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What Is British Literature?

By Geisha A. Legazpi
Updated May 23, 2024
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Often referred to as UK literature, British literature primarily refers to all literature produced by British authors from the United Kingdom, which includes England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, the Channel Islands, and Isle of Man. British literature includes works in Old, Middle, and Modern English, each of which represents a different period. British literature also includes early works written in Gaelic, Welsh, and Latin.

British literature has come to possess different characteristics over the years. People can fully appreciate it by learning the different types of literature that came to play in its history. UK literature is often divided into British works in Latin, early Celtic literature composed in the UK, Old English works, Middle English works, and Modern English compositions. There are only a few surviving early UK literature texts. Celts mostly made use of oral literature, and Henry VIII’s razing of monasteries caused the obliteration of much of the world’s literary treasures.

Old English works were written between 450 and 1066. Probably the most famous Old English work is Beowulf. The oldest original texts of British literary works came from this period, including "The Hymn of Creation" by the poet Cædmon.

Works written in Middle English were composed between 1066 and 1485. This historical period began when William the Conqueror successfully united factions in England, particularly the Normans and the Saxons, and when the Domesday Book was created. Examples of the best-known works in this period are The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer and Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory.

The Modern English era is comprised of all literary works composed by British authors beginning in the early 16th century and onward. This period can be further categorized into different types of literature. The Renaissance period is considered to have lasted from 1500 to 1660, and is best remembered for works written by William Shakespeare. During this period, sonnets and effusive forms of British poetry also rose in popularity, such as the ones written by Thomas Wyatt and Edmund Spenser.

Other periods making up the Modern English era include the Restoration Age, the Romantic Period, the Victorian Period, and all later periods. Gothic novels also became extremely popular in this era, particularly in the 18th century. Notable authors in this era include John Locke of the Restoration Period, Sir Walter Scott and John Keats of the Romantic Period, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Jane Austen of the Victorian Period, and Agatha Christie of the 20th century.

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Discussion Comments
By anon347075 — On Sep 03, 2013

This was interesting. I am very interested in learning more.

By bythewell — On Feb 07, 2012

@umbra21 - We actually don't realize what an amazing time we live in. Once literature would have been the province of only the rich and those sponsored by the rich. Now writing can be done by anyone, and more importantly, it can be published by anyone, through the e-readers.

I'm not one of those who thinks that we should entirely do away with publishing houses. They have been finding and polishing the gems of modern British literature for a couple of hundred years now. Most of the time, if they say you're no good, you're probably no good.

But you aren't absolutely beholden to them to get your name out there. Maybe you'll only ever sell a couple of hundred copies and they don't care to invest in that. Fine. You can now sell those couple of hundred on your own.

By umbra21 — On Feb 06, 2012

@Irontoenail - It seems like literature back then was almost as much about the art of bookmaking as anything else. Which makes sense, since each book had to be made by hand, so you'd want it to look as nice as possible.

A lot of books of poetry and things back then were actually commissioned, which is why they were often so elaborate and so religious.

The idea was to make a book that you could show to people, to show off how pious and rich you were. They would even make gold leaf illustrations and bind them in different materials.

I don't know how good the actual writing would have been in most of these though, since I doubt most of the people who were asking them to be made cared so much about the substance of the work. They just wanted another pretty bauble.

By irontoenail — On Feb 05, 2012

When I was studying creative writing at university level we had a special guest speaker who was the head of English Literature at the university come and talk to us about older forms of fiction.

He was completely fluent in Old and Middle English and he read sections of the Canterbury Tales and Beowulf to us. It sounded absolutely incredible. He also showed us some of the beautiful pictures that monks once copied into the margins of the books that they transcribed.

You can actually look up on Youtube people reciting Old English poetry and there are quite a few good tribute films of Beowulf with the poem read out in the original language and the subtitles in English.

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