Medieval England

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    and The
Canterbury Tales
     Middle Ages: 1066-1485
• 1066: Norman Conquest
  – William of Normandy asserted rule of England
    at the Battle of Hastings
  – William created English feudal system
• 1485: End of the Wars of the Roses
  – Henry VII assumes throne
           Historical Events
• Crusades (1095-1270)
  – Contact with Middle Eastern cultures
• Martyrdom of Thomas a Becket (1170)
  – Reduced monarchy’s authority
• Magna Carta (1215)
  – Limited king’s power
• Hundred Years’ Wars (1337-1453)
  – England vs. France; fight for throne
      Middle Ages: Feudalism
Provide money                  Grants land to…
and knights to


Provide protection             Grant land to…
and military
service to

Provide food and               Grant land to…
services on
demand                Serfs
                     GOD           Divine right of
                                      the king
Provides money                 Grants land to…
and knights to


Provide protection             Grant land to…
and military
service to

Provide food and               Grant land to…
services on
demand                Serfs
     • Population grew in
     • Growth in middle
       – More merchants and
       – More money for art
         and education
       – Less power for
                The PLAGUE
• Circa 1348
• Reduced population of
  Europe by one-third
  – Mostly poorest people
• Caused a labor shortage
  – Peasants compete for wages
  – Get more money
  – Get more power!
• Apocalyptic
• Paid taxes (tithes) to
• Obeyed lord who
  owned land
• Followed Church
  leaders in everything
• ―nasty, brutish, and
  short‖ lives

• Castles were
  the centers of
  defense for the
  feudal lords
• By 1300s, this
  social structure
  was collapsing
Code of Chivalry
        • Followed by knights
          and immortalized in
          literature and songs
        • Loyalty and
        • Bravery
        • Duty and honor
        • Virtue and Christianity
        • ―Courtly love‖
                  Courtly Love

―Love is a certain inborn
  suffering derived from the
  sight of and excessive
  meditation upon the
  beauty of the opposite sex,
  which causes each one to
  wish the embraces of the
  other and by common
  desire to carry out all of
  loves precepts in the
  other’s embraces‖
      How to be a Courtly Man
• Know how to talk in the
  presence of a lady
• Be mildly flirtatious
• Have a lady mentor
• Worship the lady from afar to
  replicate the relationship with
  the Virgin Mary
• Participate in stylized warfare
  in the name of a woman
How to be a Courtly Woman
             • Remain aloof
             • Resist sexual
             • Follow courtly
               manners and
             • Deign to give tokens
               of affection
                Role of Women
•   No political rights
•   Subservient to men
•   Mostly uneducated
•   But…
    – Gained power through
      courtly love tradition
    – Could have power as
      a merchant, healer,
      Church leader (nun),
      or wife of an important
     The Power of the Church
• Centers of
• Church officials were
  civic leaders
• Church court
• Heresy: having ideas
  different from church
Monastery Life
       • Monasteries were the
         centers of learning
       • Monks created
         manuscripts of the
         Bible and other
         historical documents
Illustrated Manuscripts
            • Monks copied the
              Biblical texts (in Latin)
              and meticulously
              decorated the pages
 The Church Was Important, but…
• Not everyone went into church
  occupations for pious reasons.
• Corruption was widespread.
• Many groups had begun to openly criticize
  the Catholic Church.
• England is a LONG way from Rome.
  Literature of the Middle Ages
• Mystery or miracle plays
  – Based on Biblical stories—
    saints’ lives, conversions,
  – Performed in churches as
    part of worship
• Morality plays
  – Secular allegories that
    showed the right way to live
  Literature of the Middle Ages
• Ballads
  – Songs of folk heroes
• Romances
  – Adventure stories of
    kings, knights, damsels
  – Quests and battles
• Pageants and masques
  – Folk entertainment, such
    as carnivals and
  – Often farcical, even
    when based on the Bible
Geoffrey Chaucer

  ―The Father of
  English Poetry‖
    Chaucer the Conservative
• Part of king’s court
• Diplomatic emissary
• Politically
• ―Keeper of the Forest
  of Kent‖
Chaucer the Literary Revolutionary
• Wrote in English
• Wrote an epic that
  was set in
  contemporary times
• Wrote about English
The Canterbury Tales

