The Middle English Period 1066 – 1485

  1. The Norman Conquest
    1. Battle of Hastings
    2. William The Conqueror defeats Anglo-Saxon forces
    3. Anglo-Normans
    1. Descendants of Germanic adventurers, who had seized a part of northern France, known as Normandy. Their name is actually a form of Norsemen.
    2. A very adaptable people who adopted the French language and religion-Christianity
    3. Great builders of castles and churches, symbolizing their political and religious power & influence
    4. Although the dukes of Normandy were technically the subjects of the king of France, they were in effect independent rulers, a point that is solidified in their English kingdoms.
  1. Anglo-Norman Period
    1. A more diversified period than the Old English Period, which had the singular aristocratic voice
    2. Still a feudalistic society, with lords, knights, servants, and serfs as well as with a code of chivalry and the art of jousting but a middle class is emerging that consists of tradesmen represented by guilds, lawyers, doctors, and church servants
    3. Still predominantly oral tradition of native English language but scope is broader and more inclusive, ranging from the Anglo-Norman ruling class to a growing middle class and more detailed accounts of ordinary life
    4. Latin is the international language of learning at newly founded universities, like Oxford, Cambridge, & Paris
    5. Three languages of the period: French, the language of the aristocrats, English the language of the conquered, and Latin
    6. Literature in Middle English Period is still of a religious nature, transcribed by clerks….The church still offered the best means for the poor to get an education and rise to prominence, i.e., Thomas a Becket, who rose from service to Henry II to title of Archbishop of Canterbury in1170.
    7. 1300s marked by wars with France that last throughout the century and culminate in Britain’s loss of most of their lands in France
    8. In 1348 the Bubonic Plague or the Black Death wipes out almost a third of Europe’s population, resulting in a labor shortage and increased possibility of social mobility.
    9. 1381 the Peasant’s Revolt – a widespread popular uprising by tenant farmers, day laborers, and apprentices which was quickly suppressed
    10. In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster deposed Richard II and becomes Henry IV; he’s succeeded by his son Henry V, who unites England for a time and defeats the French at Agincourt but dies without an heir, thus dividing the country with Civil War, known as the War of the Roses (Lancaster-Red & York-White)
    11. Henry Tudor defeats Richard III at Bosworth Field and becomes Henry VII
  1. The Church
    1. Powerful and wealthy
    2. Tithing practices (paying 10% of income to the church)
    3. Pilgrimages
    4. Crusades
    5. Morality plays (personified vices and virtues struggling for the soul of man; precursor to professional theater of Elizabethan age)
    6. Mystery Plays (cycle of plays based on Bible produced by the trade guilds of a town)
  1. William Caxton – 1476 printing with moveable type and made the production of
  2. literature a business

  3. Chaucer (1343 –1400)
    1. Son of middle-class wine merchant in London
    2. Served as a page in an aristocratic household, that of Prince Lionel son of Edward III, where he learned the manners and skills required for a life in service to the aristocracy
    3. Member of King Edward’s personal household, where he traveled to Spain, Italy, and France on diplomatic missions; he kept the books on export taxes, served as justice of the peace, and maintained numerous royal residences
    4. Married the daughter of a knight who served at court
    5. Diplomatic mission to Italy in 1372 was milestone in literary development by bringing him into contact with the Italian Renaissance and the works of Dante and Boccaccio

The Canterbury Tales

    1. First conceived in 1386 as a projected 120 stories but Chaucer only completed 22 stories before his death
    2. Story within a story framework in which pilgrims making the 56 mile journey from London to Canterbury amuse themselves with a storytelling contest
    3. Variety of tales matched by the diversity of the storytellers, representing a wide spectrum of Medieval society
    4. Characters defined by what the narrator says in "The General Prologue," by the links or discussions between stories, and by the tales themselves
    5. Pilgrims defined in terms of what they wear, eat, say, do and how they look.
    6. The setting is April at the Tabard Inn, where a group of pilgrims meet and decide to entertain themselves on their pilgrimage to Canterbury by telling stories; the host of the inn will judge the winner who will be treated to a meal.
    7. GP introduces 29 pilgrims representing different walks of life - a sense of verisimilitude or "slice of medieval life"
    8. Written in Middle English, the work shows the shift from the highly inflected Germanic form of Old English that resulted from the Norman Conquest of England, which brought a succession of French or Norman kings to the throne for about 200 years. Consequently, French became the official language of the upper classes while the use of English was relegated to the uneducated poor, thus simplifying its form and its strong Germanic influences. It is not until the middle of the 14th Century that English is restored to its rightful place in England.

Study Questions:

    1. In "The General Prologue" Chaucer presents a vivid cross-section of the people who composed the various social classes of 14th Century England, excluding only the nobility and the peasants. These pilgrims represent diverse social & economic classes, demographics, and moral perspectives. Beginning with Church members and working down to the lowest member of society represented, organize the characters depicted in the "Prologue" based on social position first then on their morality.
    2. What information provided in the "Prologue" helps to flesh out the social fabric of 14th Century society? Consider not only the depiction of class but also that of social customs and events.
    3. As stated in the "Prologue," describe the setting, the pilgrims' purpose, and the specifics of the story-telling contest.
    4. What seems to be Chaucer's opinion of the Clergy? Consider his treatment of the Monk, the Friar, the Prioress, and the Pardoner for example.
    5. Which characters does Chaucer seem to esteem? What attributes do these characters possess that Chaucer appears to value?
    6. "The Miller's Tale" is an example of the fabliau, a humorous, bawdy, realistic tale plainly told and enjoyed by the lower classes. Why does this form suit the Miller? How are the tale's subject matter and the Miller's account of the tale in keeping with the literary form?
    7. "The Miller's Tale" is composed of two separate stories that are interrelated. Discuss how the climax of one becomes the inevitable climax of the other.
    8. What is the Wife of Bath's defense of marriage in her Prologue? What is the Wife of Bath's view of the roles men and women should play in marriage? How did these roles work out in her marriages? Relate the young knight's "rash bargain" and its outcome from her tale to her own views on marriage.
    9. How does the Pardoner characterize himself in the Prologue to his tale? Considering information garnered from the Prologues as well as from his tale, address the description of the Pardoner as "a lost soul."
    10. Some critics consider "The Pardoner's Tale," which is an exemplum or moralized tale, one of the best short stories ever written. Consider plot, setting, and characterization as you agree or disagree with this judgment.