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Medieval Notes



Monarchs of Period

Norman Rulers

1066-1087          William the Conqueror

1087-1100          William II

1100-1135          Henry I

1135-1154          Stephen


1154-1189          Henry II

1189-1199          Richard I

1199-1216        John

1216-1272        Henry III

1272-1307        Edward I

1307-1327        Edward II

1327-1377        Edward III

1377-1399        Richard II

House of Lancaster

1399-1413        Henry IV

1413-1422        Henry V

1483-1485        Henry VI

House of York

1461-1483            Edward IV

1483              Edward V

1483-1485            Richard III

House of Tutor

1485-1509       Henry VII            


I.            Important Dates

            A.            1086—Domesday Book is compiled

            B.            1170—Thomas Becket is martyred

            C.            1215—King John signs the Magna Carta

            D.            1337—the Hundred Years’ War between England and France begins

            E.            1348—the Black Death strikes England

            F.            1381—the Peasants’ Revolt in England

            G.            1455-85—War of the Roses

            H.            1485—the crowning of the first Tutor king

II.            Background

      When William the Conqueror defeated English forces at the Battle of Hastings, Anglo-Saxon England came to a close.  Hardly any phase of English life was left unchanged by the conquest.  The influence was felt strongly in government, the church, language, and literature.

A.            Government

                 Government became centralized under the feudal system.  Society became classified into lords, knights (coat of arms made clear who the knight inside the armor was), and serfs.  This class system was accepted because medieval man believed that full equality could not exist on earth.  Feudal society was geared toward war.  Disputes arose between countries or lords of the same country, and these disputes were settled by a show of force, since powerful lords kept standing armies.  The king possessed only a little more power than the strongest lord, and her had to work to keep the throne from being taken from him.  National unity, as we know it, did not exist.  Instead, a kind of watchful peace usually prevailed.

                   1.          Chivalry—Feudal system revolved around knight, the mounted warrior who became its symbol.  Knight swore to uphold the code of chivalry:  1) Loyalty to King, 2) Loyalty to Church, and 3) Reverence toward women.  In the late middle ages, the three parts of the Chivalric Code often came into conflict with each other.  Religious loyalty might demand that the knight fight in a Crusade, thus leaving the king’s lands unprotected, or the idea of reverence toward women might lead the knight astray, as seen in the courtly love tradition.

                   2.          Courtly Love—idea of the knight’s lady began as a “parlor game” in the south of France. Knights were presented with problems involving conflicting loyalties which they were told to solve without violating any of their codes.  Eventually, the lady ruled; however, to rule, the lady could not be the knight’s wife; thus, the courtly love relationship eventually became an adulterous one.  It is this aspect of the courtly love tradition that causes the downfall of the legendary King Arthur’s Round Table.

B.     Church—the great uniting factor in Medieval England was the Church because the faith of the Normans was the same as that of most of the conquered English (Catholicism).  Since most people were illiterate anyway, it made it very little difference to the common man whether the priest who administered mass spoke English or French in his daily life.  The magnificent cathedrals built during this time testify to the fact that these ages were centuries of faith.  In a world of war, plague, and violent death, Medieval man clung to the Church’s teachings.  Membership in the Church secured him his place in society; excommunication was equal to being condemned to a life of total isolation.  Education was the responsibility of the Church in Norman England.  Before the invention of the printing press, manuscripts were copied by hand in the monasteries.  Monks and priests passed on the teachings of Greek and Roman scholars, as well as those of the Church, to the students who flocked to learn.

            1.            Political involvements of Church

            a.   Has worldly power as well as spiritual power and often involved itself in political affairs

            b.   Church and King were known as “the two swords of God”—the only question was which sword was greater!

            c.   Most famous political quarrel involving church and king was between Henry II and Thomas Beckett, Archbishop of Canterbury.  Becket believed that clerics had the right to a trial by their peers, who were more likely to let them off the hook.  Henry wanted to do away with special privileges for priests.  In anger, he spoke against Becket, and was heard by some rough soldiers who took Henry’s words as an invitation to murder.  They killed Becket as he was praying in the cathedral at Canterbury.

