HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: The Middle Ages goes approximately from 1066, the date of the Battle of Hastings, to 1500. The Normans, led by William the Conqueror, defeated the Anglo-Saxons and conquered Britain. As a result of the Norman conquest, England fell under French influence. William made many reforms in various fields. He introduced the Feudal System of Government based on the holding of land. He distributed the land to the Norman Lords, the Barons, who, in turn, gave parts of their land to lesser nobles, knights and freemen. The Lords had to swear loyalty to the king and give him army service and part of the produce of the land. The feudal relation passed from father to son. The administrative officers were called Sheriffs. To ensure that each lord paid the right amount of tributes, the king ordered a detailed survey of the country, whose results were written in the Domesday Book (the name derives from the Last judgement on Doomsday because nobody could escape this enquiry). It contained data on every piece of land: villages, towns and shires of England, people of the Kingdom, houses and animals of each manor. It served as a register for fiscal and military purpose for several centuries. William also controlled the nomination of Bishops and Abbots who were both spiritual and temporal lords.
The judicial system was reformed by King Edward II. He introduced the Common Law of the Land to judge equally every person of his reign. It was made up of a lot of cases and decisions taken by the Royal Courts in preceding trials.

He also introduced Trial by Jury and stated that the judgement had to take into account the eye-witnesses to the facts. In the previous age a person who pleaded his innocence had to suffer trial by ordeal.


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The ordeal established whether persons were guilty or innocent by giving them a painful and dangerous test, like contact with hot iron or boiling water. If they resisted and survived they were considered innocent. The ordeal was substituted by regular trial. Another important code of laws was the Constitutions of Clarendon. It faced the clash between the Crown and the Church in matters of jurisdiction and redefined the relationship between Church and State in England. The Church had the privilege to judge the crimes of persons belonging to the Clergy in the Bishop’s Court and not in the Royal Court . The king wanted to put an end to those privileges and asked that they had to be judged in the King’s Court , too. The Constitutions of Clarendon established a new procedure: clergymen who had committed ordinary crimes were first tried by the King’s Court and then sent to the Bishop’s Court. If condemned, they were deprived of Holy Orders and sent to the King’s Court for the final punishment. It was clearly a compromise.
During this period England saw the establishment of some Institutions. One of the written parts of British Constitution ( it is not a single document as in the Constitution of Italy) is an old document called Magna Carta Libertatum or Great Charter of the Liberties. It was signed on June 15th, 1215 by the King John Lackland (brother of the famous Richard the Lion hearted) and the Barons. By this document the king was forced to grant many rights to the English Aristocracy. In later centuries Magna Charta became a model for those who demanded individual liberties for all people, but in its own time its greatest value was that for the first time in the history of Britain, the absolute power of the king was limited. The 63 articles chiefly benefited the Barons and other members of the feudal class, some granted the Church freedom from royal interference and only few granted some rights of the rising middle class in the towns. The ordinary Englishmen and the peasants gained very little and were hardly mentioned in the charter. This document is also considered an important step towards the end of English feudalism because the nobles acted as a class and not as vassals. The base of feudalism, use of land in return for services, was beginning to crumble.
In 1258 the Nobles, led by Simon the Montfort, elected a Council and took responsibilities for governing the country. This Council was called “ parliament”, from the French “parler”, and referred to a place where people met in order to talk. Some historians maintain that the true origin of Parliament goes back to the Anglo-Saxon time when the King presided over a Council, the Witan, which should advice him and support his election. During the reign of Henry III parliament was a feudal assembly and its members were nobles and the high clergy. It became an important body only in 1295, when Edward I summoned up a Parliament, called later “Model Parliament”( because it was a pattern for later Parliaments) which marked the beginning of the present House of Commons. Its importance was that for the first time in the history of Britain, representatives by the people, two knights elected from each county and two townsmen from each of the many towns, had seats in Parliament.
