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The Middle Ages
Fast Facts
Political and Social Highlights
• King Alfred and his descendants unite AngloSaxon England in the late ninth century.
• William the Conqueror defeats the Anglo-Saxons
in 1066 and introduces feudalism to Britain.
• English barons force King John to sign the Magna
Carta in 1215.
• In 1348 and 1349, the Black Death reduces
England’s population by a third.
The Anglo-Saxon Period and the Middle Ages
Fast Facts
Literary Highlights
• The bards ensure stories have an important
position in early British culture.
• Chivalry gives rise to a new form of literature,
the romance.
[End of Section]
Key Concept:
The Normans Invade Britain
History of the Times
• In the Norman invasion of 1066,
William the Conqueror defeats the
• To squash revolts, William divided
the land among his loyal barons and
built castles around the country.
• By establishing a social structure called
feudalism, William created a hierarchy of rulers
under one lord and a network of thousands of
knights sworn to serve him.
Key Concept:
The Normans Invade Britain
Literature of the Times
• Old English disappears from laws and
literature after William makes French
the language of the state.
• Literature is written in Norman French
—or in Latin in the monasteries.
• Bibles and gospels created in monasteries are
celebrated for their brilliant illuminated
manuscripts, all created by hand.
• Other literature includes poems, religious
allegories, morality plays, and biographies.
Key Concept:
Life in Medieval Society
History of the Times
• Medieval society was dependent on strictly
defined social classes—nobility, knights, priests,
merchants, and peasants and serfs.
• The contributions of each group affected
how well villages and towns prospered.
• Villages, built around castles, were the
fundamental center of medieval society.
• Social mobility was nearly impossible in the
Middle Ages. Social status remained fixed.
Key Concept:
Life in Medieval Society
Literature of the Times
• Some medieval writers begin to use the
vernacular, or language of the people.
• Works written in English, such as ballads and
romances, help to define England’s identity.
• A new literary form—the romance narrative—
reflects the ideals of courtly love and chivalry.
• Scholarly works from monasteries and
universities reflect society’s interest in moral
instruction and morality plays.
Medieval Narrative
Influences on the Medieval Narrative
• Popular legends from the early Middle Ages that
were embellished over time
• Religious literature that passed along the ideals
and beliefs of an era
• Urban growth, cultural development, and
widespread disease that altered social structures
Medieval Narrative
The Dark Ages?
Despite the challenges of war, plague, and
oppression, the Middle Ages were hardly “dark.” We
are indebted to the Middle Ages for many modern
ideas and institutions, including
• universities
• governmental forms
• concepts of the world
• concepts of God
Medieval Narrative
The Dark Ages?
The medieval narratives that have survived reflect
much of the time’s positive outlook.
• Many stories from the
period contain the
same passion, humor,
and sense of wonder
that we see today.
Medieval Narrative
Adventure, Morality, Life
The term medieval often conjures up images of
knights riding off into battle or on magical quests.
• These heroic adventures were the
foundation for the popular romance
literature of the era.
• Much of this narrative tradition emerged
from earlier stories, such as the King
Arthur legends.
Medieval Narrative
Adventure, Morality, Life
The same themes and subjects that consume us
today are found throughout medieval stories:
• Love
• Conquest
• Betrayal • Hope
• Desire
Medieval Narrative
Adventure, Morality, Life
Religious narratives were also a significant part of
medieval culture.
• These texts combined entertaining travel
adventures with morally instructive religious
• The Golden Legend, by Jacobus da Varagine,
is a thirteenth-century collection of stories
about saints’ lives.
Medieval Narrative
Adventure, Morality, Life
Religious narratives were often allegories, stories
in which literal elements represent abstract or
moral concepts.
Through the use of allegory,
medieval literature
• explored cultural ideals
• confirmed values
• amused audiences
Medieval Narrative
Adventure, Morality, Life
As the Middle Ages progressed, elements of daily
life found their way into stories.
• reality of city
• fear of the
Medieval Narrative
Adventure, Morality, Life
Two pieces of literature from the Middle Ages
stand out as vital links to the modern world.
The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio
• a collection of stories set during the
time of the Black Death
• explores diverse characters
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
• includes romance, faith, humor,
alongside darker, humanistic themes
Medieval Romance
The medieval romance narrative features an
idealized hero who
• undertakes a quest in the
service of a lady or a high
• faces a series of tests
• meets dragons or
supernatural beings
The romance narrative can be prose or poetry.
Medieval Romance
Many medieval romances are about Camelot
and King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table.
These Arthurian romances
were made popular by
Chrétien de Troyes, a French
court poet, during the second
half of the twelfth century.
Medieval Romance
Not Just a Love Story
Love can play a role in the Arthurian romance,
but the focus is the hero.
Because the hero is bound by the code of chivalry,
many romances are about seeking justice and
helping people in need.
Today, romance
describes any story that
presents a happier, more
perfect, or more heroic