            2.          Crusades—the religious zeal of the Middle Ages inspired the great religious movement known as “the Crusades”

                   a.            The object of the Crusades was to take the Holy Land from the Muslims.

                   b.   Richard the Lionhearted, King of England and son of Henry II was the leader of one Crusade

                   c.   Largely unsuccessful in regaining the Holy Land, but profoundly affected Europe.  For the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, men traveled widely.

                            i.         Knights saw new places; brought back new fashions in fabric, clothing, furniture, and food

                               ii.            Scholars rediscovered the literature of ancient Greece and Rome

                               iii.            Horizons were widened and civilization took a giant step forward

            C.            Language

                         1.       Conquered Anglo-Saxons spoke Old English; Normans spoke French.

                   2.          For 150 years, English was the language of the common man and lower classes—no literature written in English

                   3.          The court, government, and most literature and documents written in Latin or Norman French

                   4.       Around 1200, English began to reappear, however, in a changed form.

                   5.          Change is attributed to either Norman fathers marrying English mothers and having bilingual children who leaned toward the mother’s native language; or social and trade interaction led to a language compromise.

                   6.          By 1400, the peak period of French borrowing, the process was nearly complete.  French words with specific definitions became a part of English, and today, ¼ of our language can be traced to French roots.

            D.            Literature

                   1.          Emerging literature written in English was what the common man liked to hear, as opposed to what might be heard at the King’s Court

                   2.          Humor and satire became standard part of literature

                   3.          Non-noble characters became increasingly popular

                   4.          Normans brought great stories in verse, and the chivalric appearance in the works of the day

                   5.            Literature of the day took one of three different directions (all quite different)

         i.   The alliterative revival—hearkens back to the Anglo-Saxon style.  Most famous writers of the style are William Langland, who wrote Piers Plowman; and the Pearl Poet, an unknown churchman, who is famous for Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

         ii.   Cycle tales like Italian Boccacio’s Decameron—Most famous is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

         iii.   Arthurian Romances—Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, which is a compilation of Arthurian romances from both French and English sources.  These stories tend to follow the courtly love theme.


II.       Important Topics and Events of the Middle Ages—Toward the end, the common man began to rise.  No longer could kings, lords, and the church hold him in subjugations.  Several events contributed to this rise.

            A.            The Black Death (1348-1349)—the plague swept Europe. 

             1.          In Western Europe ¼ to 1/3 of the population died (that’s roughly twenty-five million) rich and poor; young and old; cleric, lord, and peasant.

             2.     When it was over, labor was scarce and an ambitious man could make a good living in a town, esp. if he knew a trade.

            B.     The Peasants’ Revolt (1381)—the laboring class asserted its right for higher wages.  Headed by the rebel cleric John Ball, and Wat Tyler, a rebel leader who wanted to abolish all social classes and privileges.  The revolt ended with Tyler’s death.

            C.            Beginnings of national government

             1.      England ruled by two families during medieval period

                      a.   William of Normandy (or William the Conqueror) and his direct descendents (1066-1154)

                               b.            The Plantagenets, beginning with Henry II (1154-1485)

                   2.            Three important events helped the progress toward a national government

                               a.            Judicial reform—beginning during the reign of Henry II

                               b.            Granting of the Magna Carta—during the reign of John

                               c.            Beginnings of Parliaments—during the reign of Edward I

                   3.          When Henry II came to the throne in 1154, he found a confused and corrupt state of justice.  He divided country into districts and appointed judges over each.  King John disregarded his father’s provisions for justice.  He jailed me on false charges, denied trials, and imposed rigid taxes.  In 1215, the nobles joined forces at Runnymede, and forced John to sign the Great Charter or Magna Carta.  This document established by law certain liberties of the Englishmen and showed that the king, like the people, was subject to law.  Edward I, grandson of John, extended the rights of Englishmen again.  He called the first Parliament in 1295 in which all classes of the kingdom were included.

                   4.          Hundred Years’ War (1336-1453)—France and England fought an on-again, off-again war.  French lost several important battles and territory to the English knights and their master weapon, the longbow.  The use of the longbow revolutionized war because it made steel armor useless.  British eventually lost French territory and stopped thinking of themselves as Anglo-Normans and began to consider themselves English.  An important political development was the coming to power of the House of Bolingbroke, later immortalized in Shakespeare’s plays.

