The medieval period of England Essay Example

The medieval period of England is a time that is famous for feudalism, chivalry, and invasions. The English medieval period is generally defined from the time that the Roman Empire fell (in the 400s) to the crowning of Henry VII (in 1485). During these 1,000 years, the feudal system governed the medieval society. The feudal system (or feudalism) puts kings at the top of the social ladder while placing peasants (common people) serfs at the bottom. Serfdom existed all across medieval Europe and was a system where serfs (slaves) could be bought, sold, or exchanged. Serfs generally worked on a nobleman’s estate and in return they received protection. Also during the medieval period, the invasions from mainland Europe helped shape medieval English culture. The invasions of the Anglo-Saxons and Danes greatly shaped the English language, adding Germanic words like “husband” that are still used today.
Another important invasion of England was from the Normans. The Normans were originally from Scandinavia, a region of Northern Europe (North men), but eventually conquered and ruled parts of French Normandy. The Norman Conquest of England, asserted by the Battle of Hastings, placed William the Conqueror (often referred to as the first king of England) on the English throne in 1066. During the latter years of medieval England, the Plantagenet family and its cadet branches ruled England for over three centuries. Although this family ruled England, they were originally French, they spoke French, and at times ruled more parts of France than the French themselves. The Plantagenets are remembered as one of the most bloody families to ever rule England. They also set up a system of hereditary privilege, where firstborn sons inherited from their fathers, causing the throne to pass from father to son for generations.


Another extremely important event in English History was the signing of the Magna Carta by King John in 1215. The document has since been called the foundation of democracy and fairness in government, even though it began as protection for the aristocracy. Later during the 1200s, a man named Simon de Montfort called an assembly to counteract the orders being made by Henry III. The action from de Montfort has been called the precursor to Parliament and governing that is made by a group of people, instead of an absolute ruler or a dictator.


Also during the medieval period, the Bubonic Plague (called the Black Death) ravaged Europe during the 14th century, killing a third of the mainland European population. Historians estimate around 35 to 40 percent of the English were killed (historians still debate these percentages). The Black Death also paused the Hundred Years War for a few years, increased wages for peasants (due to a shortage of labor), and eventually put an end to long-term serfdom (medieval slavery). Later on in medieval England, the end of the Wars of the Roses was synonymous with the end of the medieval period in England. The Wars of the Roses were fought between two rival factions in the Plantagenet family: the Yorks (whose emblem was a white rose) and the Lancasters (whose emblem was a red rose). This conflict inspired many movies and television shows, such as Game of Thrones. Both families held the English throne for intermittent periods of time until Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII won the English throne. He, a descendant of Lancasters, married Princess Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of a York king, thus ending the dispute between the two families, the Wars of the Roses, and the medieval period altogether. My goal in this paper is to discuss the authors of the medieval period, to show how their early writings pathed a path for later authors, and to describe their contributions to early literature by detailing the uses of allegory, magical realism, myths, oral traditions, religious propaganda, and early English poetry.
In the years that the first Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic tribes ravaged England and northern Europe, they brought their beliefs and customs with them. Since many of the literature is over 1,000 years old, many of their authors are unknown and forgotten. Yet, despite the anonymity of these works, that does not take away from the works that were written. Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic tribe, hailing from areas in continental Europe. They often wrote about their gods, sailing, invading, and other things that were important to them as a people. According to the Literature Textbook, “An Anglo-Saxon viewed himself as a warrior, a follower of a lord or a king, not a citizen of a particular nation. This mentality shaped Anglo-Saxon culture and therefore their writing styles. Anglo-Saxons often used magical realism, pagan myths, and real stories to emphasize their way of life in their writing. By doing this, they have left a mark on literature and culture forever.


