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   Writings in the Early Modern English period

The end of the Middle English period cannot be determined by a single political or military event like the one used to mark its beginning. Instead scholars refer to key developments which led to much standardisation in English and established the linguistic hegemony of London over the entire country (the dialect found here is derived directly from the East Midland dialect of Middle English).  

One of these developments is the rise of a written standard: Already at the end of the 14th century there were a group of non-clerical scribes who used a conventionalised orthography. By the mid 15th century this form was accepted for official usage. Above all the language of the Chancery, an official department in London which prepared documents for the court, played a considerable role in the emergence of a written standard (Fisher 1977). The Chancery was responsible for legal and parliamentary documents as well as for those which were written on the commission of the king. The Chancery recruited its scribes from all parts of England and had its seat at Westminister (from the middle of the 14th century). Because of the diverse backgrounds of those employed there, a linguistic norm was all the more necessary.  

The second important development was the introduction of printing by William Caxton (c.1422-1491), a merchant, and later a writer, who set up the first printing press in England in 1476. He established his base at Westminster and during his career as publisher produced more than 90 editions of well-known and lesser known authors. The necessity for having a single means of spelling English was obvious in days when printing was expensive and time-consuming.  

The major figure at the beginning of what one can call the early modern period is, of course, Shakesspeare and there is a special section on his language in the current group of options (see last item in present menu). Other dramatists, such as Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), tend to be eclipsed by the towering figure of Shakespeare.

  Christopher Marlowe

After Chaucer and Shakespeare one can no longer talk of the course of English being influenced by a single author. Thus the current section just offers a brief overview of groups of authors who produced much literature in English and so contributed to the general development of the written language without, however, steering its course.

Groups of authors from the late 16th to the mid 18th century

The Metaphysical poets

This is a group of poets who are taken to have started with John Donne (1572-1631) and whose work is characterised by extravagent comparisons, reserved feelings and a display of learning. The school continued well into the 17th century, among the later representatives is Andrew Marvell (1621-78).

John Donne

   Andrew Marvell

The major poetic figure of the 17th century is John Milton (1608-74), the writer of sonnets, elegies and the epics Paradise Lost (1667) and Paradise Regained (1671). He was also a significant pamphleteer and involved in political activities.


Jacobean drama

A general term for drama as produced in the reign of James I (James VI of Scotland, 1603-25). Indeed it continued into the reign of Charles I (1625-49) until the closure of the theatres in 1642. The most important dramatist of this time (apart of course from Shakespeare) is probably Ben Jonson (1572/3-1637)

  Ben Jonson

Restoration drama

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 under Charles II (1660-85) the theatres were re-opened and a flourishing set in, chiefly of comedy, which lasted for much of the remaining 17th century.

The Augustan age

The early to mid 18th century was a period during which satire flourished in England (and Ireland). The main authors are Joseph Addison (1672-1719), John Dryden (1631-1700), Alexander Pope (1688-1744), Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729) and the Irish writer Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), the latter being particularly concerned with questions of language and entertaining generally conservative views on language change. The term Augustan is derived from the comparison of this age to that of the Roman Emperor Augustus under whose reign Horace, Ovid and Virgil flourished, authors who the latter-day English writers also admired.

The middle of the 18th century sees the rise of the novel (initially in epistolary form) and the publication of the first major lexicographical work, the monolingual dictionary Dictionary of the English language (1755) by Samuel Johnson which was a model for all future lexicographers. (Johnson drew on the dictionaries of Nathaniel Bailey - such as the Universal etymological English dictionary (1721), with some 40,000 entries, and the Dictionarium Brittanicum (1730) - for the word list he used in his own).