The Birth of English Literature

Gemma Matheson, Dickson College, 2011

This essay was submitted as part of the The Renaissance unit at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2011. It was written in response to the following question: “How did the development of vernacular languages encourage the growth of literature during the Renaissance?" Gemma Matheson has also contributed The Significance of Black September to Clio.

A number of factors combined to promote the development of the vernacular language and trigger the emergence of a national literature in Renaissance England. These included the invention of moveable type and the subsequent rapid spread of mass publications, which made the vernacular language more widely available. The break of the English church from the Roman Church saw the English vernacular replace Latin as the language of religion, and most importantly, the appearance of playwrights such as Shakespeare who both reflected and enriched the English language for a growing theatre audience.

Before the Renaissance, Chaucer was the most distinguished name in English literature. However, Chaucer wrote in Middle English. By the 16th Century in the time of the Tudors and the English Renaissance, the English language had changed so much that an educated reader would not have heard Chaucer in the same way that his contemporaries did (Bragg, 2003, p131). By the sixteenth century, England was rapidly emerging as an economic, trading and military power in Europe (Morgan, 1984, p. 221). However, it was a country without a strong contemporary literature of its own.

One of the most important inventions of the Renaissance era was the mechanical moveable type and the printing press. Johannes Gutenberg invented it in 1439 in Mainz, Germany. Gutenberg’s invention contributed significantly to the growth of literature in the Renaissance by making books and other documents available to a mass readership in Europe for the first time. The first Englishman to use a printing press was William Caxton. He learnt about printing while in Cologne in Germany and subsequently set up a printing press in Bruges in modern day Belgium that produced the first book to be printed in English in 1473.[1] In 1476 Caxton set up a printing press near Westminster Palace in London.[2] Caxton was instrumental in helping to push the development of literature and vernacular language in England.

The printing press transformed society between 1500 and 1640 in Renaissance Europe. Just in England alone, around 20,000 items in the English language were printed over this period. This ranged from pamphlets and broadsheets to folios and Bibles (McCrum et al., 1992, p. 90). The printing press helped to accelerate the education of the middle class. The spread of vernacular language was also helped by the economics of the book trade. Outside the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in England, where the focus was on antiquity and the languages of Latin and Greek, people preferred to read in English and so printers naturally tried to satisfy the customers’ demand.

The fact that this new English literature reflected the spoken vernacular in England also helped to encourage reading in the lower classes. The lower and middle class was usually unable to read Latin or Greek, which were the traditional languages in literature. The translation and writing in more vernacular languages of books pushed the growth of literature as the lower classes had increased opportunities for reading and learning.

The second major factor behind the emergence of an English national literature was the Reformation and the split of the English church from the influence of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. In particular it added to the rise of the English language. The English clergy started to preach in the local language and went against the Roman Catholic tradition of using Latin as the language of religion. This, most importantly, led to translating the Bible into English.

In 14th century England the central power of words lay almost exclusively in the Bible. Very few other books were readily available, and the Bible was written in Latin or Greek. There was no Bible in the English language. John Wycliffe was a leading scholar in England in the 14th century. Wycliffe’s view was that the only true account of Christianity and the sole source of truth was to be found in the Bible. As a result, Wycliffe wanted to translate the Bible from Latin into English, as he believed people should read it. However, this put Wycliffe offside with the established church (Bragg, 2003, p. 83). By the time of Henry VIII his Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, and the Church in England were still trying to burn any copies of Wycliffe’s Bible (ibid., p. 103). This was because the Church was opposed to the translation of the Bible into English, as it believed it had to be in Latin.

Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey were aware that Martin Luther had shaken the Catholic Church with his demands for reform in 1517. At this point, and for his own personal reasons, Henry VIII challenged the Pope’s authority.[3] Henry wanted to be in control of the Church in England, as well as of the state. Reflecting these changed circumstances in the church and state in Henry VIII’s England, the atmosphere was more conducive for someone like William Tyndale to translate the Bible into English. This became the famous Tyndale Bible, which first appeared around the year of 1426.

Tyndale’s Bible was not just a translation, in the spirit of Wycliffe, designed to give access and knowledge of religion to people who could not read Latin or Greek. Tyndale was also a great writer who had such a command of English that his translation of the Bible was not just an English version of the Bible but also an important piece of English literature. Tyndale’s words and phrases influenced between sixty and eighty per cent of the King James Bible of 1611. In Tyndale’s version, he wrote:

In the begynnyne God created heven and erth. The erth was voyde and emptie and darcknesse was vpon the depe and spirite of God moved vpon the water. Than God sayd: let there be lyghte and there was lyghte. (Bragg, 2003, p. 111)

There is a strong similarity in the expression of the Tyndale Bible compared to the King James Bible. It was written to be spoken (ibid. p. 114) just as Tyndale intended with his focus on the rhythm of the writing.

In the beginning was the Word, & the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; And without him was not anything made that was made. (ibid.)

While Tyndale’s Bible was enormously popular, none of this prevented Tyndale being executed by Church authorities in Belgium. Thomas More expressed the opposition of the established church to the translation of the Bible into the English vernacular.

