The Middle Ages
by David Adams Leeming
At his most characteristic, medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organizer, a codifier, a builder of systems. He wanted "a place for everything and everything in the right place." Distinction, definition, and tabulation were his delight. Though full of turbelent activities, he was equally full of the impulse to formalize them. Was was (in intention) formalized by the art of heraldry and the rules of chilvarly; sexual passion (in intention), by the elaborate code of love. . . . There was notheing which medieval people liked better, or did better, than sorting out and tidying up. Of all our modern inventions I suspect that they would most have admired the card index.
—C. S. Lewis
In October 1066, a daylong battle near Hastings, England, changed the course of history. There, just ten miles from the channel dividing England from France, Duke William of Normandy, France, defeated and killed King Harold of England, the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings. So began the Norman Conquest, an event that radically affected English history, the English character, and the English language. Unlike the Romans, the Normans never withdrew from England.
Who was this William the Conqueror? He was the illegitimate son of the previous duke of Normandy, who was in turn a cousin of the English king called Edward the Confessor. Edward had died childless earlier in 1066, and Harold, the earl of Wessex, had been crowned the following day. But William claimed that the old king had promised the throne to him. Determined to seize what he considered rightfully his, William sailed the English Channel with an enormous army.
William was an efficient and ruthless soldier, but he wanted to rule the Anglo-Saxons, not eliminate them. Today, as a result, rather than a Norman, French-speaking England (and America), we find a culture and a language that combine Norman and Anglo-Saxon elements. To the Anglo-Saxons’ more democratic and artistic tendencies, the Normans brought administrative ability, an emphasis on law and order, and cultural unity.
One of William’s great administrative feats was an inventory of nearly every piece of property in England—land, cattle, buildings—in the Domesday Book. (The title suggests a comparison between William’s judgment of his subjects’ financial worth and God’s final judgment of their moral worth.) For the first time in European history, people could be taxed based on what they owned.
Although the Normans did not erase Anglo-Saxon culture, they did bring significant changes to England. William and many of his successors remained dukes of Normandy as well as kings of England. The powerful Anglo-Norman entity they molded brought England into mainstream European civilization in a new way. For example, William divided the holdings of the fallen English landowners among his own followers. These men and their families brought to England not only a new language—French—but also a new social system—feudalism—which displaced the old Nordic social structure described in Beowulf.
The Anglo-Norman entity that resulted from the Norman Conquest brought England into mainstream European civilization, which included feudalism.
Feudalism and Knighthood: Pyramid Power
More than simply a social system, feudalism was also a caste system, a property system, and a military system. Ultimately, it was based on a religious concept of hierarchy, with God as the supreme overlord. In this sense, even a king held land as a vassal by “divine right.” A king as powerful as William the Conqueror could stand firmly at the top of the pyramid. He could appoint certain barons as his immediate vassals, allotting them portions of his land in return for their economic or military allegiance—or both. In turn, the barons could appoint vassals of their own. The system operated all the way down to the landless knights and to the serfs, who were not free to leave the land they tilled.
The feudal system did not always work. Secure in a well-fortified castle, a vassal might choose not to honor his obligations to a weak overlord. The ensuing battles between iron-clad knights around moated castles account for one of the enduring images of the Middle Ages.
Yet the feudal system did carry with it a sense of form and manners that permeated the life, art, and literature of the Middle Ages. This sense of formalism came to life most fully in the institution of knighthood and in the related practice, or code, of chivalry.
We cannot think of the medieval period without thinking of knights. Since the primary duty of males above the serf class was military service to their lords, boys were trained from an early age to become warriors. Often, their training took place in houses other than their own, to be sure that the training was strict. When a boy’s training was completed, he was “dubbed,” or ceremonially tapped on his shoulder (originally a hard, testing blow). Once knighted, the youth became a man with the title “sir” and the full rights of the warrior caste.
Knighthood was grounded in the feudal ideal of loyalty, and it entailed a complex system of social codes. Breaking any one of those codes would undermine not only the knight’s position but also the very institution of knighthood.
Feudalism was a pyramid system based on a religious concept of hierarchy. Expected to serve as warriors, males above the serf class were trained as knights.
