Professor White's British Literature to 1660 Resources Page

Useful Resources

Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy was one of the most influential works of the Middle Ages (and beyond). Here is a link to the full-text.

What Every Medievalist Should Know is an impressive site that contains many pages of things with which any English major should have at least a passing familiarity. is another impressive site with news, articles, and many, many links for medievalists.

Voice of the Shuttle is one of the most impressive and comprehensive sites for history, literature, and philosophy on the web.

Since we are studying British Literature, the British Museum and the British Library sites are useful and important.

In the Summer of 2009, a farmer found what turned out to be the most important hoard of Anglo-Saxon items to date. The Staffordshire Hoard far surpasses all other discoveries of Anglo-Saxon items both in number and quality. Scholars will be studying the find for decades.

A very good page of Medieval Art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Westminster Abbey, where William of Normandy (William the Conqueror) was crowned on Christmas Day, 1066. Westminster holds the remains of many British kings and queens as well as those of Chaucer, Handel, Dickens, Darwin, and Newton.

An interesting site with pictures of many famous British poets' graves.

Anglo-Saxon Poetry

The Ruthwell Cross is an 8th century stone cross inscribed with runes. The Dream of the Rood is an important Anglo-Saxon poem found in the Vercelli Book, one of four major Old English poetry codices. The other three are the Nowell Codex ("the Beowulf manuscript"), the Exeter Book, and the Junius Manuscript ("Caedmon Manuscript").

It is important to know what the "Harrowing of Hell" is and to understand its immense importance in medieval literatures.

Beowulf is one of the most important pieces of literature in English. It is the oldest story written in Old English, the Germanic language that would evolve into modern English. The story of Beowulf is related to the Norse sagas in several ways: there are snippets of the well-known Norse stories throughout Beowulf.In addition, many believe that the story has its basis in truth--that is, a real man named Hrothgar lived.

Beowulf is a precious example of Old English because it is extant in only one manuscript--Cotton Vitellius A.xv, aka the Nowell Codex. Also contained in the Nowell Codex is a piece of the biblical story called Judith and several other stories that relate to saints or to wonders of the East. That the manuscript still exists is something of a miracle, given that it first survived the destruction of religious artifacts during the reign of Henry VIII and then survived the disastrous fire of the Cotton library in 1731. Many scholars are still involved in active scholarship concerning Beowulf, not least of which is the seemingly never-ending debate about the dating of the story. Some scholars believe that the story was composed at the same time it was written down, which is in the first part of the 11th century. Others date the story to a much earlier date--some say it was composed as early as 700. Kevin Kiernan's book called Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript is a very interesting discussion of the topic. The manuscript resides in the British Library, where a few leaves are on display in the main public display on the second floor. The Electronic Beowulf is an important project that allows scholars to study the MS without handling it in person

Sutton Hoo is an ancient burial site in England which contained artifacts that are said to be from the time of Beowulf's story. Here is the National Trust's site dedicated to Sutton Hoo.

Helmet recovered from the Sutton Hoo burial site ( The artifacts from Sutton Hoo are housed in the British Museum.

Here is a sample of Old English vs. Modern English.
Beowulf Verse Indeterminate Saxon

                            Old English                                                                                  Modern English translation

Hwæt! We Gardena         in geardagum,
       þeodcyninga,         þrym gefrunon,
       hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.
       Oft Scyld Scefing         sceaþena þreatum,
5 monegum mægþum,         meodosetla ofteah,
       egsode eorlas.         Syððan ærest wearð
       feasceaft funden,         he þæs frofre gebad,
       weox under wolcnum,         weorðmyndum þah,
       oðþæt him æghwylc         þara ymbsittendra
10 ofer hronrade         hyran scolde,
       gomban gyldan.         þæt wæs god cyning!
       ðæm eafera wæs         æfter cenned,
       geong in geardum,         þone god sende
       folce to frofre;         fyrenðearfe ongeat
15 þe hie ær drugon         aldorlease
       lange hwile.         Him þæs liffrea,
       wuldres wealdend,         woroldare forgeaf;
       Beowulf wæs breme         (blæd wide sprang),
       Scyldes eafera         Scedelandum in.
20 Swa sceal geong guma         gode gewyrcean,
       fromum feohgiftum         on fæder bearme,
       þæt hine on ylde         eft gewunigen
       wilgesiþas,         þonne wig cume,
       leode gelæsten;         lofdædum sceal
25 in mægþa gehwære         man geþeon.
LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!
To him an heir was afterward born,
a son in his halls, whom heaven sent
to favor the folk, feeling their woe
that erst they had lacked an earl for leader
so long a while; the Lord endowed him,
the Wielder of Wonder, with world's renown.
Famed was this Beowulf: far flew the boast of him,
son of Scyld, in the Scandian lands.
So becomes it a youth to quit him well
with his father's friends, by fee and gift,
that to aid him, aged, in after days,
come warriors willing, should war draw nigh,
liegemen loyal: by lauded deeds
shall an earl have honor in every clan.