From 1336 to 1453 a series of wars, now called the Hundred Years’ War, were fought between France and England, each of them claiming some rights in the territory under their rule. The King Edward III started the war. The conflict had an economic reason : the selling of English wool in the Flanders market blocked by the French. The merchants of Flanders were the best buyers of English wool. Many important towns of Flanders were under French control. When they blocked the buying of English wool they damaged the English economy. The war ended in the victory of France. The English were driven out of France and the period of the Dual Kingdome ended. During the Hundred Years ‘War there was a tragic event: the bubonic plague known as the Black Death. It wiped out about one third of the population, above all in the peasantry. There was a positive effect, too, because it brought to a rise in the importance of labour. The reduced numbers of men able to till the land obliged the lords to pay free labourers who demanded and obtained higher wages. The shortage of agricultural labour changed the relationship between the Lords of the manor and the villeins . The Lords were obliged to redistribute the strips of land among the survivors who demanded and obtained better wages. A new class of freemen, called yeomen, was formed. The yeomen employed the labourers who had escaped from the manors in search of better wages. The shortage of labour also encouraged the enclosure of agricultural land to form large areas for sheep rearing which required fewer men than agriculture and brought greater economic gains. Great poverty was still present among the lower classes. The peasants were oppressed by heavy taxations and lived on bad conditions. There was a strong feeling of dissatisfaction among all the poor country people. The dissatisfaction increased with the Poll Tax that asked 15 shillings for every man in the family over fifteen. It was considered unfair and the Peasants rebelled. Led by Wat Tyler, a craftsman from Kent, and John Ball they marched on London burning, robbing and slaughtering landlords, lawyer officials and priests. The teenage king Richard II met the rebels, promised to satisfy their complaints, ordered pardons for them and saved the situation to become worse. The Peasants’ revolt collapsed but Richard’s promises were not kept and the peasants’ leaders were executed.
During the last years of Edward III’s reign there was an attack on the established order of the church. At the beginning it was not an attack on the Christian doctrine but on the wealth and corruption of the high clergy. Eventually it turned into an attack on the doctrine of the Church. John Wycliffe, a priest and the followers of his heresy known as Lollardy believed that the Church should return to its original idea of poverty and give back all the lands around the monasteries to the state. They had followers above all among the poorer classes. They expressed heretical views attacking the Pope (“The authority of the wicked could not come from God”), the worship of relics, the veneration of images and asked for social reforms. They preached that the individual should have a direct relationship with God and denied the mediation and interpretation imposed by the clergy: “ Each man that shall be damned shall be damned by his own guilt, and each man that is saved is saved by his own merit”. Of course that was possible only if ordinary men were able to understand the Church services and to read the holy written texts themselves. To this purpose, Wycliffe translated the Bible into English. Eventually the movement was suppressed and many heretics were put to death. Their ideas survived and in the sixteen century they affected the birth of Protestantism.
END OF THE MIDDLE AGES: the end of the Middle Ages is marked by the Wars of the Roses, a long civil war which lasted from 1454 to 1485. It was fought between the Houses of York and Lancaster. The name derives from the emblems of the two families : a red rose for Lancaster and a white rose for York. This war was a family war and the people and the City of London remained indifferent or neutral. It ended in the victory of the Lancaster and Henry Tudor became Henry VII of England.
SPIRIT OF THE AGE: It was a feudal period in which England saw the establishment of her Institutions and the flourishing of trade. It was an Age of Transition from the Anglo-Saxon period, full of heroes and battles to a time of Chivalry and culture. Christianity affirmed itself in the Crusades and man was finding an identity as a servant of Christ, as a noble lover of a pure lady and a man of trade. He wasn’t a warrior anymore and became a Knight. The chief centres of culture were the monasteries. The period was affected by the antagonism with France, the attack on Church privileges and the revolt against excessive taxation and political oppression. In spite of conflicts and confusion, a new order developed and both parliament and the middle class grew in importance. In 1476 William Caxton set up the first printing press and published nearly 80 books.
LINGUISTIC SITUATION: In the early Middle Ages there were three languages in use: French, the language of the ruling class, Latin, the language of the church and the learned and English, the language of the mass of people. Middle English was basically Old English with some additions of vocabulary from French. It was not a uniform language and existed in different dialects in which vocabulary, spelling and pronunciation were not standardized. Among those dialects, the most important was the East Midland dialect spoken in London, at Court and in the area of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The persons that helped to the diffusion of the East Midland dialect as standard English were Geoffrey Chaucer, the first great English poet, who used it in his works, and Caxton, the inventor of the printing press, who published the majority of the books using it. In the course of the 14th century a certain linguistic unity was achieved and English became the official language of the country. English spoken in the 15th century was much closer to the present day language.
