The Old English Period--from the invasion of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes around 449 until the Norman (French) invasion of 1066, though Old English was doubtless spoken, sung and written in some form outside the French-speaking nobles' courts and the Latin-speaking monasteries for roughly eight hundred years thereafter.  For comparison's sake, the 617 years of Old English literature would correspond with the period between 1382, when Chaucer probably was working on the earliest of the Canterbury Tales, and 1999, the year in which I type this sentence.

The Middle English Period--begins roughly in 1100, when Old English syntax and Norman French vocabulary (with Latin borrowings) emerged as a language with which the conquered and conquerors could communicate.  Middle English existed in four main dialects based on the tribal population of the conquered Britons: the Jutes spoke Kentish (south of London), the Saxons spoke West Saxon, and the Angles of the northlands spoke Mercian in the Midlands and Northumbrian north of the Humber River.  Middle English slipped gradually into Early Modern English between Chaucer's death (c. 1400) and 1500, when the centralized political and commercial power of London made its East Midlands dialect more desireable than the other dialects.  Printing, introduced in 1476 and strongly localized around Westminster and London, also helped to establish a single dialect (and spelling!) as correct.  The final, and perhaps most obvious reason why London's East Midlands dialect became standard English was that it was the dialect of Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, John Lydgate, and Thomas Hoccleve, the four most widely-read writers in Middle English and most commonly published authors in the first twenty-five years of printing.

The Early Modern English Period--begins around 1500 (see above) when Tudor imperial ambitions, the rise of Humanist educational and scholarly practices, and the increase of English international trade, led to a wild increase in new words entering the language, especially from Italian, French, Spanish, and various Amerindian langauges.   The Early Modern period lasts roughly until 1650 when the Puritan revolution  led to increased public literacy rates, encouraged by the end of royal censorship of the press, and the development of a less learned, "public" rhetorical style.  Scientific communications, though often initially in Latin, also contributed to a shift to a plainer, less artful style, with more simple declarative sentences, less playful embedding of subordinate clauses, and a vocabulary increasingly resistent to loan words from Romance languages, though Latin continued to contribute new words.  That's Modern English.


"The Wanderer" (composed perhaps 100 or 200 years before it was copied c. 965 on folios 76b-78a of the only surviving MS, the Exeter Book)

The Battle of Maldon (probably within a few years of the 991 battle; preserved only in the MS. Cotton Otho A.xii, folios 57a-62b, later burned in the 1731 fire which destroyed a significant portion of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton's unparalleled collection of Old English manuscripts, but not before John Elphinston's transcription was published by Thomas Hearne in 1725)


GEOFFREY CHAUCER (ca. 1343-1400)

The Canterbury Tales (c. written 1385-1400, but all surviving MS are 15th-century; first printed by Caxton in 1478 )

The General Prologue

The Miller's Prologue and Tale

The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

The Franklin's Tale

Shorter lyrics


JULIAN OF NORWICH (1342-ca. 1416)

Showings (c. 1387-1416?: she had her visions at the age of 30 and began writing roughly 15 years later)

MARGERY KEMPE (ca. 1373-1438)

The Book of Margery Kempe (probably written in the 1430s but never "published" in its entirety until its discovery in 1934 by Hope Emily Allen).

ANONYMOUS (ca. 1485, editio princeps 1530)


Early Modern English: The Fifteenth Century, Elizabethan, and Stuart Periods (1400-1603)

SIR THOMAS MORE (1478-1535)

Utopia (1516)


Sonnets, which circulated in manuscript form during his lifetime and 97 of which were eventually published in Tottel's Miscellany (1557)


Sonnets, which circulated in manuscript form during his lifetime and 40 of which were published in Tottel's Miscellany (1557)

SIR THOMAS HOBY (1530-1566)

The Courtier (Count Baldasarre Castiglione [1478-1529] published Il Cortegiano in 1528; Hoby's translation was probably written around 1555 and was published in 1561).


“The Doubt of Future Foes,” “On Monsieur’s Departure,” “Speech to the Troops at Tilbury,” and The “Golden Speech”


Astrophil and Stella (1576-before 1585?, published posthumously in 1591)

The Defence of Poesy (after Stephen Gosson's Puritan-inspired attack on poets and drama in 1579, published posthumously in 1595)

"Thou Blind Man's Mark" (circulated in MSS based on Sidney's compilation in 1581, published posthumously in 1598)

"Leave Me, O Love" (circulated in MSS based on Sidney's compilation in 1581, published posthumously in 1598)

EDMUND SPENSER (1552-1599)

Amoretti (1593-4, during his courtship of Elizabeth Boyle, published by the poet with the "Epithalamion" in 1595, the only sonnet collection or cycle to date published while the poet was still alive, much less with his permission)


Dr. Faustus (written after 1592 when its source, the English Faust Book [a translation of  the 1587 Frankfurt Faustbuch] was first published; posthumously performed 24 times by the Admiral's Men between 2 October 1594 and October 1595, a period during which  Shakespeare was an actor and writer for the Lord Chamberlain's men, also managed by Richard Henslowe; first published in 1604 [the shorter "A" text which we're reading] and again [the longer "B" text probably revised by others] in 1616, the year of Shakespeare's death.)