In the poem, “The Seafarer” translated by Burton Raffel, hardships at sea are described. The “seafarer” or sailor details the cold and the solitude of the sea and comparing it to life at home, where a man is surrounded by family and friends. Then, the seafarer’s tone changes and he begins to talk about his yearning for the sea, despite the hardships that it brings. Then, his tone changes again and stops talking about the sea altogether and he begins to talk about “the path to Heaven”. He tells the audience “earthly happiness will not endure.” He also tells the audience, “earthly wealth cannot travel to the afterlife, nor can it benefit a soul after a man’s death.” The seafarer ends with statements about God and Heaven. The final word in the poem is “Amen.” Most historians agree that the main writing device in “The Seafarer” is allegory, which means a poem that contains a hidden meaning, typically moral or political.


“The Seafarer” is obviously an allegorical piece, seeing as though it is presented as a poem about the sea, even though it talks about religion God and religion. This shows the importance of Christianity in medieval life and it reinforces the Medieval idea that God can be found anywhere, even at sea. In the beginning of the poem, it is clear that the seafarer does not have a name or his name is simply not mentioned due to its unimportance. Either way, this is an example of the medieval idea that individuality is not important and should be shunned. It may have also been a purposeful decision by the author to emphasize Anglo-Saxon beliefs. As previously stated, Anglo-Saxons didn’t believe in actual nations, only in the noblemen they follow. This is something would that would be strange to a 21st Century viewpoint. Similarly, the fact that the seafarer doesn’t have a name shows the differences between medieval and modern times. Individuality and self-recognition are of the utmost importance to people of modern times, while the medieval author doesn’t even bother giving the main character a name or even body characteristics, showing that they are totally unimportant. This could also allude to religious piety and the importance of what’s within.


Also, it should be noted that the author’s name is also unknown. This could be the result of this poem being over 1,000 years old or it could be a conscious decision made by the author to emphasize the point he or she was making by not naming the main character (the seafarer). In Christianity, the physical body is less important than the spiritual body. The seafarer’s physical body is supposed to be unimportant while his soul is what should be focused on by the audience. The poem also includes themes of sacrifice and service (two more core Christian ideals). The seafarer describes the cold and the solitude of living at sea while juxtaposing the warmths of living on the land. This is an example of service and sacrifice. Although the seafarer does enjoy being at sea, he is forced to deal with the harsh realities that the life brings with it. This can be compared to modern day people who reenlist in the military multiple times. Even though it is a harsh and brutal lifestyle, the soldiers chose it, just like the Seafarer chose his own fate at sea, despite its hardships.
Later in the poem, the seafarer begins to talk about the “path to Heaven.” The seafarer would be following the traditional path to Heaven, because the way to Heaven is usually described by hard work and sacrifice, which the seafarer practices. The seafarer also talks about how earthly realities will not come to Heaven after death. The seafarer does not value earthly riches, just like more devout Christians would not value earthly riches. The seafarer understands that what exists on earth does not exist elsewhere, therefore he does not dwell on it and instead concerns himself will seafaring and hard work at sea. Lastly, he ends his poem with the word “amen.” Traditionally, a prayer is ended with amen, which means that the poem could almost be the seafarer’s prayer to God. The seafarer has devoted himself to a humble life at sea and it seems that he did that to appease God. The seafarer would be an example to pious boys who lived in medieval Anglo-Saxon England and in some ways, could still be an example today.


Although the Anglo-Saxons left an indelible mark on English history, they left few factual records of their lives and histories. However, they vividly recorded their dreams, aspirations, and fears. Although Beowulf’s author is unknown (similar to The Seafarer), it is considered the “the dawn of English literature.” Even though Beowulf is set in Scandinavia, it was written in Old English, by Anglo-Saxons. Beowulf is an epic (a poem that is a lengthy narrative, ordinarily involving a time before memory where extraordinary things occurred.) Beowulf exemplifies what 8th Century Anglo-Saxons wanted to be and what they valued.