MEDIEVAL LITERATURE: Owing to the linguistic situation, early English medieval literature was written in three different languages: French, Latin and Middle English. From 1100 to about 1300 English language played a humble role than French and Latin. Some of the most important works of the period were written in Latin. Writings in English during this period were scanty and of small literary value. They aimed above all at religious instruction. Two typical example are Poema Morale ( urged the reader to reflect on the shortness of life and to repent before it’s late) and Ormulum (aimed at explaining the Gospel to the unlearned).
The Owl and the Nightingale (1200) and Brut (1205) show a more genuine poetic inspiration and do not have a religious character. The Owl and the Nightingale is an Allegorical Debate, a literary genre which developed widely in Middle English literature. It is considered one of the most remarkable English poems before Chaucer. The two birds are engaged in asserting the merits of their singing. They assume respectively different meanings: asceticism and pleasure, religion and love, old age and youth, philosophy and art. Piers Plowman by William Langland is a long social allegory written in the latter half of the 14th century. It is based on the dream-vision form, a very common narrative form in medieval English poetry. It deals with theology and social criticism. It is concerned with corruption in the Church and contemporary society. Foreshadowing the Puritans, Langland thinks that man can win salvation by loving God and working honestly. Together with Chaucer, he contributed to creating a full picture of medieval society. He was more concerned with the political situation of his time and introduced into his vision social classes which were absent in the Canterbury Tales.
Brut, written by Laymon, a priest poet, deals with the story of Britain from the time of the Flood up to about 1200. It contains some mythic historical episodes (one   is the description of the building of Stonehenge with the help of Merlin, the famous King’s Arthur magician). Brut marks the appearance of the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table in English literature. The legend, of Celtic origin, ( Arthur was originally a Briton chieftain who led the British resistance against the Saxons) was first preserved by oral tradition in Britain and then appeared in the History of the Britons by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Brut may be regarded as the earliest example of the Romance and the Verse Tales, the new literary genres which flourished in England in the 13th and 14th centuries. Another achievement of English poetry before Chaucer is the Lyric, in which we find the first voices of ordinary people. The most important is the anonymous Cuckoo Song, which is a simple outburst of joy at the return of summer.
ROMANCE: The term “Romance” was used to refer to a book, written in a Romance language, which told a story of adventure, marvellous and supernatural. The plot and the situation were often unreal and remote from everyday life. It came from the French Chanson de Geste ( the most important literary form in France which celebrated Charlemagne and his nobles) and represented a single social class: the knights. The three main literary themes of the time were: love, chivalry and religion. Nearly all the English medieval romances are translations or adaptations from French originals. The best known of them is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight . Imported by the Normans and being as heroic as the Anglo-Saxon Epics, the Romance became popular with the British. It introduced into Medieval Literature the theme of the Arthurian legend (including characters as Merlin, Lancelot, Guinevere and other knights of the Round Table), the theme of the mission to recover the Holy Grail and the theme of Courtly Love . Romances were grouped into four main cycles, called “matters”: the Matter of France (stories of Charlemagne and his lords), the Matter of Britain( the Arthurian cycle), the Matter of England( romances about native English heroes) and the matter of Rome which included stories of the ancient classical world.
The theme of the courtly love brought to a new type of relationship between the sexes in the upper class. It was sung by travelling minstrels called “ troubadours”. These songs always spoke of a knight’s love for a lady and his loyalty for a Lord. The knight’s lady was usually his lord’s wife and sometimes the songs dealt with the conflict between the two men. According to the conventions of courtly love, a knight served the lady he loved without expecting anything in return. He might desire her physically but, if she refused him, he had to accept it without complaining. Their love affair, if it took place, had to be discreet. The convention is very much different from the previous thinking, which viewed relations between men and women as a matter of sexual passion. The knight had to be virtuous, brave and pure; he had to serve justice and protect the poor and the week. The lady, too, had to be virtuous, chaste and pure. Courtly love had nothing to do with marriage; marriage was concerned with preserving or increasing hereditary estates and cementing alliances. If a husband or a wife wanted love and passion, they very often looked for it outside marriage.
In the 14th century two other forms of popular poetry flourished: the Medieval Ballad and Drama.
