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The Middle Ages in England

H i s t o r i c a l  B a c k g r o u n d

Prehistory: The Iberians, the Picts; the creation of the Stonehenge

5th century B.C.: The Celts, the Gauls; evidence in the language: e.g. bog, glen and many proper nouns; the origin of the Arthurian legend

43 - c. 420 A.D.: Roman invasion and occupation of Britain

c. 450: Anglo-Saxon Conquest, the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians; evidence in the language: Essex, Sussex and Wessex, occupied by the East, South and West Saxons

597: St Augustine arrives to Kent; beginning of Anglo-Saxon conversion to Christianity

871 - 899: Reign of King Alfred the Great

1066: Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror, the Battle of Hastings

1360 - 1400: Geoffrey Chaucer; Piers Plowman; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

1485: William Caxton's printing of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte D'Arthur, one of the first books printed in England

P e r i o d  C h a r a c t e r i s t i c s

- the Middle Ages = the time span from the collapse of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance

- the date 1485 = the year of the accession of Henry VII and the beginning of the Tudor dynasty, used to mark the end of the Middle Ages for convenience

(1) Anglo-Saxon England (c. 450 - 1066)

- language: Old English, in this period clearly displays the kinship to other Germanic languages

- literature: shares a body of heroic as well as Christian legends with other Germanic literatures

- texts: Beowulf, "The Wanderer"

(2) Anglo-Norman England (1066 - c. end of the 13th century)

- language: the French of the ruling class, remains in loan words in the English vocabulary

- literature: fascination with the legendary hero Arthur, originating in Celtic literature

(3) Middle English Literature in the 14th and 15th Centuries

- language: Middle English, gradual displacement of French by English

- literature: emergence of the awareness and pride in a uniquely English literature, a new sense of English as literary medium able to compete with French and Latin

- texts: Geoffrey Chaucer; Piers Plowman; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight


M e d i e v a l  S o c i e t y  S t r a t i f i c a t i o n

- medieval society was made up of three estates:

> the nobility, a small hereditary aristocracy, whose mission on earth was to rule over and defend the body politic

> the church, whose duty was to look after the spiritual welfare of that body

> the commoners, a large mass, who was supposed to do the work that provided for its physical needs

- in Chaucer's time a growing and prosperous middle class was beginning to play an increasingly important role, blurring the traditional class boundaries


A n g l o - S a x o n  E n g l a n d

C u l t u r e

- based on the aristocratic heroic and kinship values, emphasizes especially the uncle-nephew relationship

- the tribe is ruled by a chieftain called king, the lord surrounds himself with a band of retainers, often his kins

- the faithfulness of the warriors is rewarded by royal generosity, the good king is called a ring-giver

- the king sets an example which his men are to follow

- life is harsh, men are said to be cheerful in the mead hall, but even there they think of struggle in war

- blood vengeance is a sacred duty

- Romantic love does not exist yet, women are paid no attention

O l d  E n g l i s h  P o e t r y

- the Anglo-Saxon invaders brought a tradition of oral poetry performed in alliterative verse by a scop, i.e. bard

- poetry is moulded by the inherent conflict between the heroic code and the Christian religion

- much of the Christian poetry is also cast in the heroic mode: "The Dream of the Rood", "Caedmon's Hymn"

- the poetic diction consists of formulaic phrases and repetitions of parallel syntactic structures

- uses synecdoche (keel for ship), metonymy (iron for sword) and kenning, i.e. a compound of two words in place of another which creates a condensed metaphor (life-house for body)

- uses parallel and appositive expressions known as variation (God as holy Creator, Master Almighty etc.)

- also uses irony and litotes, i.e. ironic understatement (battle-play for fighting)


A n g l o - N o r m a n  E n g l a n d

C e l t i c  L e g e n d s

- Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes both claimed to have obtained their narratives from Breton storytellers

- the former speaks respectfully of the storytellers, the latter accuses them of marring their material which he had to weave in a more elegant fusion of form and meaning

- both were 12th century authors writing in French and using romances as a means of exploring psychological and ethical dilemmas and the individual's relation to society


R o m a n c e

- roman = the word was originally applied in French to a work written in the French vernacular

- romance = eventually acquired the meaning of a story dealing with chivalric adventures and courtly love

- the knight, obliged to obey the gentlemanly code of behaviour, sets off for a quest, often involving the saving of a damsel in distress threatened by monsters, dragons or vicious knights

- the romance contrasts with the previous period (love to a lady was not a subject of Anglo-Saxon literature), started a revolution in thinking about love and today influences our ways of thinking and perceiving

< initiated by the Troubadour poets in Italy and Southern France in 13th and 14th centuries

< Dante's idealisation of love to Beatrice in La Vita Nuova (The New Life, 1283 - 1293)

< also influenced by the worship of Virgin Mary

< might have been influenced by the misunderstanding of the wit and irony in The Remedy of Love, originally by Ovid, then a tale by Chaucer

A r t h u r i a n  L e g e n d

- characters: King Arthur; Arthur's wife Guinevere; the magician Merlin; Arthur's evil half-sister Morgana le Fay; Arthur's best knight Lancelot; Arthur's nephew Mordred

- attributes: Excalibur (the sword in the stone); the Round Table (designed to make all the seated knights equal); the quest for the Holy Grail (the cup used to caught Christ's blood, then used by Apostles); the capital city Camelot; the heavenly city Avalon (to which Arthur retires after his death)

- the myth of Arthur's return: a recurrent myth of the hero being not really dead but asleep somewhere to return to save his people when needed

- later renderings: Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1856 - 1885), Terence Hanbury White's The Once and Future King (1958), Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon (1982) etc.

L e g e n d a r y  H i s t o r i e s

- told by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace and Layamon in Latin, French and Middle English respectively

- begin with a foundation myth, a heroic account of national origins modelled on Virgil's Aeneid (in Virgil's epic Rome is founded by refugees from the fall of Troy; in British legends another band of refugees establishes Britain)

- end with the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the native Britons

- fascinated with the prestige and power of ancient Rome

- the figure of King Arthur, who had defeated Rome itself, flattered the ambitions of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy

- at the same time the destruction of Arthur's kingdom served as a lesson of the consequences of civil wars


Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.

Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. New York: Clarendon Press, 1994.


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