• Pilgrimage from London to St. Thomas a
  Becket at Canterbury Cathedral
  – Pilgrimages were religious quests and vacations
  – 29 other pilgrims (30 including Chaucer)
         The Canterbury Tales
• Host suggests a contest
  – Each pilgrim tells two tales on the way there and
    two on the way home (approx. 120!!!)
  – Host looks for ―best sentence and moost solaas‖
  – The winner gets a celebration supper
  – Rule-breakers have to pay travel costs

                     OR                   ?
    The Pilgrims: by Economics
         Upper        Middle            Lower
•Knight           •Clerk           •Parson
                  •Man of Law      •Plowman
•Canon & Yeoman
                  •Franklin        •Miller
•Monk             •Guildsmen (5)   •Manciple
•Friar            •Cook            •Reeve
•Merchant         •Shipman         •Summoner
                  •Physician       •Pardoner
                  •Wife of Bath
•Second Nun
               The Pilgrims
• Knight: just back from Crusades; virtuous and
• Squire: Knight’s son; ―a lover and a lusty
• Yeoman: servant of knight; carries weapons
• Monk: a fat and bald outdoorsman; does not
  take religion seriously
• Friar: money-hungry, greedy, drunken
• Merchant: opinionated and possibly crooked
• Prioress: genteel, sophisticated lady, but
                    The Pilgrims
•   Clerk: poor but moral student/philosopher
•   Man of law: self-important, high-ranking lawyer
•   Franklin: vibrant country gentleman; fond of food
•   Guildsmen: hat-maker, carpenter, dyer, tapestry-maker,
    and weaver; trying to improve their position in society
•   Cook: good cook but has an open wound
•   Shipman: basically a pirate
•   Physician: follows astrology instead of the Bible; has lots
    of money
•   Wife of Bath: brash and semi-deaf wife of 5 husbands
    (and she’s looking for number 6)
                    The Pilgrims
•   Parson: Christlike leader of his parishioners
•   Plowman: self-sacrificing brother of the Parson
•   Miller: huge ex-wrestler, tells dirty stories, dishonest
•   Manciple: accountant-type who takes advantage of his
•   Reeve: skinny and sickly old man who embezzles
•   Summoner: calls people to trial; blackmailer
•   Pardoner: corrupt…but tells a great sermon
•   Host: the leader of this motley crew--a complex
    character, he insists on order but seems to incite
• Bitter debates among pilgrims (revealing the
  range of values in human nature)
  – Criticism of the Catholic Church and its leaders
  – The war between the sexes (and the proper role of
  – Power and authority
  – The value of the chivalric code
  – ―Book learning‖ vs. common sense
  – ―Cupiditas‖ (greed and lust) vs. ―charitas‖ (charity)
What Is The Canterbury Tales?
• Allegory
  – The pilgrims and the characters in the stories
    represent human virtues and vices.
• Great stories
  – The pilgrimage is a framing device for plots.
• Satire
  – Chaucer critiques individual people, the
    Church, society, and literature.
• All of the above?
     Why Should We Read It?
• To gain a picture of medieval English life
• To appreciate Chaucer’s talent as a writer
• To track the development of English as a
• To see the emergence of English literary forms
  (iambic pentameter, heroic couplets)

     Why Should We Read It?
• Because these are terrific stories that have
  stood the test of time
• Because Chaucer can tell both a dirty joke
  and a moral lesson at the same time
• Because reading The Canterbury Tales is
  a rite of passage
• Because the pilgrims are just like people
  you and I know
• Four line stanzas in which the second and
  fourth lines rhyme
• Repeated phrases or sections, called a
• Dialogue
• Sometimes use dialect
• Author unknown
             Chaucer’s Life
• Spoke French, Latin, English, and Italian
  – But wrote in vernacular English!
• Traveled to Italy and was influenced by
  Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio
• 1387—began The Canterbury Tales
  – Never finished
• First poet to be buried in Poet’s Corner of
  Westminster Abbey

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