By looking at central historical events, we learn more about how and why a people become what and who they are. A country’s culture and literature develop in step with its history. Sometimes literature reflects the changing times, sometimes it predicts changes and sometimes it is even a catalyst for change in its own time. For our purposes, literature – that is poems, lyrics, stories, biographies, drama, novels and speeches – helps us to reflect on and better understand the periods we are examining. This why we have put extra texts (including tasks) here on the website.
The Reves Tale / The Reeve’s Tale
This text comes from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and is written in 14th-century English. Reading the original version should give you a good idea of just how much the English language has developed over the centuries. It is also typical of the type of story that was popular during this age.
The Ballad of Barbara Allen
A ballad is a song which tells a story, and this was the way news travelled in medieval England. This ballad is about love, or perhaps unrequited love, and its images and sad outcome are typical of its time.
Queen Elizabeth’s Speech at Tilbury
This is the rousing speech Queen Elizabeth I made to her army in 1588 as the Spanish Armada threatened invasion. The speech shows Elizabeth’s powers of speech and bears witness to her abilities as a leader.
The sonnet, a 14-line poem written in a special strict format, was one of the most typical forms of emotional expression of its time. The sonnet here is written by William Shakespeare, one of the great writers in the English language. That in itself is good enough reason for reading the sonnet, but also of interest is the style of language and the way the sonnet is used to develop one idea.
God Save the Queen
“God Save the Queen” is the official national anthem of the United Kingdom and has been so since the late 1700s, although most often with the word “King” rather than “Queen”. The text gives the background story of the anthem.
A Modest Proposal
Jonathan Swift is one of the most brilliant satirists to have written in the English language. We have provided an extract from his pamphlet, published in 1729, suggesting a “remedy” for poverty in Ireland – poverty which Swift believed was largely the result of the English government’s policies. We include it as an excellent example of the satirical style of writing, and as it is a statement on the difficulties and prejudices of the time.
Extract from Oliver Twist
Charles Dickens is perhaps the most important English novelist of the 19th century. He is known for revealing and describing social injustice and poverty through his novels. His works often paint a dismal picture of the 19th century from which we can learn how people experienced life during that time of early industrialisation. In Oliver Twist (1830) events are seen through the eyes of the child protagonist.
The Chartist Outbreak
This is a newspaper report from a developing riot of citizens angry at the arrest of some Chartist activists in 1867. It informs us of the early beginning of what eventually became the Labour movement. It is also an early example of newspaper reporting.
The Diary of John Smith
This is a brief excerpt from the diary of Captain John Smith, recounting his meeting with Pocahontas and the manner in which she saved his life. It reflects the original English of the 17th century, though the spelling has been standardized.
The Art of Virtue
This is Benjamin Franklin’s famous attempt to achieve moral perfection through systematic self-improvement. It turns out to be more difficult than he had imagined.
The Star Spangled Banner
We present the lyrics of the national anthem of the United States and the circumstances under which it was written. Surprisingly, it was during one of the few wars that America has lost.
Letters from Norwegian Immigrants
These are 19th-century letters from Norwegian immigrants, translated into English and made available as first-hand texts. The voice from the past takes you on a transatlantic journey.
This is an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau’s famous book about humanity’s relationship to nature. Written in the 19th century, it is has become an inspiration to ecological movements as well as to those seeking to understand humanity’s place in the universe.
The Gettysburg Address
President Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech is an excellent example of clear, clean rhetoric.
It was given at the consecration of the Gettysburg cemetery for soldiers who had fallen in the pivotal battle of the war.
Little Big Horn
This is the story of the famous defeat of General George Armstrong Custer at the hands of the Dakota Sioux, told from their point of view. All Custer’s troops were wiped out in one of the few major victories of the Native Americans in the long war for North America. The Sioux paid a terrible price for it.