It is not necessary the said Scripture to be in the English tongue and in the hands of the common people, but that the distribution of the said Scripture, and the permitting or denying thereof, dependeth only upon the discretion of the superiors, as they shall think it convenient. (Kenneth O. Morgan, 1984, p. 242)

Nevertheless, Tyndale’s Bible became remarkably influential in the development of the English language. Copies of it were smuggled into England before he died and spread through the middle class of England.

Renaissance England didn’t have the kind of national literature that a lot of other countries such as Italy and France did. Chaucer, the most famous English writer until Shakespeare, was writing during the late medieval period and his writing was in an early English or “Middle English”. However, the English language had changed a lot by the time of the Tudors. As in many other fields where ideas and invention flourished, the Renaissance saw an influx of ideas and influences into the English vernacular. The English language took many words from Latin as well as from French (such as ‘caravan’), Italian (such as ‘bazaar’) and several other European languages and also from Arabic (Bragg, 2003, p. 119). The expansion of trade in particular helped with the development of the English language with sailors bringing back many words learnt from other languages around Europe. There was an addition of more than ten thousand new words to the English language during the Renaissance (McCrum & MacNeil, 1992, p. 93).

During Tudor times, England was undergoing an economic and military expansion. At the same time as the economic expansion, many educated and wealthier English began travelling around Europe and saw countries like Italy and France with their own literature in their own language (Bragg, 2003, p. 119). England was seeking a literature of its own to reflect its new and rich status at the time of the Tudors.

For much of the 16th century troupes of actors had been travelling around England performing plays incorporating local dialects into their performances. Towards the end of the century a lot of these acting troupes settled in London, and particularly in Southwark on the south bank of the Thames. These stages became a melting pot of English and the playwrights of the period transformed the English language that people were watching and hearing in the plays (ibid., p. 139). These plays tended not to use props or scenery but relied on language as the main vehicle to capture the imagination of the audience. The scene was set for the emergence of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare and his contemporaries like Marlowe and Jonson started writing plays for these acting troupes that had set up in south London and their plays started attracting large crowds. The Globe Theatre where Shakespeare’s plays were performed could hold up to three thousand five hundred people. There were five other theatres that could hold the same amount. Suddenly large numbers of people were coming to hear and see plays that were spoken and written in the English language.

William Shakespeare’s imagination and vocabulary matched the discovery and exploration of the Renaissance. Shakespeare worked with the vernacular and showed others what could be done. He filled the English language with words like accommodation, assassination, dislocate, indistinguishable, obscene and submerged (McCrum & MacNeil, 1992, p. 98).

If the assassination/ could trammel up the consequence, and catch, / with his surcease, success; that but this blow/ might be the be-all and the end-all – here... (Shakespeare, 1600-1601 I, vii, 2)

He also coined dozens of new phrases, which have entered the English language. Just one play, Hamlet, included numerous quotable quotes:

More in sorrow than anger/ Something is rotten in the state of Denmark/ Brevity is the soul of wit/ Though this be madness, yet there is method in it/ To be or not to be: that is the question/ I must be cruel, only to be kind/ The rest is silence. (McCrum & MacNeil, 1992, p. 103)

These words and phrases are so important in speech and literature now that it seems impossible to imagine how an English speaker could be as expressive without them.

Melvyn Bragg neatly summed up the emergence of the English vernacular during the Renaissance in his book The Adventure of English:

The English language flowed into religion. It had already returned to the court and into the state and begun to be the language of a vivid and vigorous national literature. Now with the split from Rome it conquered the last and highest bastion, the church.(Melvyn Bragg, 2003, p. 112)

The vernacular language in England developed significantly during the Renaissance. The invention of the printing press encouraged the growth of literature. It made it easier for lower classes in England who did not know Latin to be able to learn and read in a language that they spoke and understood. The ability to print books in large numbers, helped with the spread of language by a faster production of literature including the Bible and non-religious work as well. Many new words were added to the English language as England opened up to trade with other parts of the world and English people increasingly travelled overseas. Most importantly, playwrights such as William Shakespeare and other contemporary writers captured and moulded the essence of the English vernacular for the mass of lower and middle class England.

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Annotated Bibliography


Bragg, Melvyn 2003, The Adventure of English, Hodder & Stoughton, Great Britain

McCrum, Robert Cran, William Macneil, Robert 1992, The Story of English, Faber and Faber Ltd., England

Morgan, Kenneth O. 1984, The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Quiller-Couch, Sir Arthur 1987, The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1918, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Alexander, Peter 1951, William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, Collins, Great Britain.

Shakespeare, William 1992 or 1600-1601, Dictionary of Quotations from Shakespeare, Macbeth, selected by Miner, Margaret and Rawson, Hugh, Penguin Books, England.


Author unknown, 2011, 'Renaissance English literature', Accessed at on 29/5/11

Assessment Task


  1. ^ This was the translation of the French book the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye.
  2. ^ The first dated book printed in England in English was Dictess or Sayengis of the Philosophres in 1477.
  3. ^ He wanted to divorce his first wife so that he could marry his mistress Anne Boleyn, a wish the Pope would not grant.