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The Medieval Period
(The Middle Ages)
“Patience is a high virtue.” Geoffrey Chaucer “The
Franklin’s Tale”, The Canterbury Tales
“Manners maketh man.” William of Wykeham—motto of
two colleges at Oxford
Introductory Notes
British Literature
The Norman Conquest of England
• Alfred the Great defeated the Danes (King
Hrothgar’s people) and confined them to the
north of England
• In 1066, the English King, Edward the Confessor
died, and Harold II (Edward’s cousin) claimed
that he should be the new king
• Duke William of Normandy (with the church’s
support) invaded England and defeated Harold
at the Battle of Hastings.
• In four years, the Normans killed most of the
English nobility and divided the land into estates
known as fiefdoms, ruled by the Frenchspeaking barons loyal to William the Conqueror
Anglo-Norman Literature
• For 200 years (1066-1260), after the conquest
of the Normans, English became a “lower-class”
language, one spoken almost by the poor and
• The language of the rich was Norman-French
• The production of English Literature was
• The production of Anglo-Norman literature was
quite practical, in keeping with the character of
the Norman people
• Much of it consists of religious tracts and other
works meant for general learning
• The political system brought to England by
William the Conqueror
• All of the land belonged to the King, who
granted land to nobility, called Barons
– Barons were bound in loyalty to the king, had to
raise armies to fight his battles, and pay taxes to
support his court
• Barons granted land to lesser nobles and
required services and taxes from them
• At the very bottom of the social order was a
class of bondsmen, known as peasants or serfs
Other Nobles
• The life of a serf was terrible
• They were the property of their
feudal lords and could not leave
the land or even marry without
• They lived on meager diets,
suffered terribly from disease,
and worked very hard only to turn
over much of what they produced
for the support of the lord’s
• Occasionally, a serf could earn
his freedom by some exceptional
service to his lord. This class of
freed serfs (or freemen) grew to
include many merchants, traders,
and artisans.
The Influence of the Church
• At no time in history of England was
the influence of the church greater
than during the Medieval period
• The Roman Catholic Church had
tremendous power, money, and
• The head of the church was the Pope
• Much of the literature of the time
was religious
Henry II
• In 1154, Henry II became King of
• He despised the fact that the church
had (technically) more power than he did
• He wanted to curb some of that power
by appointing his friend, Thomas Becket,
to the Archbishop’s seat in Canterbury
when it became open.
• He expected Becket to go along with his
views and support his every wish for
change. But…
• Instead, Becket defied royal policy and
appealed to the Pope. The Pope supported
Becket, which enraged Henry.
• Some of Henry’s knights misunderstood
Henry’s rage and in 1170, four of them went
to Canterbury and murdered Becket in his
• Henry quickly condemned the crime and tried
to atone for it by making a pilgrimage to
Canterbury to Becket’s tomb
• He built a shrine to his friend and that shrine
became an example of religious devotion
Growth of Towns
• Towns in England were growing rapidly
• Townspeople grouped themselves into
associations, called guilds, according to
their vocation
• As these guilds became more powerful,
some of them became corrupt
• Also, as towns grew, many combined into
cities. With the growing population, it
was only inevitable that…
• 1348-1349—Because of unsanitary
conditions, disease was widespread and the
worst plague in history, the black death, swept
through England
• It killed one-third of the population
Middle Ages (later part of the Medieval
• As the Black Plague waned, so did the Feudal
• Many peasant revolts caused the noblemen to
lose some of their power
– 1381-Peasant Revolt: Jack Straw and Wat Tyler
rebelled in demand for individual liberty and human
• The idea of chivalry and romance emerged
once again
– Code of chivalry—loyalty, valor, both on and off
the battlefield
The War of the Roses
• Began in 1453, when King Henry VI
suffered his first bout of madness
• Parliament appointed his cousin, Richard
of York, as temporary head of England
until Henry was able to return
• Henry recovered briefly and Richard was
forced from office. But Richard was not
willing to leave without a fight.
• This resulted in a Civil War, known as the
War of the Roses, because it pitted the
House of York (Richard’s side) whose
family symbol was a white rose against the
House of Lancaster (Henry’s side) whose
family symbol was a red rose
• The House of Lancaster ultimately won the
Civil War in 1485 (30 years later)
Medieval Literature
• Crusades (11th-13th centuries): holy wars to
recapture Jerusalem—Europe supported and
fought in these wars.
• Devotion to the Virgin Mary influenced the
development of a unique type of literature known
as romance—which portrayed the standards of
knightly conduct known as chivalry
• Romances were stories of adventure and dealt
with the exploits of knights (battles, jousts, etc).
They would present a series of tests or trials of the
knight’s virtues
• Most famous---the tales of King Arthur and the
Knights of the Round Table. These tales were
handed down orally until written down around
Medieval Literature
• 1476-William Caxton introduced
movable type to England
• Geoffrey Chaucer: in many
estimates, he ranks second only to
Shakespeare as England’s greatest
writer. He wrote The Canterbury
Tales, a series of verse told by
different pilgrims on their way to
the tomb of Thomas Becket
Medieval Literature
• Ballads: songs of the common people, fourline stanzas that served as entertainment and
as records of events that captured the
popular imagination.
• Robin Hood and similar stories
• Morality plays: represented abstract virtues
and vices as actual characters
• Mystery plays: told stories from the Bible
• Miracle plays: told stories from the lives of
Other Interesting/Famous Events:
• 1215: Magna Carta- limited the power of the
King. Caused by Henry II’s son John because
he was a heavy taxer, Parliament forced him
to sign it
• 1339-1453: 100 Year’s War over possession
of French land
– Joan of Arc (1412-1431) helped France to win
back its land
• Late 14th century: John Wycliff finished the
1st complete translation of the Bible into