Sonnets (before 1598 [mentioned in Francis Mere's Palladis Tamia: WIt's Treasury], published anonymously ["Our Ever-Living Poet"] in 1609)

The History of  Henrie the Fourth (Part I) (after 1594's publication of a previous writer's Henry V play, but before 1598 when the first quarto edition was published)


"The Lie" (c.1592)

"The discovery of the large, rich, and beautiful Empire of Guiana" (published by Ralegh in 1595 to promote his schemes for colonizing the New World)


"A Dialogue between two shepherds, Thenot and Piers" (written for a cancelled royal visit to Wilton in 1599)

AEMILIA LANYER (1569-1645)

Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum: excerpt, "Eve's Apology in Defense of Women" (published by Lanyer, 1611)

JOHN DONNE (1572-1631)

Songs and Sonnets (most were probably in MS circulation as they were written from about 1592; published posthumously 1633)

BEN JONSON (1572-1637)

Volpone (1605-6; produced in early 1606 by the King's Company [formerly Lord Chamberlain's], in which Shakespeare was an actor and writer)

FRANCIS BACON (1561-1626)

Essays (first published by Bacon in 1597; revised editions appeared in 1612 and 1625)

LADY MARY WROTH (1587?-1651?)

The Countess of Montgomery's Urania (published by Wroth in 1621)

ROBERT HERRICK (1591-1674)

Hesperides and Noble Numbers (published by Herrick in 1648)

GEORGE HERBERT (1593-1633)

The Temple (published posthumously in 1633)

RICHARD CRASHAW (ca. 1613-1649)

Steps to the Temple (1646): "To the Infant Martyrs," "I am the Door," "On the Wounds of Our Crucified Lord," "On the Crucified Lord, Naked and Bloody," "In the Holy Nativity of Our Lord God: A Humn Sung as by the Shepherds"

Carmen Deo Nostro (1652): "Non Vi," "The Flaming Heart..."

Modern English: Parliamentary/Puritan Revolution (1642-9); Protectorate and Commonwealth (1649-66); Restoration (1666-88); "Bloodless" Revolution and Early Eighteenth-Century (1688-1700)

ANDREW MARVELL (1621-1678)

Miscellaneous Poems (probably written between his first years at Cambridge, around 1635, and his death in 1678, but published by a woman claiming to be his wife in 1681)

JOHN MILTON (1608-1674)

Shorter poems: "On Shakespeare" (written 1630 for the second folio edition of WS's plays in 1632); "To the Lord General Cromwell" (written 1652, but not published until 1694); "When I Consider How My Light Is Spent" (?1652--blinded in 1651, probably by chronic simple glaucoma; published 1673).

Paradise Lost (August 1667, first published in 10 books; 1674, revised edition pubished divided into 12 books)


Memoirs (probably written in the late 1670s; published 1875)


Letters (written in the 1650s, discovered in 1888, first published in 1928)


"The Disabled Debauchee" and other xeroxed poems (c. 1660-1680; MS circulation only until the 1960s!)

APHRA BEHN (1640?-1689)

Oroonoko (published by Behn in 1688)

JOHN DRYDEN (1631-1700)

"Annus Mirabilis" (1666)

The Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668)

"The Author's Apology for Heroic Poetry and Heroic Licsnse" (preface of State of Innocence, a never-performed opera based on Paradise Lost, 1677)

MacFlecnoe (written 1678-9; published without Dryden's permission in 1682)

"A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire" (part of preface to translations of Juvenal and Persius, 1693)

"Preface" (to Fables Ancient and Modern, 1700)


The Way of the World (1700)

MARY ASTELL (1666-1731)

Some Reflections Upon Marriage (1700)


"Introduction" and "A Nocturnal Reverie" from Miscellany Poems on Several Occasions (written 1689?, Miscellany published by Finch in 1713 but without the "Introduction" which was discovered and reprinted in 1903)

MATHEW PRIOR (1664-1721)

"An Epitaph," "A True Maid," and "A Better Answer" from Poems Upon Several Occasions (published by Prior in 1718)

JONATHAN SWIFT (1667-1745)

"A Description of a City Shower" (1710)

"A Modest Proposal" (1729)


"The Lover: A Ballad" (written 1747, MS circulation until the 1970s), "Epistle from Mrs. Yonge to Her Husband" (written 1724, published 1972)

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