                   5.          War of the Roses—Two rival factions, the House of Lancaster and the House of York, were fighting for the throne.  Henry VI (a Lancaster and weak king) lost his throne to Edward IV (a York).  Called the War of the roses because the white and red roses were the symbols of the Houses.

                   6.          Invention of the Printing Press—William Caxton, a wealthy merchant from England, saw the press in Cologne, Germany.  He learned the process and returned to England.  Set up his first press in 1476 at Westminster.  The invention of the Printing press and the availability of printed materials ushered in the Renaissance in England.  Among the early books Caxton printed were the Canterbury Tales (1478) and Morte D’Arthur (1485).


III.       Social Portraits

            A.            Amusements

            1.      Minstrels

            2.      Jousting matches

            3.      Feasts

            4.      Hunting

            5.      Cards and Chess

            6.      Singing and dancing

            7.      Dolls for girls

            8.      toy soldiers,

            9.      whips, and tops for boys

            B.            Travel

                   1.          three methods of travel:  horseback, carriage, and foot

                   2.          Highways and bridges—responsibility of landowner, and usually placed under the protection of a patron saint.  London Bridge was dedicated to St. Thomas a’ Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.

                   3.          Dangers—holes in the road, washed out bridges, and outlaws were major threats to travelers.

                   4.          Travel by ship was not yet popular

            C.            Life on a country manor

                   1.          The feudal system was in effect.  Serfs worked on large estates called manors.  The lord’s residence was a large manor house, which was almost self-supporting.

                   2.          Business of lord and knights was warfare. 

                   3.          Serf lived in a nearby village and worked the farmland.

                   4.          Farmland divided into three narrow fields; usually two were planted with crops and third allowed to lie fallow.  These fields were divided into narrow strips in each field hat the serf was responsible for.

                   5.          Some of the crops grown in each strip went to feed the serf’s family and the rest went the lord.

                   6.          The serfs could not leave the land but neither could the lord send them away.

            D.     Life in an English Monastery—monastery consisted of the kitchen, cells, church, chapel, and library.  Monks and priests taught and copied manuscripts.  An abbot governed them.  A typical day looked like this:

              1.       Rising       2:00 A. M.

              2.       Prayers

              3.       Work

              4.       Reading

              5.       Dinner

              6.       Work

              7.       Vespers (devotional)

              8.       Supper

              9.       Bedtime     6:30 P. M.

            E.            Life of a minstrel—A wandering poet-musician

                   1.            Entertained not only in castles and feast-halls but also in villages

                   2.            Made up their own songs or repeated old legends

                   3.            Profession died out with the invention of the printing press

             F.             London—Growth of a medieval city

                   1.          Because the population of England was agrarian (agricultural) at the beginning of the Middle Ages, London, though the capital, was small.

                   2.          London began to grow with after the Black Death when people began to leave the manor houses.  An old saying was, “The air of the town makes a man free”—meaning that once a serf came into the city, he could begin working for himself, not a landlord.

                   3.          The middle class, a merchant class of tradesmen and skilled laborers began to rise.

                   4.          Trade increased and with it, some means of regulating trade was necessary; therefore, the guild system grew up.  Skilled craftsmen organized themselves into training and regulating bodies called guilds—they made sure standards and prices were regularized.

                   5.            Despite the growth of London (50,000 by 1400), living conditions were poor.

                               a.            houses were close together,

                               b.            streets were narrow, dark, and crooked

                               c.            sanitation was almost nonexistent

                      d.   a frequent cry, “Garde de loo,” meant, “Get out of the way” as a housewife or servant emptied chamber pots right into the street.

IV.            Literary Selections

            A.     Ballads were sung for centuries before they were written down.  As a result, exactly how or when they developed or originated is unknown.  It is known that they were sung by uneducated people in the Middle Ages.  The word “ballad” comes from a French word meaning “dance song.”