The story of Beowulf begins in Scandinavia. Beowulf, one of the heroes of the Geats (a tribe of people in southern Sweden), sails to help Hrothgar, king of the Danes in his fight against the monster Grendel. In the past, Hrothgar had once done a favor to Beowulf’s father a big favor and Beowulf takes this opportunity to pay the debt. Grendel was a terrifying monster that terrorized Hrothgar’s court for 12 years and Beowulf was determined to solve the problem. Beowulf arrives at Hrothgar’s court and kills Grendel without armor and with his bare hands. Then, Beowulf finds and kills Grendel’s mother with a sword he found in her hair.


When Beowulf returns to his homeland, he is reunited with his king, Hygelac. King Hygelac rewards him for his accomplishments. After some time, Hygelac and his son both die and Beowulf is crowned king of the Geats. Beowulf rules for 50 years and brings prosperity to Geatland. During the latter part of his reign, some of his kingdom is attacked by a dragon. Beowulf attacks the dragon with the help of his servants, but doesn’t succeed. He then follows the dragon to its lair with his younger Swedish cousin. He kills the dragon, but is mortally wounded by a venom bite to the neck. The Geats fear that their enemies will attack them now that Beowulf is dead. In accordance with his wishes, he is cremated and a burial mound is build in his honor. In the epic, the main character is Beowulf who is a man that is revered, feared, and loved. Beowulf is the example of what Anglo-Saxons look for in their leaders and what they respect. In the beginning of the poem, Beowulf is already a hero to the Geats and has already accomplished many heroic deeds (most of which are not discussed). Beowulf’s first action is repaying his debt to Hrothgar, showing his honor. Honor is a very big deal throughout the medieval period and it is important in any man who wishes to be seen as a man to follow. As previously discussed, Anglo-Saxons do not follow nations, only noblemen and Beowulf is a man that Anglo-Saxons would wish to follow. Beowulf repaying a debt that is not directly associated with him is an example of how family heritage works. Throughout this period of time, there were great families that ruled countries and they are remembered by their families’ reputation. Although protecting one’s reputation many seem superficial, it is how power is kept within families. Families that are remembered as powerful, loyal, and honorable have a higher chance of survival, while families that are thought of as weak, disloyal, and dishonorable have a smaller chance of survival (that can also be compared to today’s world.)


Also during the epic poem, Beowulf chooses to fight the monster Grendel without armor. This could be seen as Beowulf being arrogant and cocky, but it could also be seen as him being very self aware. If Beowulf knows his strength and skill, then he does not need armor to defeat an enemy that cannot compete with his power. This is the first example of Beowulf’s heroism and sets the stone for the rest of the poem. When Beowulf hunts down and kills Grendel’s mother, there’s a sense of finality that comes with it. He not only kills Grendel, but Grendel’s mother, finishing the family. This action shows that Beowulf is cautious; he realizes that Grendel’s mother would most likely want to seek revenge for the death of her son and he finishes her before she can do any serious damage to him or to Hrothgar’s court and kingdom. Although this may appear to be an act that is unnecessary and totally cruel, it is necessary to ensure the fate and security of the kingdom. When Beowulf returns to Geatland, King Hygelac rewards him for his heroic actions in Hrothgar’s court.
In the poem, people who do good are reward, an example being Beowulf who is rewarded for protecting Hrothgar’s court and kingdom. Also in the poem, those who do evil are punished, i.e. Grendel’s punishment for evildoing is death. The polarities of good and evil are always opposed to each other and the poem explicitly represents which should be revered and which should be hated.


