The Medieval Period

****Period Background****

English society, from 1066 to 1400, was
dominated by restrictions resulting from
the feudal system. While the rest of Europe
experienced the Renaissance, Anglo-
Saxon art and literature failed to develop
under repressive Norman rule.

The English language of the period, Middle English, was a blending of the Germanic Old English of the Anglo-Saxons with 10,000 French vocabulary words. Until Chaucer's arrival, there was no serious Middle English literature.

Middle English literature, prior to Chaucer, followed the oral tradition with many folk ballads and romances on the legends of King Arthur. Also, a great deal of domestic and imported drama featured religious themes. These plays developed a large audience for England's future theater.

When the devastating Hundred Years War and
the Wars of the Roses had concluded and the
Tudor family gained firm control of the monarchy;
and around 1450, Middle English literature became
an important art form, soon to dominate the English
Renaissance. The arrival of the printing press from
Germany helped make England "land of the poets."

****Folk Ballads****


Folk Ballads were part of the oral tradition.
They generally told fragmented stories in
a simple poetic structure, using quatrains
with 8-8 or 8-6 meter. Though simple art,
they helped preserve the Anglo-Saxon
language and culture. They feature the four
beat meter which is the basis for popular
music today.


Folk Ballads came from English, Irish, and Scottish cultures. They were usually based on well-known legends or popular stories, so their incomplete details for plot development caused no problems for the medieval audiences who sought them as a popular form of entertainment.
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Ballads are grouped as traditional or modern.
The traditional ballad was an anonymous poem
that was mainly intended to be heard, not read.
The modern ballad has a known author and is
either published and intended to be read as
formal literature or serves as the lyrics for
popular songs.

"Sir Patrick Spens"

This ballad is based on an historical event
involving the ill-fated king's ship. Upon an
old knight's suggestion, Spens is told he
must take the king's ship out at a very
dangerous time of year. An interesting
aspect of the ballad is the mystery over
Spen's talents: was he really the best sailor
in Scotland?

"Get Up and Bar the Door"

This ballad uses hyperbole to
ridicule the lengths people will
go to win an argument, especially
a married couple. Both characters
are far too stubborn to say the first
word because of a bet. As a result,
intruders abuse them and they
willingly suffer the consequences.

"The Twa Corbies"

This ballad, on the surface, appears to
be nothing more than an Aesop-like fable.
However, as the two birds discuss the
unburied knight, they make numerous
dismal implications of death which emerge
for us to ponder and leave us to conclude
"how the mighty have fallen."

"Barbara Allen"

This ballad is a character study of the
"headstrong" Barbara Allen. Slighted
by her lover, she wishes him dead.
Time compression allows him to die
quickly, throwing Barbara into a state
of suicidal remorse. This rapid mood
swing appears somewhat unrealistic.


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

This narrative poem is more than
an English romance based on the
legends of King Arthur. It is one of
the key works representing the
Alliterative Revival, a literary
movement combining the Old
English alliterative structure
with ballad rhyme. The technique
was called the "bob and wheel."

As a part of the Christmas games,
Arthur's sister, using magic, challenges
the knights of the Round Table to an
unfair contest. The central focus turns
on Sir Gawain when he stands up to
take Arthur's place. After his "free swing,"
he promises a reunion in one year's time,
to lose his own head. During this year,
he "comes of age" as a true knight.

The plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
was constructed by combining old Irish
"beheading" and "vegetation" myths with the
Authorian romance. Thus, a modern hero has
been produced: Gawain may show weakness
and makes mistakes, but learns from his
experiences to become a better knight. In the
end, all of the knights of the round table wear
a green sash, sharing in Gawain's humility.

The Canterbury Tales "Prologue"

Working as an ambassador to France and
Italy, Chaucer learned about the vast literary
developments of the Renaissance. Upon
his return to England, he "borrowed" the
idea of The Decameron, a frame story with
one hundred tales. Chaucer's frame would
include 24 stories (or anecdotes) of the
projected 100 plus he intended to tell.

The Decameron used a frame of people hiding
away from the plague. Chaucer used a more
positive vehicle involving a pilgrimage to Canter-
bury, during which a group of middle class travelers
amused themselves in a story-telling contest. The
frame runs beyond the "Prologue," linking the
individual stories and adding narrative elements.

The "Prologue" does more than introduce
the characters. These characters represent
every aspect of the emerging middle class,
so their attitudes and opinions were as im-
portant as their appearances and actions.
Also, they serve the dual function of narrator
and character, for a character's tale would be
an extension of his or her personality. They
would form the basis of the most important
work in Middle English.

"The Nun's Priest's Tale"

This comical anecdote focuses on the human
weakness of vanity, but the central characters
are a rooster and a fox, not humans. The super-
stitions related to the importance of premonitions
or dreams are treated with slight satire as the tale
progresses. Still, the most humorous aspect of
the tale is its mock epic aspects: Chanticleer is
a rooster with a highly inflated ego. Chaucer exits
the tale with a hint of male vanity: never take a
woman's advice.

"The Pardoner's Tale"

This tale is an exemplum, an anecdote
with a lesson or moral. In this case, "greed
is the root of all evil." In ironic fashion, a trio
of drunken fools seeks death and eventually
finds it in their own self-destruction. The
tale's only complex element is a mysterious
old man who directs them to the fatal pot of
gold. Was he just an old man, unwanted by
death, or was he death itself?

Morte D'Arthur"

While in prison for unknown crimes, Thomas
Malory translated countless French romance
tales of King Arthur and rewrote them into nine
prose volumes, calling volume nine and the
whole set Morte D'Arthur. These nine volumes
have been the basis of all post-medieval tales
of King Arthur and the Round Table, from the
poetry of Tennyson to current films.

In the closing of volume nine, Arthur
must battle his son Mordred for control
of all England. Lacking chivalry, Arthur
arranges a treaty, simply to restrain
his son until help can arrive. However,
an accident occurs and Arthur, ignoring
a warning from his dream, destroys
himself and his son in a massive battle.
Malory's plot suggests that all of this was


Everyman comes from the tradition of morality plays, street performances, and miracle plays, drama performed during church services. While believed to be Dutch by origin, this play was frequently performed in England and is strongly representative of the types of plays that drew huge audiences as performers traveled from town to town. Renaissance theater owes a great debt to the drama of the medieval period.

Everyman functions as an allegory because
most of its characters represent something
else, usually an abstracted virtue or quality.
An example is "Knowledge" who is one of
"Everyman's" friends, but represents what
any man learns thoroughout his life. When
the unprepared Everyman is taken to meet
God, he learns that only Good Deeds have
meaning in the afterlife.

This is the first stanza of the middle English
version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.


SIȚEN țe sege and țe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
Țe bor3 brittened and brent to bronde3 and askez,
Țe tulk țat țe trammes of tresoun țer wro3t
Watz tried for his tricherie, țe trewest on erțe:
Hit watz Ennias țe athel, and his highe kynde,
Țat sițen depreced prouinces, and patrounes bicome
Welne3e of al țe wele in țe west iles.
Fro riche Romulus to Rome ricchis hym swyțe,
With gret bobbaunce țat bur3e he biges vpon fyrst,
And neuenes hit his aune nome, as hit now hat;
Tirius to Tuskan and teldes bigynnes,
Langaberde in Lumbardie lyftes vp homes,
And fer ouer țe French flod Felix Brutus
On mony bonkkes ful brode Bretayn he settez wyth wynne,
Where werre and wrake and wonder
Bi syțez hatz wont țerinne,
And oft boțe blysse and blunder
Ful skete hatz skyfted synne.