English 205:
Lecture 3

Lecture 3: The Middle Ages

The Norman Conquest

Duke William of Normandy (northern France), invaded England in 1066 to claim the West-Saxon throne. He had vast territorial ambitions: during the same century in which the Normans conquered England, they founded states in southern Italy and Sicily.

At his attack the English were divided and indecisive. William's army, by contrast, was compact, efficient, and made up mostly of mercenaries who had extensive fighting experience. William defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings and became known as William the Conqueror, King of England and Duke of Normandy. For the next 400 years, the kingdom he founded was the most powerful state in Europe.

The Normans brought with them their language and culture. Latin remained the language of learning; Old English was spoken and written; but the machinery of government and law was conducted in French, and the French taste in literature and the arts prevailed. As the languages evolved and combined, "Middle English"--the language of Chaucer--developed. It is an amalgam of Old English and the Germanic French of the Normans.

Native English literature did not flourish during this time. Very little survives the period from 1066 to 1200. Aristocratic (and educated) families were broken up, displaced, and forced into service with the Norman invaders. William's method of asserting his power and uniting the realm was to declare all the land his own. He retained the great estates for himself, and parcelled out the remainder among his followers, who held them as tenants in return for exactly defined services. Within this system, the Normans were free to use the land as they wished, as long as they remained totally loyal to William. William required that a castle with a constable be built in every county town and at other strategic points throughout the country. Thus, great stone fortresses, on elevated ground, with moats and outer stockades rose all over England. They were visible symbols of Norman power, and their style was completely different than anything built by the English.

William made other changes, as well. For example, he started the Doomsday Book--a record of the feudal obligation of each of William's vassals. He also strengthened the seaports for defense and trade. London became more important; by 1215, it was the largest, wealthiest, most powerful town in England, and was the Norman Empire's administrative and cultural center as well.

By the 1300s, the English Kingdom (which included Britain and part of France) was at the height of its political, military, and economic strength.

Some of the biggest changes came about in education. The first universities were founded in France in the 12th century. Curricula included civil and canon (ecclesiastical) law, the Latin classics, Aristotelian philosophy, logic, math, and medicine.

Until the end of the 12th century, boys were educated by schools attached to cathedrals or licensed by bishops of the diocese, or in royal households, or in abbeys of monasteries, where they were trained by monks; all education had to be Church-sanctioned. Not all boys were educated; illiteracy was common among the poorer classes, since education was not free. (There was no real education for girls.) In the late 12th century, the University of Oxford was founded, and a little later, the University of Cambridge. These, for 500 years, were the only two English universities. Boys from families who could afford the tuition entered the university at the age of 14, and stayed for 7 years or so. They studied for a career in the Church, administration, or law. By the later 12th century, the emphasis was on law. But a university education was by no means common; it was mostly reserved for the privileged classes.

In the 13th century, Parliament was begun and the Magna Carta (the forerunner of our Constitution) was written. But the Church still dominated all aspects of life. Literature and learning were controlled by monks and the clergy, and they restricted literature to a narrow range of topics and forms, written in Latin, and very stilted and formal.

As the Church grew more powerful, its wealth increased. And as its wealth increased, so did corruption within the Church. There was mounting dissatisfaction with the clergy among the people. (This is quite evident in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.) By the 14th century, the influence of the Church was being questioned even among the upper classes, and its influence was in decline.

Life and Literature in the Middle Ages

Written English literature began to appear at the end of the 12th century. Most of it was of popular origin; it had simpler, less epic language structures, since it was written in the language used by the people, rather than in French or Latin. It had a wide diversity of styles, tones, subjects, and genres, and was addressed to a popular (rather than a religious or highly educated) audience. In such works, the hero is not as distant or idealized as, for example, Beowulf: he fights and fights again, but also laughs, cries, and falls in and out of love. And the literature now included women. It also contained much more humor, even in hopeless situations.

But for 200 years, literature changed relatively little: a romance written at the beginning of the 13th century differs little from one written at the end of the 15th century. This is probably because most writers tried to make their works reflect the morals and principles of medieval Christian doctrine.

People's lives, too, were unchanging in the large scale: most people were born, lived and died in the same town as their grandparents, and did the same work, with the same tools, had the same sports and festivals, the same lives. Change was perceived as dangerous, and was therefore slow.

But in the people's daily lives, change was constant and inevitable, and generally not for the better; they faced wars, famine, and plagues; murder, public executions, and witchcraft trials were common features of medieval life. The inevitability of change for the worse is a recurring theme of medieval literature. Wars, combined with the plundering of peasant lands by the powerful; the severity of the laws, combined with the failure to enforce them against the powerful and rich; hunger, combined with the coldness and darkness of the English winter, living in badly-built dwellings with insufficient heat and light--all this was reflected in medieval literature, which portrays life as bleak, dark, and hopeless except for the reliance on a better afterlife.

Pleasure, therefore, was very important. People took a tremendous interest in color, dress, ritual, elaborate food and drink (when it was available), ritual, parade, and spectacle. They were also accepting of emotional extremes, in life and in characters they read and heard about; laughing and crying were acceptable behavior for both men and women.

One of the forms of literature which reflected these values and evolved in the Middle Ages was the romance. It was primarily developed in France, in the 12th and 13th centuries, and then transported to England, where it was adapted for the local culture. Generally, it has the following features:

A common topic of romances was the legend of King Arthur and the members of his courts, especially his knights.

