A Historical Overview of the Course's Three Main Linguistic Periods
Because English 211 is a "survey course," it differs from courses based on readings from one author's work, works in one genre, or even those based on readings from a single era. The "survey" metaphor means that its goals are to give you a "big picture" view of a large number of authors and genres, looking for patterns of historical change in the language and culture. Surveys of this sort teach you to see individual works as products of social and literary movements, sometimes passing on previous eras' ideas and techniques in new ways, and at other times, reacting against tradition with innovations never previously seen before in English literature. We will be intensely interested in how authors learn from their predecessors and from their contemporaries. We also will be tracing the evolution of the English language as a medium of creative expression while it shifts from the tribal dialects of Old English (roughly 800-1250), to the regional dialects of Middle English (1250-1500), eventually reaching near stability in Early Modern English of Shakespeare's era and the Modern English which emerged after the Civil War and Restoration. Some early preparation to learn more about the early history of the English language and people will help you keep up with the reading. The Norton Anthology offers brief historical background essays at intervals in the semester's readings, but in my experience few students have time or the inclination to read them. At least read the paragraphs below before you start the course, and try to make time for the Norton or the Britannica for basic socio-historical background.
Old English (OE, also called "Anglo-Saxon"): If you are a Goucher student browsing from within our system's firewall, click here to go to the Library web site and go to the Encyclopedia Britannica web site, where you should start with "United Kingdom--History" at the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (there were seven of them during one period, hence the "Heptarchy"). We're leaving out the Roman occupation, momentous as it was, because the literature of that era was Latin, not English. The little Anglo-Saxon poetry which survived dates from post-colonial times, after the invading Germanic tribes (Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and others) crossed the channel and killed or drove out the native Britons and remaining Roman colonists. As you will see, those battles left us the name of one "Arthur," called a "dux bellorum" or war-lord by a Latin chronicle, and from that tiny speck emerged the Arthurian romances and the pseudo-historical foundation myth of England. Pay special attention to the organization of medieval society! Their identities were far different from ours in many ways, most especially in their view of dependence vs. independence--to belong to another was the only happy state, and to be completely cut off from one's lord or lady was utter devastation. Lords and ladies were the audience of some major works of courtly literature which survived in Old English (e.g., "Battle of Maldon" and "The Wanderer"). Some important vernacular religious works also come to us from this era (e.g., "The Dream of the Rood," in which the Cross on which Jesus died appears in a dream to a warrior and describes Jesus as a heroic fallen chieftain whom the Cross tried to support in a battle). You can skim the details of the struggles among the "heptarchs" and the Viking invaders, though you should look at the "Danelaw" period when Danish kings ruled the island. That will prepare you for 1066, the conquest of England by Norman-French speaking invaders, which really inaugurates the emergence of the "English" we now speak--a fusion of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French. All this is crucial cultural background for the medieval world of our first four weeks of reading. If you have not already clicked on the hyperlink above, check out this description of the relationship between cultural changes and the emergence of Old English or Anglo-Saxon as a language.
Middle English (ME) and Early Modern English (EModeE): The next seven weeks of reading, up to but not including John Milton, trace the emergence of "Early Modern English" and the modern "nation-state" during the Tudor and Stewart dynasties (1485-1642). You probably think you know more about this period than you really do know, since its history is so rarely taught beyond the "rulers and battles and dates" style of history in American high schools. The pace of cultural change, which is reflected in the literature, increased slowly but steadily until "new" connoted good innovations and "newfangle" fell into disuse as a name for bad changes in a traditional culture. (Consult the Oxford English Dictionary online at the library site for "newfangle, a. and n." and note its emergence as a term of complaint in the 14th-16th centuries and its disappearance as a comic dialect term in the 19th century.) Medieval attitudes still can be found in many works from this era, and ideas we moderns associate with "medieval thinking" are sometimes actually more commonplace in the period than before it (e.g., persecution of "witches," which was far more common under the reign of James I, after Elizabeth's death in 1603, than in Chaucer's day [c.1340-1400]). Changing ideas often followed technological change. Between 1470 and 1600, printing presses using movable type manufactured millions of affordable books and spread new ideas across Europe and Britain. Not surprisingly, during the same period literacy finally became nearly commonplace among urban males and increasingly common among daughters and wives of nobles and merchants, whose ideas of the world could be changed by reading printed works like the "Columbus Letter" describing the New World, Gallileo's Siderius Nuncius ("Star Messenger") describing observations of "new stars" (supernovae) in the supposedly changeless heavens of God, and Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, whose hero is an enslaved African prince who leads a bloody revolt in the English colony of Guyana, and whose narrator describes him as more noble and wiser than his captors.
Modern English (ModE): The last four weeks of the semester trace the full-blown emergence of the modern English state, and Modern English, in the aftermath of the English Civil War. The results of these changes are decidedly mixed. Women writers finally begin to appear in print, though not without facing resistance from male critics, and the English ideology of "race" and "blackness," which had first emerged in Elizabethan contacts with Africans and the New World's inhabitants, finally takes on its modern form. Class-consciousness and the modern "Middle Class" revolutionize the moral and ethical values of public discourse that previously had been dominated by the aristocracy and the church, but this results in the complete commodification of every element of life, from persons (slavery, modern wage-based employment) to ideas (intellectual property, plagiarism). You can become anything, but anything has its price, and you can trust nothing to be what it seems. Satire becomes one of the dominant literary genres, and deservedly so. English 212 handles the literature that comes after, but it's going to be a more familiar landscape to you all after December.
The last thing you can do to prepare for the semester is to review the works on the syllabus which you already have read. The test of a work's importance to you will be its vivid persistence in your memory, and its influence upon your understanding of other works. Whether you are an oral/aural reader, who hears the voices as s/he reads, or a visual reader, who remembers arrays of lines on the page (or both if you're lucky!), use and develop those powers. They are the necessary tools of our art as readers, and the counterpart of the writers' quasi-magical powers to summon worlds into being between our ears. Pay special attention to the sound of works from the first two-thirds of the course. Most of them were made to be recited orally, not read silently. Above all, if you were singularly unimpressed by some of the literature you have read, suspend your judgment until you reread it once more. As English 215 (Critical Methods) teaches, the reader must be a competent "performer" of the text before the work can be properly evaluated. Just as in musical performance, sometimes we have to practice reading before we're good enough to do justice to great but difficult works.