                   1.            Four ballad themes—they reflect the lives of people who snatched at happiness and faced tragedy

                        a.     Love

                        b.     Courage

                        c.     Enmity

                        d.     Death

                   2.     Three types of ballads

                  a.   Folk ballads—the oldest of the three types, these were probably composed by a local singer to commemorate an event.  They were passed from generation to generation.  Words were often dropped or added.  The tone of these ballads is usually tragic.  They often end in death by accident, murder, suicide, or with the return of the dead.  Death is viewed impersonally.  In the folk ballad, we find two types of repetition:

                     i.   incremental—repetition of lines containing some small additions

                     ii.   refrain—chorus

                  b.   Minstrel ballads—these take their name from the fact that the originators were often minstrels who both composed and sang the ballads.  These are often longer and more literary than the folk ballad.

                  c.   Coronach or lament—these are the most personal.  They often add a lyrical note—a personal reaction to tragedy.

               3.   Ballad form

                  a.   Stanza—the typical stanza is four lines with four accents in the first and third lines and three accents in the rhyming second and fourth lines.

                  b.   Rhythm—since they are meant to be sung, their rhythm differs from the rhythm of speech.

 The ballads we have here are in the closest form we have to the Middle English dialect—the dialect of the Scottish Highlands.  “Sir Patrick Spens”—while we are unsure, this ballad may be based on an actual happening, the loss of a ship that had taken a princess of Scotland to Norway to marry.  This poem is about one’s duty, though it costs one’s life, and it has folk superstition added for charm.  “Bonnie George Campbell”—an example of a Coronach, this ballad tells the consequence of a border feud.  George went to battle but never returned.  “Bonny Barbara Allen”—a tragic love song, this ballad has been popular in America from colonial days.  This version is the closest we have to the original.  “Get Up and Bar the Door”—is one of the funniest comic ballads that survives, a wife wins a battle of wits, though her house is being robbed.

             B.            Geoffrey Chaucer (1340?-1400)

                     1.          Chaucer holds the undisputed place as the literary giant of the Middle Ages.  In fact, only John Milton can dispute with Chaucer for second place (after Shakespeare) as the greatest English writer.  Chaucer was not university educated, he was not noble, nor was he a member of the clergy.  Instead, he was a civil servant and a member of the rising middle class. 

                     2.          Chaucer’s father John was a moderately wealthy wine merchant while his mother, Agnes inherited several London properties from her father and uncle.  While we have no records of his education, the section of London in which the family lived had several excellent schools, any of which would have provided him knowledge of Latin that influenced his works.  We think that Chaucer learned Italian as a young man, which was quite an accomplishment for his time.

                     3.          Chaucer became a page in the house of Elizabeth, daughter-in-law of King Edward III.  From this position, he rose to be a soldier in the army of her husband, Prince Lionel.  By 1366, Chaucer was in the service of the king, carrying messages to foreign countries and perhaps spying.  He married Phillipa Roet that year; her sister, Kathryn Swynford the mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt.

                     4.          Some of Chaucer’s jobs as a civil servant were customs controller (this job got him an apartment over the city gate), peace commissioner for the county of Kent (a position like a justice of the peace), member of Parliament, clerk of public works, and deputy forester.  All these jobs brought him into contact with a vast cross section of English society, and these contacts influenced his writing of the Canterbury Tales.

                     5.          The last record we have of Phillipa Roet is in 1387; the last record of Geoffrey Chaucer is in 1400.  We know for certain that they had one child, Thomas, who became a very influential man, and we think there was another son and two daughters, but records are not certain.  Chaucer is buried in Westminster Abbey in what is now the “Poet’s Corner.”

            C.          The Canterbury Tales

                     1.          Sources—while the framework to the Tales is a journey like that of Boccacio’s Decameron, there is no real evidence linking the two.  Perhaps Chaucer was inspired by the idea; he does not use the plot.  In the Decameron, ten noble young men and women flee plague-stricken Florence.  For ten days, they each tell a tale.  Because they are all the same age and social class, their tales are similar in tone and theme.  This is vastly different from the Tales; the pilgrims vary in age, gender, social class, and occupation; the tales vary from romances to fabliaux (a short comic tale that depends on sex and bathroom humor) to saints’ lives to exemplum (a brief story a preacher uses to illustrate a moral).  Some of the Tales were probably well known in Chaucer’s day; others are original.

