Medieval Background Notes Historical Context



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Medieval Background Notes
Historical Context

With the Norman Conquest, England entered the medieval period, a time of innovation in the midst of war.




  1. The Monarchy

    1. William the Conqueror

      1. Takes full control of England

      2. Different kind of king

        1. Powerful

        2. Well-organized

        3. Determined to exert his authority down to the smallest detail

      3. Domesday Book

        1. Tax record of every piece of property owned

          1. Land and livestock included

      4. Bought law and order to the country

    2. William’s Death (1087)

      1. Left the country in near-anarchy until 1154

      2. Henry Plantagenet took throne

        1. Great-grandson of William

    3. Henry II

      1. Reformed the judicial system

        1. Set up royal courts throughout the country

        2. Establish a series of juries

        3. Form English common law out of centuries-old practices

    4. Richard I

      1. Richard the Lion-Hearted

      2. Spent most of his reign fighting overseas wars

    5. John

      1. Plotted against older brother Richard

      2. Villain of Robin Hood legends

      3. Treacherous, bad-tempered

      4. Quarreled with nobles

      5. Raised taxes until they rebelled

      6. Magna Carta—Great Charter

        1. Forced to sign in 1215

        2. Limited royal authority by granting more power to the barons

          1. Early step to democracy

  2. War and Plague

    1. War a near-constant fact of life

    2. Hundred Years’ War

      1. England and France—1337

        1. Reign of Edward III

      2. Lasted on and off for more than a century

    3. Black Death—bubonic plague

      1. Killed a third of England’s population

    4. End of war—1453

      1. England lost nearly of all its French possessions

  3. Rivals for Throne

    1. House of York

      1. Symbol—White Rose

    2. House of Lancaster

      1. Symbol—Red Rose

    3. War of the Roses

      1. Ended in 1485

        1. Henry Tudor—Lancaster

          1. Killed Yorkist king Richard III

          2. Henry VII

      2. Marked the end of the Middle Ages in England


Cultural Influences

Medieval literature is best understood in the context of three powerful influences on medieval society: feudalism, the church, and a code of conduct called chivalry.


Social Forces

  1. Feudal System—feudalism

    1. Political and economic system that William the Conqueror introduced to England after Norman Conquest

    2. Premise

      1. King owns all the land in the kingdom

    3. William kept ¼ of land for himself

    4. Granted a ¼ to the Church

    5. Rest went to local barons

      1. They in return paid him or supplied him with warriors called knights

      2. Swore allegiance to the king

        1. Knights to the barons

    6. Created social ladder

      1. Bottom conquered Anglo-Saxons

        1. Serfs—peasants bound to the land that they could not own

  2. The Power of the Church

    1. One exception to the feudal system’s hierarchy

    2. Led by the Pope in Rome

    3. Tremendous Power

      1. Imposed taxes

      2. Made its own laws

      3. Ran its own courts

      4. Kept kings and noblemen in line

        1. Threat of ex-communication

    4. Owned more land than anyone in Europe

      1. Stone cathedrals and abbeys as impressive as any castle

    5. Power lead to conflict in monarchy

      1. Thomas a Becket

        1. Henry II’s archbishop

        2. Favored church interests over the crown

        3. Murdered by 4 loyal knights

        4. Declared saint

        5. Shrine in Canterbury became pilgrimage location

  3. Chivalry and Courtly Love

    1. Influenced social forces—King Arthur

    2. Popular during Henry II’s reign

    3. Eleanor of Aquitaine

      1. Brought from French court circles

    4. Chivalry

      1. Code of honor intended to govern knightly behavior

      2. Knights were:

        1. Generous

        2. Brave

        3. Honest

        4. Pious (devout, religious)

        5. Honorable

        6. Defend the weak

        7. Battle Evil and uphold good

      3. Encouraged knights to go on holy quests

        1. Crusades

          1. Military expeditions by European Christians

          2. Attempted to take Jerusalem from Muslim control

    5. Courtly love

      1. Ideals for relationships between men and women

        1. Applied by Eleanor

      2. “Court of love”

        1. Lord and ladies were entertained by music and tales of King Arthur and other romantic heroes

        2. Argue about proper conduct of a love affair

    6. Real life

      1. Courtly love and chivalry ideals rarely met in real life

      2. Served as inspiration for finest literature of the time


Literature of the Times

Medieval works, such as The Canterbury Tales and the Arthurian romances, drew from many sources, historical and contemporary, while reflecting the society and ideals of their time.




