themes” They generally revealed insights of human nature and focused primarily on man rather than religion as in the medieval era.

Hamlet, written by William Shakespeare, is an example of such a drama. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet as a tragedy with the main character, Hamlet, the tragic hero. Hamlet focuses on the actions of man when dealing with events that occur in his life. “To be or not to be — that is the question (Shakespeare: Act 3, Scene 1, line 64).” Hamlet begins one of his soliloquies by asking himself this question. He is dealing with his mother’s hasty remarriage to his uncle, who murdered Hamlet’s father and is being asked to take revenge on his uncle by his father’s ghost. This is just one example of many that shows how Hamlet deals with the events in his life. Also, as a tragic hero, Hamlet must be destroyed in the end through his own character flaws.

Hamlet is a procrastinator and puts off killing his Uncle, Claudius. “No, up sword, and know thou a more horrid rent. When he is drunk asleep or in his range … this physic but prolongs thy sickly days (Shakespeare: act 3, Scene 4, line 92-101).” Because of his procrastination, Hamlet is killed in the end. “O, I die, Horatio! That potent poison quite o’er crows my spirit (Shakespeare: Act 5, Scene 2, lines 389-390).” Hamlet, being the main character and knowing how only he is feeling inside, is the hero of the play and because he dies as a result of not overcoming the events that occur in his life, he is a tragic figure. Thus, Hamlet is a tragedy. This liberal writing style of the Renaissance lasted until 1625. It explored the nature of humans and how they dealt with life’s “lemons.” Not once did Shakespeare mention God or religion in Hamlet and his sonnets dealt mainly with love and the feelings of people in general. “Because of their eloquent language and their depth and complexity, Shakespeare’s plays have retained their popularity for centuries along with many other literary works of the Renaissance time period (Bowler 199).” The last evolution of British Literature occurred in 1625, the period known as the 17th Century. This was a period filled with political and religious unrest. Charles I took the throne from his father in the same year. With the throne he took all the problems that his father had created. The Parliament and Charles did not get along well, so the King had the lawmaking body dissolved. This increased the agitation of the people. The Church stood behind the King, but the Puritans held a loud voice against the power-wielding ruler. The hostilities intensified “resulting in a civil war that began in 1642 and brought about the temporary downfall of the monarchy in 1649 (Bowler 356).” The major literary figure of the 17th Century was John Milton. He also wrote a long epic poem called Paradise Lost. The work is an allegory about the truths of the world and of God. Milton’s purpose in writing Paradise Lost was to explore the question of why God does what He does and why bad things happen to good people. This was a deeply emotional story for Milton to write for he now had major difficulty doing what he love, writing, because of his impending blindness. Milton could have been hanged for publishing the manuscripts because of the “anti-monarchical passages in the manuscript (Bowler 410),” but Milton pushed ahead and had the manuscripts published.

The different kinds of literature portrayed during the years 440-1660 evolved from long, narrative, oral poetry to tightly structured sonnets and allegories that have more than one primitive meaning. With the pendulum swinging back and forth from liberal to conservative, the peoples’ mind frame was depicted. The history greatly influenced the way authors wrote and how people felt due to the events of the specific time periods.

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An Introduction to the Evolution of British Literature and Historical Events. (2022, May 10). Retrieved from

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