Old English literature is writing from the seventh to eleventh centuries (or from 650 to 1099). This time period in history mostly encompasses the Anglo-Saxon period in England’s history. Old English is the language spoken by the Germanic inhabitants in England during the time. When they invaded England, these tribes brought their cultures and language. King Alfred united them through a unified language, Old English.
The epic poem Beowulf, originally written between the years 700 and 750, is the most famous work written in Old English Literature. Many of these works only survived because monks worked to write them down. Old English writings often dealt with heroic quests and stories of daily life.
Middle English begins in fourteenth-century England. A new invention, the printing press, helped to regulate spelling and grammar during this time. Middle English literature dealt with romance, religion, and King Arthur. The works of Geoffrey Chaucer are often most connected to Middle English. His book The Canterbury Tales, written in vernacular, tells the stories of a group of pilgrims on a journey to Canterbury.
One of the clearest differences is that Old English is so different from Modern English, that it is almost impossible to read. Look at the opening lines to Beowulf to see how different it is.
We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
Old English used letters, words, and syntax that are very different from Mordern English, and while Middle English is still difficult to read for modern readers, it looks more familiar. Look at the opening lines from The Canterbury Tales below to see the changes from Old English:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Finally, the writings differed because the societies were different. The Anglo-Saxon culture was built on a tribal society, so its literature dealt with the lives of tribal members. Middle English was written for a society built on a strict caste system, and so its writings often focused on characters in these castes.