  1. The Age of Chaucer

    1. Geoffrey Chaucer

      1. Most famous writer of the time

      2. Known as “Father of English Literature”

      3. Demonstrated the potential of English as a literary language

      4. Sources

        1. French poetry

        2. English songs

        3. Greek classics

        4. Contemporary Italian tales

        5. Aesop’s fables

      5. Blended old with new in natural rhythms of Middle English

        1. Spoken language of the time

    2. The Canterbury Tales

      1. English masterpiece

      2. Displays Chaucer’s ability

        1. Storyteller

        2. Keen sense of humor

        3. Sharp eye for detail

      3. Collection of tales ranging from disrespectful to inspirational

        1. Frame story

          1. Exists when a story is told within a narrative setting or frame—story within a story

      4. Group of pilgrims on a journey to shrine of Becket

      5. Characters are revealed through the stories they tell and their reactions to one another’s tales

      6. Original intent

        1. Four stories for each of the 30 pilgrims—120

        2. Died with only 24 complete

      7. Chaucer’s England

        1. Time of change and turmoil

      8. Serfs saw new value during Black Death

        1. Left the land to work in towns and estates

        2. Led to decline of feudalism and growth of a new middle class

      9. War with France

        1. Spurred the re-emergence of the English language among the ruling class

      10. Characters

        1. Ranged across British society

        2. Knight to miller

      11. Everyday English

        1. Used instead of elevated Latin or French

      12. Reflected developments of the time

    3. Other Works

      1. Others wrote in English

      2. Ballads

        1. Narrative songs telling of the lives of common folks or of characters and events from folklore

      3. New appreciation of English language as elegant and poetic

  2. Medieval Romance

    1. Stories of adventure, gallant love, chivalry, and heroism

    2. Represent the social order and ideals of the Middle Ages

    3. King Arthur tales

      1. Set in idealized world unlike real medieval England with

        1. Plagues

        2. Political battles

        3. Civil unrest

    4. Legendary hero

    5. Arthur

      1. Romanized Briton who fought Caesar

      2. Celebrated hero like Beowulf

      3. Update of legends on 12th century

        1. Reflect current notions of chivalry

        2. New romances used Arthur and his court as backdrop for stories about knights who go through trials and perform great feats in the service of a lady

    6. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

      1. 1375—anonymous English poet

      2. Recounted marvelous adventures of a knight in Arthur’s court

        1. Faced series of extraordinary challenges

        2. Memorable characters

          1. Green giant who survives a beheading

          2. All-too-human Gawain

    7. Le Morte d’Arthur—“The Death of Arthur”

      1. Sir Thomas Malory

      2. Retold numerous French Arthurian tales in Middle English

      3. Episodes in the life of the legendary king

      4. Precursor to the modern novel

      5. Printed just before War of the Roses

        1. Right before end of Middle Ages

Chaucer Style (p. 140-141)



  1. Imagery and Figurative Language

    1. Imagery

      1. Words or phrases that create vivid sensory experiences for the reader

      2. Mostly visual but can appeal to the senses of smell, hearing, taste, and touch

    2. Figurative Language

      1. Language that communicates ideas beyond the literal meaning of the words

      2. Can make descriptions and unfamiliar of difficult ideas easier to understand

    3. Describe characters’ physical appearance

  2. Irony

    1. Contrast between expectation and reality

    2. Calls attention to characters’ faults and emphasizes their humanity

      1. Writing has a tone of compassion

  3. Characterization

    1. Describing a character’s physical appearance, making direct statements about them, and allowing them to express their personalities through dialogue

    2. Chaucer sets each character apart by the story he or she tells and the voice in which each tale is told

Ballads (p. 216)



  1. Narrative songs

    1. Popular in England and Scotland during medieval period among common people who could not read or write

    2. Transferred orally from generation to generation

    3. Stories often changed in retelling

  2. Popular Entertainment

    1. Audiences craved dramatic, sensational stories

    2. Subjects

      1. Tragic love

      2. Domestic conflicts

      3. Disastrous wars and shipwrecks

      4. Sensational crimes

      5. Exploits of enterprising outlaws

    3. Later ballads

      1. Historical events

      2. Romantic heroes of chivalrous love

    4. Themes

      1. Revenge

      2. Rebellion

      3. Envy

      4. Betrayal

      5. Superstition

  3. Poetic Form

    1. Dramatic stories told in song using the language of the common people

    2. Conventions

      1. Tragic or sensational subject matter

      2. Simple plot involving a single incident

      3. Dialogue

    3. Quatrains

      1. 4-line stanzas

      2. Rhyming 2nd and 4th lines

    4. Dialect

      1. Distinct language spoken by a specific group of people from a particular region


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