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The Medieval Period (1100-1500)

Medieval Period Overview Major Events in England under the Plantagenets Geoffrey Chaucer & Development of English Literature

Medieval Period Overview

The Medieval period can be thought of as a "transitional" period between the Anglo-Saxon and the Renaissance Period. Sometimes called the Middle Ages, the term is used to indicate its position between the classical and modern world. Unlike the previous period of the Anglo-Saxons, the Medieval period, however is completely different. They differ in their languages, cultures, attitudes, and more. Through the study of Medieval society and culture, one can understand the literature written during this prosperous and interesting period in English history. The Medieval period technically started after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when William the Conquer and the Normans defeated the Anglo-Saxons. The Medieval period was characterized by castle building, chivalry, "Knight in shining armor", and the feudal system. The knight was the symbol of chivalry. Chivalry developed in the twelfth century, the same time that the Crusades took place. Courtly love was rampant in the twelfth century. The concept of "the Lady" came into play because of the people's adoration for the Virgin Mary. This adoration helped spur on the development of medieval poetry and prose. During the late 11th century, a major emphasis was placed on love lyrics. It reached its climax in the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine. The first finished chronicle of the rise and fall of King Arthur's kingdom was included in The History of the Kings of Britain, writtein 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth. English literature during the Norman period was generally restricted to Bible stories and sermons in verse.


Major Events in England under the Plantagenets

Henry II came to power after Stephen of Boise's weak rule. During the few last years of his rule, he came into conflict with his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The bitter struggle between the two led to the excommunication of Henry II and the death of Becket by the hands of Henry's knights. Henry's son, Richard the "Lionheart", was captured by enemies in the Third Crusade and held for ransom by the Holy Roman Empire. Richard's brother took the throne in 1199 after his death but soon had his power limited on June 15, 1215 as a result of signing the Magna Carta. Edward I, in 1295, called upon the first English parliament. In 1337, England came to war with France in what was called the Hundred Years' War. The most significant victories that led England to take a lead in the initial battles was: Sluys (1340), Crecy (1346), and Poitiers (1356). France ultimately won in 1453 and England consequently lost virtually all of its French colonies. One of the factors that led to the eclie of feudalism was the emergence of the Black Death, or bubonic plague. This devastated England because it wiped out nearly a third of the population. Later, England became desperate for money to carry on the war with France and its government tried to charge a poll tax on every person in the country. Riots formed and consequently led to the Peasants' Revolt in 1381.

One of the major institutions undermined othe than feudalism during the 14th century was the Church. Quarrels between the authorities of the Church led to a breakup of the Church (Great Schism) in 1378. If that wasn't enough, John WyCliff's English translation of the Bible in 1381 led to the Reformation in the 15th century. The result of the Wars of the Roses in 1455, after the end of the Hundred Years' War, was the establishment of the Tudor dynasty.

John Wycliff's Bible


Geoffrey Chaucer & Development of English Literature

Literature flourished under the Plantagenets. Between the years of 1250-1350, English became the official language of the upper class. The middle class (common people), on the the other hand, wrote ballads about their hero named Robin Hood. The old alliterative verse form of the Anglo-Saxons, for the most part, had diminished. The northern part of England kept this form the longest and the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chaucer's noted contemporaries, continued to employ it. The death of Chaucer marked the deterioration of English literature. During the 15th century, many wrtiers tried unsuccessfully to imitate Chaucer. One exception was Caxton's edition of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, the first chef-d'oeurve of English prose. One of his finest works was The Canterbury Tales, a play written in 1386.