A Terrible Worm in an Iron Cocoon
If we hear the term “medieval period,” we inevitably think of knights and their magnificent suits of armor. During the early Middle Ages, armor consisted of a helmet, a shield, and a relatively flexible mail shirt, or hauberk, made of countless riveted or welded iron rings. With the crossbow, however, came the need for more protection, so the knight was forced to compromise flexibility and mobility for self-defense.
Held together by rivets, leather straps, hinges, turning pins, buckles, and pegs, a suit of armor replaced mail as the warrior’s chief protection. Knights wore a heavily padded undergarment of leather and a mail shirt under the armor, in addition to plate arm, leg, and foot pieces. Mail covered the neck, elbows, and other joints, and gauntlets constructed of linked plates covered the hands. Some suits of armor weighed 120 pounds and contained 200 customfitted iron plates. The knight also carried a variety of weapons: lance, dagger, sword, battle-ax, and club-headed mace.
The threat of death in battle was bad enough, but the armor itself could also be fatal—causing death from suffocation, heart failure, even drowning. Battle during hot weather was particularly difficult. Since small slits in the helmet allowed only a limited line of vision and little ventilation, heatstroke—often deadly for the knight—was common. One anonymous poem describes the armored knight as “a terrible worm in an iron cocoon.”
Only aristocratic knights could afford the huge cost of armor, a war horse, packhorses, a mount to ride when not in battle, and servants. Because of the armor’s weight and the complex fittings required to piece it together, a knight couldn’t dress himself for battle. In fact, battles were usually scheduled to allow the warring knights time to be dressed. Servants stood by during battle in case the knight was unhorsed. An armored knight on his back was like an upside-down turtle trying to get on its feet. In this position, the knight was vulnerable to his adversary. If he fell into a shallow body of water, he could drown.
During the fifteenth century, the knight and his horse were considered invulnerable. But this role changed dramatically when the longbow and later the musket ball came into warfare. When his armor could no longer protect him in battle, the knight in shining armor became more of a courtier than a combatant. In the last years of their existence, knights participated in exhibitions rather than in warfare.
Women in Medieval Society: No Voice, No Choice
Since they were not soldiers, women had no political rights in a system that was primarily military. A woman was always subservient to a man, whether husband, father, or brother. Her husband’s or father’s social standing determined the degree of respect she commanded. For peasant women, life was a ceaseless round of childbearing, housework, and hard fieldwork. Women of higher station were occupied with childbearing and household supervision. Such women might even manage entire estates while their men were away on business or at war, but the moment the men returned, the women relinquished their temporary powers.
Women in the Middle Ages had no political rights. A woman’s social standing depended completely on her husband’s or father’s status.
Chivalry and Courtly Love: Ideal but Unreal
Chivalry was a system of ideals and social codes governing the behavior of knights and gentlewomen. Among its precepts were adhering to one’s oath of loyalty to the overlord and observing certain rules of warfare, such as never attacking an unarmed opponent. In addition, adoring a particular lady (not necessarily one’s wife) was seen as a means of achieving self-improvement.
The idea that revering and acting in the name of a lady would make a knight braver and better was central to one aspect of chivalry, courtly love. Courtly love was, in its ideal form, nonsexual. A knight might wear his lady’s colors in battle, he might glorify her in words and be inspired by her, but the lady always remained pure and out of reach. She was “set above” her admirer, just as the feudal lord was set above his vassel. Since such a concept flew in the face of human nature, it provided built-in drama for poets and storytellers, as the King Arthur sagas illustrate. When Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, for example, cross the line between courtly and physical love, the whole social system represented by Arthur’s Round Table collapses. Camelot crumbles.
Chivalry brought about an idealized attitude toward women, but it did little to improve their actual position. A woman’s perceived value remained tied to the value of the lands she brought to a marriage. But chivalry did give rise to a new form of literature, the romance The greatest English example of the genre is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Chivalry led to an idealized attitude toward women and gave rise to a new form of literature, the romance.
The New City Classes: Out from Under the Overlords
For the most part, medieval society centered around the feudal castle, but as the population grew, an increasing number of people lived in towns and cities. Eventually, those population centers would render the feudal system obsolete.
