English Prose Writing of The 15th Century

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      English prose of the fifteenth century amounts to little and there were no outstanding achievements in prose during the period. Latin still attracted writers of consequence. It is interesting to note that the celebrated Utopia of Sir Thomas More, which describes an imaginary ideal state was written in Latin and was not translated into English until 1551. It does not therefore count as an English work of More. It was only in the second half of the century that a few prose writings that deserve note appeared. The following are the more important prose-writers of the time.

It was only in the second half of the century that a few prose writings that deserve note appeared. The following are the more important prose-writers of the time.
15th century Prose

      Reginald Pecock wrote two works. The Repressor of Over-much Blaming the Clergy (1445) and The Book of Faith. In these books he was a strong defender of the ancient usages of the church - image-worship, pilgrimage, hierarchy in church, papacy, etc. It was criminal in that age to reason about religion with so much independence as Pecock had done. Hence though he escaped burning as a heretic, his first book was burnt. His prose shows some advance. He has clarity, the gift of choosing homely examples and a wealth of vocabulary.

      Sir John Fortescue, a lawyer by profession wrote mainly in Latin. His English work is The Governance of England, in which he speaks highly of the limited monarchy of England. William Caxton (1422-1491) is the first English printer who established a printing press in London and printed a series of books, some of which are very important, for instance, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Criseyde, Malory's Morte d' Arthur etc. He also translated from French and Latin texts and printed them. In this respect his services to English literature were inestimable.

      What is most remarkable from the literary point of view is the development of English prose for which he was responsible. In his translations and introductions to the books printed by him he aimed at a style of clarity and ease like those of French prose which he admired. His influence in fixing a national language to supersede the various dialects and in preparing the way for the literary renaissance of the Elizabethan age is beyond calculation. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, who was beheaded by the orders of Henry VIII wrote some rhetorical-religious books in an oratorical and musical style, which set the fashion of the many, sermons of later ages.

      Sir Thomas Malory who died in 1471 is well-known as the author of the famous Morte d' Arthur, a book which has a considerable importance in English literature as the 'source-book' of many Arthurian romances written by poets. It is a compilation from and translation of a French book. Malory finely captures and expresses the essence of chivalry and romance. It is a skilful blend of dialogue and narrative and is full of colour and life. What is most striking about the book is its style. "It is England's first book in poetic prose and also the storehouse of those legends of the past which have most haunted English imaginations (Legouis). The style - simple, even childish, monotonous but harmonious is admirably fitted to the tales of romance. It is the style of the fairy tales which children affect so much.

      Malory, in the words of Albert, "is our first great, individual prose stylist". In subject-matter, the book belongs to the Medievalism; but Malory himself with his desire to preserve the literary monuments of the past belong to the Renaissance. He has made a position of lasting gratitude in English literary history for preserving the legends and poetry of Britain at a time when scholars were chiefly busy with the classics of Greece and Rome. It was to Malory that Shakespeare and his contemporaries turned for their material and in recent times he has supplied Tennyson and Matthew Arnold, Swinburne and Morris with the inspiration for the Idylls of the king and the Death of Tristram.

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