After the death of King Hygelac and Hygelac’s son, Beowulf becomes king. This an example of the way that pre-viking Scandinavians came to power. Power is not always passed from father to son, which is the way that most noblemen came to power in other parts of Europe, instead the pre-viking Scandinavians gave power to those who were the most worthy, which shows that Beowulf's characteristics of heroism, goodness, and being a man of honor are what these people (specifically the Geats) look for in an effective leader.
Also, Beowulf coming to power is an example of how actions have consequences. Beowulf, a heroic and devoted man, works hard to defeat Grendel and his mother, therefore he becomes king. Similarly, King Hygelac may be seen as cowardly for sending another man to do his work, resulting in his own loss of kingship, demise, and death. His actions eventually spread to his own son and heir, who also loses his life and kingship. Beowulf is rewarded for being heroic, while Hygelac and his son are punished for cowardly and weak. For years, Beowulf rules Geatland and that is part of his reward. He is rewarded for being a good man by being given a kingdom to rule. He rules for over 50 years, signifying that he rules for a long time, because he is a good and effective and fair ruler.


In the last part of Beowulf, he comes face to face with another monster, reiterating the theme of good vs. evil (the monster being scene as evil, while Beowulf being seen as decidedly good.) Beowulf and his men do not defeat the monster (dragon) on the first time, but remains dedicated to killing the dragon. This shows his dedication to protecting his people, again making it obvious that he deserves to be king.