You might be able to see some words that at least sound familiar (waes=was; faeder=father; paet=that).  Compare this to the pages from the Chaucer manuscript in Middle English listed below.

Click here for a link to the Electronic Beowulf Project hosted by the University of Kentucky and the British Library.  There are photos of the only surviving manuscript and articles about restoration of the manuscript at this site. 

Click here for an audio of Ben Slade reading Beowulf in Old English

Another work of major importance in the Old English period is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It exists in several manuscripts and chronicles the history of Britain from biblical times to about 1154.

The first page of the Peterborough Chronicle, the most up to date of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. It resides in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, UK.

History of the Book

Incunabula is the word used to describe the early book (pre-mechanized production).  The word derives from the Latin for cradle.

A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been written on parchment, but the original writing has been scraped away in order to reuse the piece of parchment.  This was a common practice since parchment was very expensive.  Click here for PBS's interactive site about the Archimedes palimpsest, discovered in 1906.

Click here for a chronology of the history of the book.

Illuminated manuscripts were at their height of production during the 7th and 9th centuries.  The manuscripts were produced at monasteries across Europe.  One of the most elaborate and valuable of the illuminated manuscripts is the Book of Kells, which is housed at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. 

This is the illumination from the Book of Kells' Gospel of Matthew right before he begins the story of the nativity.

Middle English Literature

A translation of the Middle English Poem OWL AND THE NIGHTINGALE.

One of the most important manuscripts of the Middle Ages is the National Library of Scotland Advocates MS 19.2.1 "Auchinleck"

The Medieval Institute's Consortium of Teaching the Middle Ages (TEAMS) site has editions of hundreds of Middle English literary works available online.

Medieval Mystery Plays

During the Middle Ages, daily life was very much dominated by the Church and the Church calendar.  Entertainments consisted of stories told at home or readings from the Bible.  In England, the Feast of Corpus Christi (about 2 months after Easter Sunday) was celebrated with plays performed by the guilds.  The plays were scenes from the Bible performed on carts.  The carts, which were probably not unlike parade floats, each had a separate play being performed.  Several of the stories were taken from the Apocryphal Gospels (gospels that were not included in the Bible as we know it today).  The Gospel of Nicodemus (also known as the Acts of Pilate) is one of the Apocryphal Gospels, and the one from which we get the story of the Harrowing of Hell.  Click here for the text of the Gospel of Nicodemus that includes the story of Christ's Descent into Hell.  Click here for the texts of the Towneley plays, one of the important mystery play cycles.  Click here for the official page of the York Mystery Plays, which contains quite a bit of information about the plays. Click here for the official site of the Litchfield mystery plays.  Click here for the official site of the Chester mystery plays.

Here is the description of the plays, which are known as mystery plays, from the Catholic Encyclopedia ( :


"There is no record of any religious drama in England previous to the Norman Conquest. About the beginning of the twelfth century we hear of a play of St. Catharine performed at Dunstable by Geoffroy, later abbot of St. Albans, and a passage in Fitzstephen's "Life of Becket" shows that such plays were common in London about 1170. These were evidently "miracle plays",though for England the distinction between miracles and mysteries is of no importance, all religious plays being called "miracles". Of miracle plays in the strict sense of the word nothing is preserved in English literature. The earliest religious plays were undoubtedly in Latin and French. The oldest extant miracle in English is the "Harrowing of Hell" (thirteenth century). Its subject is the apocryphal descent of Christ to the hell of the damned, and it belongs to the cycle of Easter-plays. From the fourteenth century dates the play of "Abraham and Isaac". A great impetus was again given to the religious drama in England as elsewhere by the institution of the festival of Corpus Christi (1264; generally observed since 1311) with its solemn processions. Presently the Eastern and Christmas cycles were joined into one great cycle representing the whole course of sacred history from the Creation to the Last Judgment. Thus arose the four great cycles still extant and known as the Towneley, Chester, York, and Coventry plays, the last three designated from the place of their performance. The Towneley mysteries owe their name to the fact that the single manuscript in which they are preserved was long in the possession of the Towneley family. They were performed, it seems, at Woodkirk, near Wakefield. These cycles are very heterogeneous in character, the plays being by different authors. In their present form the number of plays in the cycles is: Towneley 30 (or 31), Chester 24, York 48 Coventry 42. Four other plays are also preserved in the Digby codex at Oxford. The so called "moralities" (q. v.) are a later offshoot of the "miracles". These aim at the inculcation of ethical truths and the dramatis personae are abstract personifications, such as Virtue, Justice, the Seven Deadly Sins, etc. The character called "the Vice" is especially interesting as being the precursor of Shakespeare's fool. After the Reformation the miracle plays declined, though performances in some places are on record as late as the seventeenth century."

