BETWEEN the twelfth and fifteenth centuries English literature was diffused as it was diverse; it was composed for no one type of audience and no special class. The ballads were written primarily for the entertainment of the common people, but even in so "courtly" a writer as Chaucer there is much that is forthright, racy, and vulgar -- in the sense of vulgus, pertaining to "the people."
As we approach the sixteenth century, literature grows more patrician; with Wyatt, Howard, Raleigh, and Spenser poetry becomes the expression of an aristocracy. The aristocratic spirit remained dominant for almost two centuries, when it gave way to a literature written with organized society as its background, a literature concerned with the middle class and written chiefly by the middle class. Another century brought another change. Society itself was challenged by the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century; the "romantic" period of Wordsworth and Shelley was devoted to the idea of individualism. But, as the "new learning" began to lure the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century man of culture, civilization was reflected in an increasing "elevation" of manner. The social sense, as V. de Sola Pinto wrote in THE ENGLISH RENAISSANCE, "was established by the Tudors, and exploited by the Stuarts, till it came to an end at the Revolution of 1688," when James II fled to France.