During the fight, he kills the dragon but is fatally wounded in the fight. It is clear that Beowulf’s love for his country and his people has cost him his life. The audience is not given an opportunity to discover how Beowulf would have felt about his, but an audience member can infer that Beowulf would have been proud to sacrifice his life for his country and his people. Throughout the poem, the polarities of good and evil are recurrent themes and the author is clearly trying to make a case about the importance of realizing these themes in the world. Beowulf (good) faces evil (monsters) on several occasions. This could represent that the battle between good and evil is never ending. Also, it could represent that it is the responsibility of those who are good to defend the world against the evil. While exploring the idea of good vs. evil, it is obvious that good does not always prevail.
When Beowulf dies, good is killed (as well as evil), which can be a warning, showing that evil can be just as or even more powerful than good. When evil overpowers good, it can be lead to very unfortunate results, such as the death of a good man like Beowulf. Yet, Beowulf does manage to kill the monster (evil) before he dies, which can represent the dedication and selflessness of good. If Beowulf is essentially good, giving his life in service of his kingdom and his people is one of the most essentially good things that one can do. Conversely, if the monster is essentially evil, then killing an innocent and good man is one of the most evil things that one can do. The final juxtaposition between good and evil is in death. When the monster (evil) dies, people rejoice. The common people are glad that a force of evil is dead and only find solace and comfort in his death.
Yet, when Beowulf dies the people are saddened by the death of a great man and do what they can to send him into the afterlife in the most positive way possible. Obviously, the story of Beowulf is supposed to be an entertaining and interesting story from years passed, it contains important lessons about right and wrong, good and evil, and historical information.
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) was a medieval author and poet, best known for the infamous “Canterbury Tales.” Chaucer was born into an average, middle class family in London, England. He also worked as a page (a servant of sorts who accompanied a nobleman) to the wife of Lionel of Antwerp, son of Edward III. His first major work was “The Book of the Duchess” in 1369, which was written for Blanche of Lancaster. He also wrote “Troilus and Criseyde” in the kid 1380s. His most notable word is “The Canterbury Tales,” is a collection of 24 stories that he wrote between 1387 to 1400. The stories is set in Canterbury, England.
“The Pardoner’s Tale,” one of the 24 stories of “The Canterbury Tales.” In the pardoner’s tale, the story revolves around the pardoner (whose name is not specified). In the prologue, the pardoner goes about “forgiving” (or pardoning) people’s sins in exchange for a monetary reward. In his sermons, he repeatedly tells his church that “greed is the root of all evil.” He shows the people of his church “holy relics” (which he does admit are fake) and even says that some of his “relics” have healing ability. The people believe him and give their money in support of the church and the relics. The pardoner keeps all the money. The pardoner also makes it clear to his audience that he preaches to make money, not any other reason.
Later on, the pardoner talks about a group of Flems (Belgians) who spend their time drinking. He talks about their sin of gluttony and how it is a sin against God. Then, the drunk Flems here a funeral call. One of the Flems says that his friend was killed by a mysterious figure called “Death.” The Flems decide to avenge his friend and kill Death. They rush to a bush (who they think is Death) and finds 8 gold coins, but no one to claim the coins.
Eventually, they decide to return in the dark of night to steal the coins, because if they are caught in the day, they will be arrested as thieves. Then, the two older Flems force the youngest Flem to go into town. Then the older two Flems decide to kill the youngest Flem when he returns, so that they will have more money for themselves. They get poison and put in a glass, but they put two other glasses out, so it will not be suspicious. When the youngest Flem returns, the other two jump out and kill him, ignoring the original plan. Once he is dead, they enjoy some wine, but one of the Flems accidentally takes one of the poison glasses. He is dead in moments. That finishes the “The Pardoner’s Tale,” which is about the sin of avarice, or extreme greed for wealth or material gain. Then, he tells the people about the “holy relics,” which he has already admitted are fake. The story ends with everyone laughing and all going on their own way.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church and its clergymen were well known for their total corruption, lust, and greed. This is similar to the pardoner, who is a clergyman who regularly takes advantage of his congregation. In the beginning of the story, the pardoner begins with a prologue, that describes himself and what he does. Although, medieval clergymen are known for their corruption, the fact that they pardoner is so open with the information that he’s corrupt is very surprising. His openness with corruption seems like he’s almost bragging about it, almost saying that he’s better than other corrupt clergymen, because of his honesty.
Also, the pardoner describes his own corruption in explicit detail, accusing himself of “fraud, avarice, and gluttony.” Adding to the pardoner’s corruption, the sins that he is guilty of are exactly what he is preaching against. He tells his congregation that “greed is the root of all evil,” yet he is very greedy, he manipulates and tricks his congregation into giving him more money, only to satisfy his own greed. Also, the fact that the congregation continues to believe the lies of the pardoner could easily be an example of the ignorant common people. All through the medieval period, education was scarce and the average common person was illiterate and totally uneducated, therefore the congregation is tricked multiple times. However, this exact situation can be compared to modern day clergymen who have mega-churches that make millions. There is no reason why the church should contribute for their pastor to live a lavish life, the same way the pardoner’s congregation shouldn’t contribute to his greedy ambitions.