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (SGGK) is another very special text because it is extant in one manuscript only--Cotton Nero A.x. The manuscript contains four works--Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and SGGK. The Wikipedia entry for SGGK is well-researched and documented. The work is a Middle English alliterative romance from the West-Midlands of England. Like the Beowulf manuscript, the Gawain manuscript resides in the British Library.

Here is the Gawain page at Luminarium, an important scholarly web site for medievalists. Another important scholarly site for medievalists is The Camelot Project. Here is its entry on Gawain. Gawain has a rich literary history in the Arthurian cycle. His story in SGGK is related to, but very separate from, the Arthurian stories. In others, Gawain is one of the knights on the quest for the Grail. In some stories, he is the knight who achieves the Grail. In the older tradition, it is Galahad or Perceval who achieve the Grail.

SGGK was written by an anonymous author, most often referred to as either the Pearl-poet or the Gawain-poet. Here is a good page that contains many links to information about the work and the others in the manuscript


The University of Glasgow's World of Chaucer site has some pictures of Chaucer manuscripts.

Chaucer and his horse from the Ellesmere MS, Huntington Library, Berkeley, California.

Chaucer is the father of English poetry. He was quite prolific and most of his works survive, though we have none in his hand. Recently, medieval scholar Linne Mooney traced a link between a poem Chaucer wrote to his scribe Adam and to a real scribe named Adam Pinkhurst. It turns out that Pinkhurst is the scribe who wrote the Ellesmere and Hengwrt manuscripts containing Chaucer's work. He is the closest link we have to Chaucer himself. Mooney's work was a major discovery and is very important to Chaucer scholars.

Here is the Luminarium page on Chaucer. We do know a good bit about Chaucer's life, but much is still not known. He spent his days as a government employee in King Richard II's service and wrote at night.

Click here for photos of the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, which dates from around 1410 and is considered by many to be the finest of the Chaucer manuscripts.



Take a tour through the Renaissance with the Annenberg/CPB Project .  This one's definitely worth the time! 


A set of pictures of Shakespeare's grave site.

John Milton, Paradise Lost

Click here for, a good site for getting an overview of Milton's masterpiece.

Click HERE for a book-by-book summary of Paradise Lost.

Here is a study guide for Paradise Lost, hosted by Dartmouth University.

Click here for the Milton-L web page, hosted by the University of Richmond.


Close ups of Medieval Architecture

The ceiling of the Oxford Cameron, Oxford University, UK

Oxford Oxford

Architectural detail, Westminster Abbey, London, UK


London Wall

Britain was once part of the Roman Empire. The Romans built a wall around London to protect it from invaders. Part of the wall still remains These pictures were taken across the street from the Tower of London. It is interesting to see such an old piece of work with modern city buildings in the background, but that is how London is--a wonderful mix of old and new.

Roman Wall Roman Wall Roman Wall Roman Wallroman Wall Roman WallRoman Wall Roman Wall

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey is where the British monarchs have been crowned since 1066. It is also the final resting place for many of Britain's kings and queens, including Mary Queen of Scots, Edward the Confessor, Elizabeth I, Richard II, and Henry V. It was also the site for the recent wedding of Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and Catherine Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge.


The Tower of London

The Tower of London has served as a working castle and a prison. Anne Boleyn was executed at the Tower and Richard II was imprisoned there for a short time. It also houses the British Crown Jewels and a museum of armor and armaments going back to the Middle Ages. Edward I lived in the palace.

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The thin lines with what look like crosses in the picture below are made so that someone inside the garrison can shoot a crossbow out at an attacker.



The Jewel House, where the British Crown Jewels are housed


The Ravens' Quarters.





Armor display in the White Tower