The Medieval Period
Overview and Background to Medieval
Literature
At the beginning (c. 500)
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Society was tribal (Anglo-Saxons)—England
consisted of many small kingdoms which were
constantly fighting each other.
Christianity was all-important
Common factor: educated people spoke/wrote
in Latin
Charlemagne
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800 a.d. (Christmas Day) – crowned Emperor.
Unified tribes, created stability.
 People were able to think about other things.
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Monks refined writing system (Carolingian minuscule)
 Study of Latin (standardized language)
 1050ish – poetry written in Provençal (French)
 People began to write in their own languages.
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Development of the poetic form known as the
“courtly romance”.
Last Anglo-Saxon King
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Edward the Confessor (very religious man).
William supported Edward in a problem with the
Danes
 Edward agreed that William would succeed him as
King of England. (Edward had no heirs.) But, when
Edward died, Harold II (of the Danes) expected to
become King of England.
 Final outcome was Harold was crowned; William
invaded England and defeated Harold; William was
crowned.
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William’s Invasion
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1066 – Battle of Hastings
William the Conqueror of Normandy took over the
Anglo-Saxons.
 Normans were descendants of a tribe of Vikings –
Norsemen – who had invaded France. They had
adopted French language and customs.
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William’s conquest changed every
phase of English life
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Language:
Educated classes were taught Latin; now they were
taught French.
 Language of court became French.
 Peasants often spoke a mixture of French and
English. (Caused English language to change in
sound and rhythm patterns.)
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Literature:
Became more refined.
 Court and peasants both enjoyed new songs from
Scotland, Ireland, and England.
 Court enjoyed medieval romances from France.
 Geoffrey Chaucer – The Canterbury Tales
 Thomas Malory –Morte d’Arthur
 religious dramas
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Government:
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Normans instituted a stronger central government
with stricter control over finances, lands, and
military.
Local government
Townships became manors, owned by a knight,
noble, or the king.
 Cities were walled in and became military
organizations.
 The hundred – a territory allotted to 100 military
families. Had an assembly and a reeve (an official
who supervised lands for a lord)
 Shire – similar to a county. Had an earl, a bishop,
and a reeve to govern. The shire reeve became
known as a sheriff.
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Central government
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The King – supported by the army and the
church; the head of everything
The Witan – The King’s Council. Nobles
appointed by the king. Made laws, tried cases,
chose the king’s successor.
Feudalism
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Before 1066, the King, his nobles, and others owned land
individually. The Norman kings confiscated all the land and
apportioned it out, or leased it, to their own dukes and
knights.
Kings owned land by “divine right”
Order of the hierarchy:
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King
barons (appointed by King)
vassals (appointed by barons)
landless knights
serfs (not free to leave the land they worked; were “owned” by the men
higher up)
Each person swore an “oath of fealty” (allegiance) to
the person next higher up.
Requirements of serfs
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Had to attend their lord’s court in person
Entertain him on visits
Finance the knighting of the lord’s oldest son,
the marriage of his oldest daughter
Pay ransom for the lord if and when he was ever
captured
Owed at least 40 days of military service to their
lord each year.
A typical oath of fealty
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“By the Lord before whom this sanctuary is
holy, I will to _____ be true and faithful, and
love all which he loves and shun all which he
shuns, according to the laws of God and the
order of the world. Nor will I ever with will or
action, through word or deed, do anything
which is unpleasing to him, on condition that he
will perform everything as it was in our
agreement when I submitted myself to him and
chose his will.”
Church hierarchy
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The Archbishop of Canterbury supported the
Norman king.
Monasteries were centers of learning until
universities were built.
Religion became the main influence of unity for
England—brought together people of all social
orders.
Changes in the Social Order:
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Saxon—
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King
Nobles (Earls)
Overlords
Reeves
Vassals
Serfs
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Norman—
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King
Nobles (Dukes and Earls)
Knights
Overlords, Bishops
Reeves, Mayor
Vassals
Serfs
Military
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Normans introduced a new military class—
Knighthood.
Each knight was required to be responsible for a
quota of men always ready to defend their leader
and their king.
Governed by the Code of Chivalry.
Commerce
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Guilds – groups of merchants, tradesmen, and
craftsmen who monopolized the trade of a
town; controlled prices; settled disputes.
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Eventually the Norman discipline and learning
fused together with the Anglo-Saxon
inventiveness and democratic ideals.
Events that dominated/influenced
the Middle Ages
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The Crusades (1096 to 1200s)
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Wanted to regain the Holy Land. (Jerusalem was fought over
for centuries.)
Europeans benefited from the Middle Eastern civilization
(math, science, architecture).
Impact on everyday life: the middle-class became more
important, education became more important.
The Martyrdom of Thomas a Becket (1170).
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Becket was Chancellor (Prime Minister) of England. He had
problems with Henry II because Becket sided with the Pope
on disagreements. Four of the king’s knights murdered
Becket while he was praying.
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The Magna Carta – signed in 1215.
This document was the basis of English
constitutional law.
 Originally intended to establish the rights of the
“privileged” men
 Eventually used as the rights of all men
 Did not include women until after 1900.
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The Hundred Year’s War – 1337 – 1453 (116
years).
England tried to take over France.
 This long war gave us Joan of Arc (French) and
changed the nature of warfare from hand-to-hand
combat to fighting with bows and arrows.
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The Black Death (the plague) – 1348 – 1349.
Wiped out one-third of the population. (Some
sources claim up to one-half the population died.)
 Caused a labor shortage.
 Serfs were freed; created a new class of society.
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All the new additions to English life were to the
benefit of England, although the English did not
think so at the time.
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The Medieval Period