The year 1066 was a year that brought far-reaching changes in English life and English literature. In that year, William the Conqueror vanquished King Harold of England and almost wiped away all evidence of Anglo-Saxon life and language as he imposed the French language and French ways of doing things.
For nearly a hundred and fifty years after the Norman Conquest, there was little literature of any kind. When poetry finally appeared, there was a change in both substance and form: the poems were on nature, love and patriotism told in lines with rhyme, meter and stanza form, thus making them more graceful and musical. Most of the literature was anonymous, signifying that literature was still oral and intended to be sung.
The period saw the development of the ballad, a short narrative poem, simple in plot, and intended to be sung. All anonymous, the ballads dealt with subjects that appealed to the popular imagination: deeds of violence resulting from jealousy, heroic deeds and battle, relationship between man and supernatural beings, and sometimes humorous domestic incidents. Quite a number of ballads dealt with exploits of Robin Hood, a legendary bandit, depicted as a man who robbed the rich to give to the poor.
The metrical romance also developed during this period. The best among them were those that gave wonderful accounts of deeds and exploits of King Arthur and his knights.
The most outstanding work of the period is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Through this work, Chaucer painted a picture of contemporary English by gathering a motley company of people together and letting each class of society tell its own favorite stories. Though it was never finished, Canterbury Tales has remained unequaled to this day.
William Langland was another outstanding poet of the period. His protest against social injustice and other evils of the period, found expression in his work, The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman.
In the 15th century, Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’ Arthur appeared. This is a compilation of all the legends and stories about King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
It was also at this time – the 15th century – when books became entertaining to read and William Caxton set up the first printing press. This was the status of English literature at the time Columbus set out on his historic voyage later in 1492.