In the context of its function and mission as a curricular unit in British and Irish Literary Studies, Old and Middle English offer foundational instruction in a varied linguistic and literary curriculum. This focus of study is available to undergraduate students pursuing their Bachelor's degree in the Liberal Arts or Pre-Graduate Concentration (see the Undergraduate Study of Medieval Literature page for more details). Old and Middle English Language and Literature study is offered for graduate students at the M.A. and Ph.D. level (see the Graduate Study of Medieval Literature page for more details).
The Old English period, which traditionally ranges from the late 7th century, when the first extant laws were recorded, to the mid-twelfth century, which marks the last entry in The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, traces the birth and development of the English language and the flowering of its early literature in all its forms and genres: this age gives us poetic models for such genres as later elegies, the figure poems (popular in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), the first vernacular secular and religious epic poems (which look forward to the seventeenth century); and documentary prose dealing with treatises on political, ecclesiastical, and educational theories and practices (some of which formed the basis for ecclesiastical and political reform of the sixteenth century).
The Middle English period, born from the incisive events and aftermath of the Norman Conquest in 1066, terminates at the end of the 15th century. This period develops through the hybridization of the prestige vernacular of Old English with the vernacular of French. French literary modes flood in and re-characterize English literature through French octosyllabic and rhymed poetic forms. The Middle English period features a host of firsts in English literature, such as the first romance, Breton lay, fabliau, sonnet, drama, autobiography, novelesque prose fiction, and the first woman writer in English (some of these influence and inspire later centuries and cultural movements, such as the Renaissance, Romanticism, Gothicism, and Pre-Raphaelites).
Old and Middle English impact the literary culture of later periods: The 16th and 17th centuries saw a revival of Old English literary, political, and ecclesiastical documents, as it was state policy to seek out, preserve, and translate Anglo-Saxon manuscripts into Early Modern English to establish precedence in state affairs. In addition, the literary works of Spencer and Milton show direct influence of works from the Arthurian canon in the case of Spencer, and from the Old English Genesis in the case of Milton. While Chaucer’s work has been read continually since his death in 1400, the biggest impact of Middle English works have been on the 19th-century Medieval Revival, primarily through British re-appropriations of medieval romance conventions. This revival was also satirized by authors like Mark Twain. Medievalism has become a major critical field, evidenced by such enterprises as the journal, Studies in Medievalism. Likewise, 18th- century scholars appropriated Anglo-Saxon materials, producing the first Old English Grammar in Modern English (a copy used by Thomas Jefferson) by the first female grammarian, Elizabeth Elstob. The 18th and 19th centuries stand as a reawakening of medieval literature beginning with the discovery Beowulf in the basement of the British museum, and the appropriation, reinterpretation, re-versification, and translation of Old and Middle English and Old Norse literary texts by such authors as Walter Scott, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and William Morris. Likewise, the study of Old and Middle English language flourished: the Early English Text Society began its editions of Old and Middle English texts; the great grammars of Sweet, Kemble, Grimm, Sievers were published; the commencement of the Bosworth-Toller and Cleasby-Vigfusson dictionaries went into operation. The emergence of nationhood and the idolization of Alfred the Great as the founder of the English royal line brought the medieval period into the larger political arena of 19th-century Britain. Medieval literature likewise fired the imaginations of Pound, Auden, Eliot, Yeats, Joyce, and the Trench poets of World War I.