From the romances evolved the concept of "courtly love": an almost worshipful (and chaste) admiration of a woman.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was one of four poems discovered in a single manuscript. Whether all four poems were written by the same poet, or whether they were just all copied by the same poet from different sources, is a critical debate which need not concern us for the purposes of this class. What is relevant is that the poet's name is unknown to us, and that the poem dates from approximately 1360-1395, and probably derives from the North-West Midland area (although the dating and origin of the poem are also debatable).

map of England
Map of England, 1300s

map of English Midlands
Map of the Midlands

The poet was probably an aristocrat, since he shows an intimate knowledge of courtly ways of life; it is likely that he was familiar with the Latin classics, and he seems also to have read widely in the French romance literature of the day. He may well also (as can be guessed from some references in Sir Gawain) have read Dante's Divine Comedy.

The poem is written in a style known as "alliterative verse." Poems written in alliterative verse have different rhyme schemes and metric patterns; in this case, Sir Gawain is written in sections of long unrhymed lines, each section ending in five shorter rhymed lines. (You will be reading a Modern English translation, but the translator, Marie Boroff, has taken pains to preserve the form.)

The alliterative poetry of the Middle Ages comes from a tradition going back to Anglo-Saxon times and beyond, and retains many of the characteristics of its Anglo-Saxon heritage. For example, it deals in "themes": feasts, journeys, battles, sea voyages, storms at sea, arrivals of messengers, descriptions of certain kinds of landscape and weather, to name a few. These themes tend to be expressed through traditional words and phrases, often of a fixed metric and syntactic pattern, known as a "formula." That is to say, these poets loved cliches and use of them was regarded as a vital part of the poetry; it was a shortcut for both poets and listeners. What makes the Gawain-poet unique is that he uses these formulaic repetitions, and adds new shades of meaning to them.

One of the constant themes one finds in Middle English alliterative poetry is the confrontation between man and the supernatural (usually a single figure who appears human but clearly has greater-than-human powers). Usually, the hero is unwilling to admit that his opponent's powers even exist, and when he does admit it, he is then unwilling to contend with the implications. He struggles to defeat his opponent, but his struggles are in vain. Therefore, the hero's aspirations to heroism are undercut, and presented ironically. The poet thus presents, as the central fact of the human situation, the idea that man lives in a world he did not make, and is at the mercy of non-human powers. Often, as in Gawain, these powers are merciful and forgiving.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is made up of a number of traditional elements: the Beheading Game, the Temptation, and the Exchange of Winnings. But its linking of these elements and its structure make it unique. Certain patterns recur throughout the poem, many involving groupings of three: three days' hunting, three meetings of the Lady and Sir Gawain in Gawain's bedroom, three axe-blows at the Green Chapel, and others. Other patterns include the recurrence of colors (green, gold, and red); and pairings of events, such as the two Christmas feasts, the two beheading games, and so on.

Sir Gawain is a romance, but it is more demanding of the reader than such romances generally are. Rather than spelling out the "moral," the Gawain-poet expects the reader (or listener) to find the meaning in the story. He gives the reader many tools with which to do this, including Sir Gawain himself. Gawain is a self-conscious hero. The reader can almost always see his thoughts, feelings, and motives, and can see him working out the solutions to dilemmas. Most important, the reader can see the workings of Gawain's conscience; this is especially important in the sections of the poem in which two values are in conflict with one another. For example, when the Lady offers herself to Gawain so insistently, he doesn't want to be rude to her, but he also doesn't want to violate his own ethics or the hospitality of his host.

The structure of the poem is another tool given to the reader to help him divine the meaning within the poem. The plot-elements are not linked consecutively, but embedded within one another: The Temptation is inserted into the Beheading Game, and the three parts of the Temptation are each inserted into one of the Hunts, and thus the Exchange of Winnings is intertwined with the Temptations, and is also embedded in the Beheading Game. In other words, the structure functions as a set of boxes in descending sizes, each fitting neatly into the larger one. In this way, the poet makes it clear that the themes and lessons of the poem are all related, and all lead to one great conclusion.

We are also led to see Gawain as representative of something larger than himself by the fact that he volunteers to take on the Green Knight's challenge to Arthur. At this moment, he becomes not only Arthur's substitute, but the representative of the whole court, and its redeemer. In a time when many poets saw Heaven as the Ideal Court, of which earthly courts were imperfect copies, this would alert any reader to the fact that Gawain had symbolic as well as narrative significance in the story.

In addition, Gawain is imperfect. He has great self-control and is strong and courageous, living up to the virtues demanded of him by his shield (more on the shield later), but he is human, facing a greater-than-human figure, and is doomed to fail--ironically, when he is least aware of being tested.

The symbolism of the shield has long been a matter of debate among Gawain scholars. The pentagram's five points represent the five sets of five qualities in Gawain: he is without fault in his five senses, he does no wrong with his five fingers, his faith is in Christ's five wounds, he draws his fortitude from the five joys of the Blessed Virgin (who is on the other side of his shield), and he has five specific virtues: generosity, love of his fellows, purity, courtesy, and compassion. These are religiously-based virtues, and they are all courtly virtues too.

The poet, in his description of the pentagram, places great weight on the fact of the endlessness of the design; this places emphasis on the idea that Gawain's virtues are interrelated and interdependent; if there is a failing at any point, all the others will be at risk. In his tests, all of Gawain's virtues are being tried--all of those that go to make up the Christian and courtly civilization.

If you'd like more information on any of the topics covered in this lecture, see the Links page. Enjoy!

Some of the information in this lecture derives from:
1. The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages through the 18th Century, eds. Frank Kermode, John Hollander, et al.
2. A. C. Spearing's The Gawain-Poet: A Critical Study.
The maps used in this lecture come from About.com's guide to travel in the U.K.