The pardoner tells a story about men from Flanders (the pardoner is from England and Flanders is across the North Sea from England). He tells the story about these corrupts Flems and how their corruption ruins them. However, at the end of the story, one of the corrupt Flems survives and keeps the 8 gold coins. This Flem was described as the most cunning and since he was the most cunning, he lived, with 8 gold coins. The pardoner may consider himself to be similar to the cunning Flem, as they are both corrupt and both seem to escape justice.
Also, the cunning Flem surviving also shows that justice is not always served as it should be. If justice had been served, both older Flems who killed the younger Flem would die. Yet, this does not happen. As a matter of fact, the cunning Flem is rewarded for his cunning, sinning, and ruthlessness with 8 gold coins, all for himself. This is almost a mirror of the pardoner, who is constantly rewarded for doing wrong. The Pardoner is never forced to deal with the consequences of his actions, showing the audience that being corrupt and actively partaking in corrupt.
Also, this story is an example of how some of the most corrupt people hide in some of the most powerful and respected institutions in society. The pardoner actively takes advantage of and steals from people who know less than he, similar to how modern day “dirty politicians” take advantage of the people they are supposed to help. At the end of “The Pardoner’s Tale,” the pardoner ends up laughing with the people who he is telling his story to. This is a particularly disturbing end to the story, because it appears that the audience is amused and takes delight in the corruption that the pardoner describes.
The lesson that the pardoner’s tale teaches is about paying attention. The author, Chaucer, is telling his audience to pay attention, especially to the people that have power over you. The reason that the pardoner is allowed to continue to swindle and lie is because the people allow him to, because they trust him, just because of his position. The pardoner’s congregation is naive and automatically trusts and believes him, with no real reason to. They are tricked, because they allow themselves to be tricked. Therefore, the audience is being instructed to pay attention to everyone, especially those who have power over them, because they have the most power to change their lives.
Throughout the Medieval Period, knights defended their lords’ lands and lived by the chivalric code. Knights are now a staple of the medieval memory. Sir Thomas Malory is one of the knights who lived during the latter years of the Middle Ages and his works are now remembered as examples of how knights actually lived. Sir Thomas Malory was born in 1415 in Warwickshire, England. Little is known about Malory, except that he was a knight. Malory is best known for his work, “Le Morte d’Arthur,” which was a novel concerning the death of King Arthur of Camelot. He is also believed to have written “Sir Gawain and Dame Regalle,” another story concerning knighthood and chivalry.
“Le Morte d’Arthur” begins with the infamous Knights of the Round Table and talks about Arthur’s life and his accomplishments and his eventual defeat. The story talks about Uther, King of England who is in love with a woman named Igraine. Unfortunately, Igraine is the wife of the Duke of Tintagil. They get together anyway, Igraine becomes pregnant, and they have a son named Arthur. He is sent to live with another family, because of the awkward circumstances of his birth. Merlin, a known sorcerer, says that Arthur will eventually become King of England. After Uther dies, there is chaos concerning who will be the next king. Arthur is proclaimed the king, even though he is technically illegitimate. Arthur is proclaimed king after pulling the sword from a stone, as foretold by Merlin. Arthur accidentally gets his half-sister pregnant. She gives birth to Mordred, who is destined to kill Arthur. Mordred does eventually kill Arthur, as was his destiny. At the end of “Le Morte d’Arthur” it is written on his tomb “HIC IACET ARTHURUS< REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS,” which means Here lies Arthur, who was once king and will be king again.
Le Morte d’Arthur is historical fiction, because it takes a figure who existed (King Arthur) and writes fictional things about him. What is clear throughout the novel is the importance of honor. Arthur is regarded as a man of honor and he is loved and respected and revered even after his death. Similar to Beowulf, who were both loved as kings, were both loved after they died. Mordred, who was hated and eventually cast off for his crimes, showing that actions like these should be punished and will be punished. In death, Arthur is remembered as an outstanding, honorable man. On the other hand, Mordred is remembered as someone to be hated after his death. This shows that the actions that you make in your lifetime are meaningful and despite what you may think, people will remember your actions, even after your death.
In conclusion, it is clear that the themes that are important to the medieval people are also prevalent in their writing. For people of the Middle Ages, Christianity, honor, honesty, and goodness were very important and it is clear through the topics the write about. In “The Seafarer,” the Christian beliefs of selflessness and spirituality are recurring themes and are referenced several times to reinforce the importance of these themes. In “Beowulf,” the themes of honor and sacrifice repeat themselves throughout the novel. Also, the theme of good vs. evil does seem to repeat itself throughout the piece. In “The Pardoner,” the themes of watchful of those in power and the theme of corruption repeat themselves. Lastly, in “Le Morte d’Arthur,” the theme of honor is the most important theme throughout the novel.
Though the Middle Ages was a period of time known for illiteracy, these works that have been described in this essay are important. They describe what the Middle Ages represent as a time period and what it was like for people. The common misconception is that this time period is filled with knights and kings and damsels in distress, but that is largely untrue. The works that were described in this essay are more or less realistic depictions of real events that occurred and describe how people felt and how they learned information. Although the Medical Period is not a time period that is known for intellectuality and advancement, it was 1,000 years of human life, human experience, and human emotion, which makes it just as legitimate as any other period of time. Also, because this period was not known for technological advancements, it is known for ideas that are still known today. Christianity first people popular and widespread during this period. Ideas like chivalry first became popular during this period. The Middle Ages container many important ideas that are still used today, proving that this period added important ideas and relevant information to the world.