                     2.          Structure—Chaucer originally planned 120 stories, but he lived to complete only 24.  Evidence exists that perhaps he had abandoned this plan by the time he had written the concluding tale of the series, the “Parson’s Tale.”  The work survives in 10 fragments, most with no evidence of how he intended them to be ordered.  The most famous collection of the Tales is the Ellesmere manuscript, although there are some 80 or so intact manuscripts.

                      3.          The General Prologue serves as a source of information on fourteenth century England.  Chaucer uses the pilgrims to comment on the social problems of his day.  He does this by putting forth a naïve persona for himself, and then just telling the truth about what he sees.  Two examples are the worldliness of the monk and the hypocrisy of the pardoner.

                        a.                        The Pilgrims

                        i.   The Knight—chivalrous; fought in 15 battles against pagan and Christian enemies; had killed 3 men in jousts; rode a good horse and had plain clothes.  “He was a true, a perfect gentle-knight.”

                        ii.   The Squire—Knight’s 20-year-old son; curly hair, average sized but strong; had some battle experience; could sing, dance, draw; wore a short, embroidered coat; was a lover; carved at his father’s table.  “He loved so hotly that till dawn grew pale / He slept as little as a nightingale.”

                        iii.   The Yeoman—Knight’s only serving-man; green coat with hood, carried a bow and peacock-feathered arrows, shield, sword, dagger; had short hair and a Christopher medal.  “He knew the whole of woodcraft up and down.”

                        iv.   The Prioress—Madam Eglantyne; Mother Superior of convent; very well-mannered (actually too well-mannered for one in religion); spoke school-girl French; very fashionable and pretty (gray eyes and wide forehead were beauty marks of the day); wears jewelry with questionable inscription; has with her another nun as chaplain and at least one priest (line is questionable).  “For courtliness she had a special zest.”

                        v.   The Monk—attached to a monastery but refuses to live the obedient, studious life a monk should; loves to hunt (both animals and women); is an overseer of Church property; likes good food, clothes, and horses.  “He has let go by the things of yesterday / And took the modern world’s more spacious way.”

                        vi.   The Friar—Hubert; is a limiter (friar with a license to beg in a certain district, but was supposed to give his gain to his order); associated with those who could help him; loved wine, women, and song; wore a short wool cape instead of beggar’s rags. “He was the finest beggar of his batch.”

                        vii.   The Merchant—Forked beard and beaver hat; was an advocate for free seas (for trade); was an expert on exchange rates; very businesslike.  “His wits to work, none knew he was in debt.”

                        viii.   The Oxford Cleric (student)—has completed his bachelor’s degree but had no church office or secular job; little money; had twenty books; man of few words.  “And he would gladly learn, and gladly teach.”

                        ix.   The Sergeant at Law (lawyer)—a legal servant of the king; knew court cases since the time of Wm. the Conqueror; dealt with land deeds; wore a silk belted coat; perhaps was not as good as he wanted to seem.  “Nowhere there was so busy a man as he / But less busy than he seemed to be.”

                        x.   The Franklin (landowner)—red-faced, white-bearded lover of good food; kept a table spread constantly; meals changed with seasons; was St. Julian (hospitality) to the countryside; had been sheriff, justice, and Member of the Parliament.  “It positively snowed with meat and drink / and all the dainties that a man could think.”

                        xi.   The Guildsmen (Haberdasher, Dyer, Carpenter, Weaver and Carpet-maker)—middle-class tradesmen who were probably members of some social organization (rather than a trade guild); rich and neatly dressed; they and their wives feel self-important (wives called madam and mantles carried). “Each seemed a worth burgess, fit to grace / a guild-hall with a seat upon the dais.”

                        xii.   The Cook—came along to cook for the Guildsmen; an excellent cook, he can do anything in the kitchen; drinks too much and may be unclean—boil on the leg may indicate gangrene, cancer, or syphilis.  “but what a pity—so it seemed to me / That he should have an ulcer on his knee.”

                        xiii.   The Skipper—good sailor, but sorry fellow; stole wine; threw prisoners overboard; rode horse poorly; wore a short woolen gown; ship was called the Maudelayne.  “He knew all the havens as they were.”