The development of the city classes—lower, middle, and upper-middle—is evident in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Collection 2). Many of his characters make their livings outside the feudal system, and their horizons are defined not by any lord’s manor but by such cities as London and Canterbury.
More important, the emerging merchant class had its own tastes in the arts and the ability to pay for what it wanted. Consequently, much medieval art is not aristocratic; it is middle class, even “people’s art.” The people of the cities were free, tied neither to the land nor to knighthood and chivalry. Their point of view was expressed in the ballads sung in alehouses and at firesides (see “Ballads,” Collection 2), in the mystery and miracle plays performed outdoors by the new guilds or craft unions, and even in the great cathedrals and municipal buildings that are synonymous with England to so many tourists today.
Gradually population centers shifted to the cities, where people lived and worked outside of the feudal system.
The Great Happenings
Against the backdrop of the feudal system imported from the Continent, several specific events radically influenced the course of English history, as well as English literature.
The Crusades: Ho! for the Holy Land. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, we meet a knight who has fought in “heathen” places—along the Mediterranean Sea and in North Africa. The knight’s adventures in the fourteenth century were really an extension of the Crusades (1095–1270), a series of wars waged by European Christians against the Muslims, with Jerusalem and the Holy Land as the prize. Although the Europeans ultimately failed to hold Jerusalem, they benefited enormously from contact with the higher civilization of the Middle East. This contact with Eastern mathematics, astronomy, architecture, and crafts made possible the rich, varied life we find in Chaucer. If the Crusades produced Chaucer’s fairly conventional Knight, they were also at least indirectly responsible for his lively Squire and elegant Prioress.
As a result of the Crusades, Christian Europe was exposed to the Middle East’s sophisticated civilization.
The martyrdom of Thomas à Becket: Murder in the cathedral. When Chaucer’s pilgrims set out for Canterbury, their goal was the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket (c. 1118–1170). Thomas, a Norman, had risen to great power as chancellor (prime minister) under his friend King Henry II (reigned 1154–1189). At that time, all Christians belonged to the Catholic Church. Even King Henry was a vassal—of the pope, the head of the Church and God’s representative. The pope in those days was enormously powerful and controlled most of the crowned heads of Europe. By appointing his trusted friend Thomas as archbishop of Canterbury (head of the Catholic Church in England), Henry hoped to gain the upper hand in disputes with the Church. But the independent and often combative Thomas took the pope’s side more than once, infuriating the king. In December 1170, Henry raged, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” Taking his words literally, four of Henry’s knights murdered Becket—right in his own cathedral. Public outrage at the murder led to devotion to St. Thomas the Martyr, and created a backlash against Henry, a significant setback for the monarchy in its power struggles with Rome.
At its worst, this setback led to the kinds of liberties taken by several of the clergymen in The Canterbury Tales—corruption that the state was in no position to correct. Thus, Chaucer’s Monk lives a life of luxury without regard to the poor, his Friar chases women and money, and his Summoner and his Pardoner blackmail people with threats of eternal damnation.
Yet the medieval Church did have one positive effect: It fostered cultural unity—a system of belief and symbol that transcended the national cultures of Europe. The Church continued to be the center of learning. Its monasteries were the libraries and publishers of the time, and its language, Latin, remained the international language of educated Europeans. Its leader, the pope, was king of all kings—and his “kingdom” had no boundaries.
Public outrage at the political assassination of Thomas à Becket created a backlash against the English monarchy and weakened the king in his power struggle with Rome.
The Magna Carta: Power to (some of) the people. The event that most clearly heralded a return to older, democratic tendencies in England was the signing of the Magna Carta (the “Great Charter”) by King John in 1215, at Runnymede. The vicious but pragmatic John was strongly backed by the pope, but the English barons forced him to sign the document. The signing was a defeat for central papal power. As aristocrats writing for aristocrats, the barons had no interest in the rights of the common people. But the Magna Carta later became the basis for English constitutional law, in which such rights as trial by jury and legislative taxation were established.
In 1215, English barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta as an effort to curb the Church’s power. The document later became the basis for English constitutional law.
The Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453): The arrow is mightier than the armor. What might be called the first national war was waged by England against France. Fought on the Continent, the Hundred Years’ War was based on dubious claims to the throne of France by two English kings—Edward III (reigned 1327–1377) and Henry V (reigned 1413–1422).
This long war was militarily unsuccessful for the English. But it was an important factor in the gradual development of a British national consciousness. After the war, the English were no longer best represented by the knight in shining armor, an import from the Continent anyway. Instead, they were more accurately represented by the green-clad yeoman (small landowner) with his longbow. These English yeomen had formed the nucleus of the English armies in France. Their yard-long arrows could fly over castle walls and pierce the armor of knights. These small landowners now became a dominant force in the new society that grew out of the ruins of feudalism. The old ideals of chivalry lived on only in stories, such as the King Arthur tales retold by Sir Thomas Malory.
The English lost the Hundred Years’ War with France, but by the war’s end the yeomen (small landowners) who had formed the nucleus of the English armies had replaced the knights in armor. With this emergence of the yeoman class, modern, democratic England was born.
The Black Death. The Black Death, or bubonic plague, which struck England in 1348–1349, delivered another blow to feudalism. Highly contagious and spread by fleas from infected rats, the disease reduced the nation’s population by a third—causing a labor shortage and inevitably giving the lower classes more leverage than ever before against their overlords. One long-term result was the serfs’ freedom, which knocked out feudalism’s last support. By the time King Henry VII’s 1486 marriage reconciled the warring Houses of York and Lancaster, the Middle Ages were ending in England. Henry, a strong king, began the Tudor line that would lead to Elizabeth I. England’s Renaissance was about to begin.
The Black Death caused a labor shortage, leading to the serfs’ freedom and to the end of feudalism.
Fleas, Money, and Gunpowder: The End of an Era
The legendary pageantry, the codes of chivalry, the heroic quests undertaken by valiant knights in honor of fair ladies—these images come to mind at the mention of the Middle Ages. But what happened? Why did this period come to an end? Besides the plague’s devastating effects, the development of a monetary system and the introduction of gunpowder contributed to changes in medieval England.
Before the eleventh century, few coins existed in England and western Europe. The English upper classes used gold and silver valued by weight, and foreign coins were usually melted down and transformed into ingots. Feudal lords made their own coins for use only on their property, and serfs used a barter system for purchases within the community. But the Crusades brought an economic change, for crusaders needed money that would be accepted in other lands. Silver was heavy, but gold coins were light and already in use throughout trade routes. The use of gold coins improved the peasants’ buying and selling power; instead of the barter system, they were now able to earn gold in exchange for their labor or goods. The minting of coins was essential in the revival of England’s economy.
Chivalric codes governed hand-to-hand combat during much of the Middle Ages. But the use of guns and gunpowder (and strategic military planning) changed all that. Discovered by the Chinese, gunpowder was introduced into English warfare around 1325. By 1346, warfare in the Western world had changed irreversibly. In the landmark battle of Crécy, the French outnumbered the English. The English, aided by the longbow and by explosives, massacred their opponents. Over the next two hundred years, the cannon made the castle—previously impregnable—open to attack.
The rules of war and class had changed. Chivalry was at an end, and feudal obligation became a thing of the past. As a result, a free and prosperous middle class developed, revolutionizing the country’s social and economic systems.
The Middle Ages: Four Centuries of Change
These characteristics distinguished the Middle Ages:
• The Norman Conquest of England created a powerful Anglo-Norman entity and brought England into the mainstream of European civilization.
• The feudal system centralized military, political, and economic power in the Crown.
• The Roman Church transcended national boundaries and fostered cultural unity among Europeans.
• The rise of towns and cities freed people to pursue their own commercial and artistic interests.
• The Magna Carta weakened the political power of the Church and laid the groundwork for later English constitutional law.
• Exposure to Eastern civilization as a result of the Crusades broadened Europeans’ intellectual horizons.
• The ideals of chivalry improved attitudes toward, but not the rights of, women.
• The rise of the yeoman class paved the way for democracy in England.
• The bubonic plague created a labor shortage that contributed to the end of feudalism and to the passing of the Middle Ages.