Ballads can be divided into two categories: popular or folk ballads, written by unknown authors, and literary ballads, written by well-known poets. Medieval ballads were oral compositions by unlettered authors for unlettered audiences. They used a very simple language since they were addressed to simple people. They have been defined as songs which tell a story and then they were probably accompanied by music and dances. Ballads were a popular form of art and one ballad existed in different versions and was sung by different people. This happened because, being oral, they were changed by the different story-tellers. They had a tendency to tragedy and dealt with various themes such as love, revenge, outlaw life (as for instance the well-known cycle of Robin Hood), ghosts, local events and so on. The most popular among them were Chevy Chase and the Nut-brown Maid. The former told the story of a mortal combat between two rival families while the latter was on the theme of faithful and rewarded love. The main features of a Ballad were: they told the story of a single character; they had a tragic end; they used the dialogue form and contained many repetitions (of single words) and incremental repetitions ( the repetition of the same sentences with possible slight variations at regular intervals), which worked as a refrain because, being sung compositions, they had to help the singer to tell his message more understandable and give the listener a pause in which to remember and reflect; there were usually one or two climaxes; the storyteller was not emotionally involved and did not express personal attitudes or feelings: he simply told the story without making personal comments on his characters; they were usually divided into stanzas; the conventional stanza form had four lines rhyming ABCB.
Medieval Drama originated from the liturgy of the Mass. Its chief aim was religious instruction. The priests had the need to teach the story of the Bible to unlearned people. They tried to do it by means of rough dramatizations of biblical scenes and of episodes taken from the lives of Saints. The earlier forms were called Mystery Plays, when they represented episodes taken from the Bible, and Miracle Plays when they dealt with episodes taken from the lives of Saints. The plays were first performed in front of the altar during the Mass. When the number of people was more than the church could contain, they were moved outside the church and around the streets. There were no theatres yet and they were performed on movable stages called pageants. Drama moved to the streets thanks to the “trade guilds”, town corporations of artisans and craftsmen.

The pageants were fixed or moveable. The moveable ones were moved around towns on carts and stopped at prearranged places. They were like small houses with two vertical rooms : a lower room and an upper room. The lower room was closed in the four sides and served as a dressing room for the actors, while the upper room, open on all sides, was the stage on which the actors played their part. Each pageant represented an episode of the story, so people moved from one pageant to another. Each guild represented a different pageant: bakers represented the last supper, carpenters represented the building of Noah’s ark, armourers the expulsion of man from Paradise and so on. There are four collections still extant. They derive their names from the places where they were first performed: The York (48 plays performed at Corpus Christi ), the Chester (25 performed at Pentecost), the Coventry and the Wakefield.

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A second step in the development of English drama is the Morality Play. Unlike the Miracles / Mysteries, Moralities do not deal with episodes from the Bible but with the progress of man through life. They were forms of allegorical drama by means of which the message of the Bible could be conveyed to a mostly illiterate audience. Their characters were personified abstractions of vices ( greed, sloth, envy, lust and so on) and virtues (Patience, Temperance, Humility, Good Deeds, Mercy, Justice and so on) . Moralities represented the struggle between the Good and the Evil. The Good always won. Their aim was didactic because they aimed at teaching man the way to virtue and salvation. The best known Morality Play is Everyman: Death summons Everyman and he is forsaken by all his friends: Fellowship, Beauty, Knowledge etc…, except Good Deeds, who is ready to follow him before God. The final message is: we cannot take anything with us when we die except the good things we have done in our life. They who made good deeds in their life must not be afraid of God; only sin will be punished with Hell. God’s mercy will save those who will sincerely repent of their sins and commend their soul in his hand. Everyman is the representative of all mankind. He stands for the ordinary average man in the street. He believes in God and is afraid of dying without being absolved of his sins.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I there was a development of medieval drama: the Interlude. Interludes were comic dialogues inserted into the miracles to animate their atmosphere. They had little didactic purpose and dealt with humour and satire. They were different from the Moralities because the characters were not personifications but real individual characters. The best writer of Interludes was John Heywood, known for his “Four P’s”. It was a comic dialogue in which four characters, a Palmer, a Pardoner, an apothecary and a Pedlar contended as to who could tell the biggest lie. The Palmer won by asserting that he had never seen a woman out of temper.
The most important poet of the Middle Ages was Geoffrey Chaucer. Many critics maintain that true English literature started with him. He is also considered father of the English language because he wrote his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, in the East Midland dialect, from which modern English derived.



About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks. Bookmark the permalink.

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