                        xiv.   The Doctor—doctors of the age were part scientist and part astrologer, as he is; did not study the Bible but knew other medical works; wore red and blue; loved money.  “He therefore had a special love of gold.”

                        xv.   The Wife of Bath—Alisoun; was a clothmaker; deaf; large, but fashionably dressed in a large hat, red hose, and soft shoes; had had five husbands; vetern pilgrim; good personality.  “An knew the remedies for love’s mischances / An art in which she knew the oldest dances.”

                        xvi.   Parson—good example to his flock; stayed in his parish and did his work; gave to the poor what he received and even from his own living; knew the Bible and taught what he knew; not snobbish.  “Christ and His twelve apostles and their love / He taught, but followed it himself before.”

                        xvii.   Plowman—brother to the Parson; hard worker, whether in fields or in manure; helped others; paid his tithe when it was due; wore a short jacket.  “He would help the poor / For love of Christ and never take a penny.”

                        xviii.   Miller—big man wearing a white coat and blue hood; very strong; red beard, wart on his nose, big mouth; steals grain by weighing his thumb; plays bagpipes.  “A great big stout fellow big in brawn and bone.”

                        xix.   Manciple—food buyer for a law school; he cheats his thirty employers and they cannot catch him.  “In buying victuals, he was never rash / Whether he bought on credit or paid cash.”

                        xx.   Reeve—an estate manager for an absentee landlord; thin, hot-tempered; stole from his master and had become rich; was a carpenter by training wore a blue coat; rode last.  “Feared like the plague he was, by those beneath.”

                        xxi.   Summoner—a lay officer of the church, his duty was to call lawbreakers to appear in Church court; has a skin disease that caused pimple and scales; had black hair; liked to drink and spoke Latin when drunk; had a garland on his head and a cake for a shield. “Children were afraid when he appeared.”

                        xxii.   Pardoner—a churchman given a license to sell “pardons” or penances for sins; sings love songs with the Summoner; has yellow hair, pop-eyed, no beard, and a small voice—may be gay; carried “relics” to fool the ignorant.  “In Church he was a noble ecclesiast.”

                        b.            Chaucer’s pilgrims present a broad spectrum of the middle class—no nobility or serfs are represented in the group.  The pilgrims rank as follows:

                                    i.                  Church—Prioress, Monk, Friar, Parson, Summoner, Pardoner, Student

                                    ii.                  Upper class—Knight, Squire

                                    iii.                  Businessmen—Merchant

                                    iv.                  Landowner—Franklin

                                    v.                  Professionals—Lawyer, Doctor

                                    vi.                  Managers—Reeve, Manciple

                                    vii.                  Women of Substance—Wife of Bath

                                    viii.                  Tradesmen—Guildsmen, Skipper, Miller, Cook

                                    ix.                  Laborers—Plowman, Yeoman

                           x.   The host, Harry Bailey, would fall into the businessmen class, while Chaucer himself belongs somewhere between the professional and managerial classes.

            D.          Sir Thomas Malory (1405?-1471)

                        Very little is known of the life of Malory, and of what we know, we still cannot be certain that the Malory of public record is the Malory who wrote Le Morte D’Arthur, the greatest single collection of the stories of the Arthurian romance.  We know that Malory was a soldier who fought in the Hundred Years’ War and was a Member of Parliament.  He was on the losing side of the War of the Roses, and the mass of crimes charged to him in 1451 and 1452 were probably trumped up, a result of trying to regain his family lands.  These crimes ranged from cattle rustling to rape.  He probably spent the last twenty years of his life in prison, and it was from prison that he wrote Morte D’Arthur.  At one time, a collection of the legends of Arthur in French.  He compiled and reworked the stories from their Latin, French, and English sources.  Somewhere along the way, the Celtic war chief became the ideal knight from Morte D’Arthur.

                                    The selection from Malory’s work gives us another version of the gaining of his sword Excalibur.  It is interesting to note that Arthur, like most young men, judges the worth of the gift on the usefulness and beauty of the sword alone, while it is the scabbard of the sword that is the greatest magic.  Arthur’s near defeat at Pellinore’s hand does not diminish his fame because Pellinore is a good knight and because Merlin is returning a favor.  Arthur’s men admire him because he puts himself in danger too.