Old English (or Anglo Saxon)
For this period think before 1066 and think Beowulf. This epic poem was a first major work not written in Latin or Greek. Just a quick sidestep while I put this long standing query of mine to bed:
Q. How on Earth is it pronounced?
A. Bay uh wulf (I find ‘Bayer wulf’ easier to remember and it’s almost the same)
Middle English (or medieval)
For this period think 1066 to 1550 and think Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A major theme of this period was Christianity and the difference between an ideal Christian life and the actual reality of life.
For this period think up to 1650 and think Shakespeare. The English Language of the time doesn’t look too different to what we know today. There is a move away from religious ideals towards self interest and a secular focus.
Think 1700’s and think Henry Fielding or Samuel Richardson. This was the period of the ‘novel’ and the role of the individual in society with a desire for social order.
Think early 1800’s and think Jane Austen, and Blake and Wordsworth and Shelley and Keats and Coleridge. Austen was certainly writing of social order and conduct and manners which is slightly at odds with the poets. For them, this was the period of nature, the imagination, the sublime and the transience of life.
Think 1830 to 1900. Time for Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Tennyson and Browning. A period of great change; Darwin’s The Origin of Species threw science into the equation, Freud’s work made people think about the darker side of human nature and society was becoming more complex. There was huge social reform, industrialisation and the building of an Empire.
Think early 1900’s and think Hardy, Conrad, T S Eliot and ….. Virginia Woolf. This is a period where life was felt to be so confusing that making sense of it all was a challenge. There was a decline in religion and there was World War which broke the traditional order of life and plunged it all into chaos. The result was a boom in the arts as an expression of feeling. Works of this type are undeniably often difficult to understand, and Virginia’s works are certainly challenging, but authors were only trying to make sense of all the confusion.