The Middle Ages to
Middle English
Historical Background
• What has happened in England since
Beowulf? Let’s take a quick look at the 400
years between it and The Canterbury Tales.
– Normandy Invasions
• Arthurian Legend
– Middle English Literature
• Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
• The Canterbury Tales
Historical Background
Normandy Invasions
• 1066 is the most famous date in English
history. In that year, William, Duke of
Normandy, whose claim to the English throne
had been rejected by the English, decided to
invade England and seize the kingship by force.
At the Battle of Hastings he defeated the
English nobles (and his English rival, Harold)
and took over England.
Normandy Invasions (continued)
• The Normans were French, at least culturally and
linguistically. Few of William's followers could
speak English, nor did they feel any need to learn it.
They--the French--were, after all, in charge.
• The result was a two-tiered society. On the top
was a thin layer of French-speaking nobles. On the
bottom were the great majority of the population,
English-speaking but powerless. This state of affairs
lasted, more or less, for two centuries.
Historical Background
• In about 1140, a self-promoting Welsh priest
named Geoffrey of Monmouth completed a
Latin book called The History of the Kings of
Britain, which would become one of the most
influential books of the Middle Ages.
• Among the kings whose stories Geoffrey tells
are Lear and Cymbeline, later the subject of
plays by Shakespeare.
• But the real hero of his story is King Arthur.
Historical Background
• Geoffrey gives Arthur a mysterious birth, a
magician-tutor named Merlin, a number of
heroic victories against the evil Anglo-Saxons
and occasional giants, and a tragic death.
• For some reason this story appealed to people
all over Europe, and new stories involving
King Arthur, the quest for the Holy Grail, and
his knights of the Round Table suddenly began
popping up everywhere.
The Middle English Period
• 1100 AD – 1500 AD
• Tri-lingualism
– Old English of the lower classes ( up to end of the
14th century)
– Latin: the language of the Church, and soon the
language of academics in the burgeoning
Universities: Paris, Cambridge, Oxford
– French: as a result of Norman Conquest:
Continental, sophisticated, use of romance
(“romance” originally defined simply as “written
in a romance language,” i.e. French)
Characteristics of Middle English
• Impersonality:
– Most of the literature is anonymous, due, in part,
to the fact that readers were more interested in
the poem than the poet.
– Also, no publishers…text written out by hand, so
editor felt free to make changes (Beowulf).
– Story material was also looked upon as common
property; hence, there were multiple texts on
same stories.
Characteristics of Middle English
• Women now understood to be in the
reading audience:
– Poem goes from the mead-hall to the castle
Beowulf is heroic/epic, Sir Gawaine is
– Love as well as war become proper
considerations of authors
Characteristics of Middle English
• All-important place of Church in medieval life
– Even when religion is not the specific focus, the
moral tone of the literature shows the influence of
– Drama of the day
• Mystery Plays – The Passion, Bible stories
• Miracle Plays – based on the lives of the saints
• Morality plays – dramatized sermons;
Characteristics of Middle English
• The alliterative meter of Old English is continued, but added
elements are rhyme, stanzaic division (the use of couplets) and
some meter
• Tone: more humor
• Literature is very class conscious: consider the initial lack of
unified “language” after Norman Conquest, with the
underlings still speaking in Old English and the
clerics/academics doing Latin, and the nobility speaking only
– But, ironically, the 13th-15th centuries would be a time that
sees the growth of a new and increasingly powerful Middle
Class: professionals, merchants, guildsmen (note the range
of characters in CT)
Events Critical 14th Century
• War and disease become even more prevalent
– Wars to enforce English claims against the French
– 1348 – first outbreak of the Bubonic Plague
• Leads to higher prices, scarcity of labor, greater
chance for social mobility, and a certainly “levelling”
of society…people are dying!
– Peasants revolt of 1381
• Chaucer & the middle classes elevate the importance
of English as the “King’s English” – now used for
conducting business, in Parlaiment, and law courts
Geoffrey Chaucer
• 1343-1400
• Called “Father of English Literature” – 2nd only to Shakespeare
• Well-rounded man:
– His father was a successful wine maker in London, and his mother
was a member of the Court
– In 1359 he fought in France
– He was an esquire to Edward III
– He visited France as a diplomat
– He worked as a controller of customs of Port of London
• Therefore, he knew all levels of society from working class to
– This allows him to present a clear representation of all walks of life
in CT
Geoffrey Chaucer
• Buried in Westminster Abbey in Poet’s Corner (1st one)
3 distinct periods in his writing:
– French period—to 1372 (Book Of Duchess)
– Italian period—1372-85 (Troilus & Criseyde)
– English period—1385 (CANTERBURY TALES)
• Chaucer: the first English writer to show us what his
characters are like through the way they speak, and his
interest in character--a delight, it seems, in the sometimes
perverse quirks of human nature--is a major source of his
lasting appeal
The Canterbury Tales
• Summary:
In the late Middle Ages, a group of English men and
women from different walks of life gather at the Tabard Inn
outside London for a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint
Thomas Becket in Canterbury, England. The Host of the
Tabard proposes that the pilgrims pass the time on the
journey by telling stories; he offers to accompany the
group, judge the best story, and award the winner a meal,
paid by all, when the group returns to his inn. The pilgrims
agree and begin telling tales, each of which reflects the
interests and personality of the teller.
The Canterbury Tales
• Examples: the Knight recounts a tale of
chivalry; the Nun's Priest and the Pardoner tell
cautionary tales; the Summoner tells a ribald
tale; and the Wife of Bath, the Clerk, and the
Franklin tell romantic tales of love and
Poetry of The Canterbury Tales
• The tales are written in HEROIC COUPLETS rhymed pairs of iambic pentameter
– Chaucer one of 1st to use heroic couplet.
– Not popularized until 300 years later with
Alexander Pope & John Dryden.
• Written in Middle English :
The Canterbury Tales
Four MAIN types of tales
–Courtly Romance (or Courtly Love): ideal of courtesy &
chivalry; e.g., “Knight’s Tale”
• Also includes Breton Lay, a type of Courtly Romance
that includes the supernatural/magic
–Fabliau (plural, fabliaux): humorous tale that satirizes
human foibles; e.g., Miller & Reeve’s tales
–Beast fable: animal becomes human & the story has a moral;
e.g. “The Nun’s Priest Tale”
–Exemplum: part of a sermon to illustrate a moral; e.g., “The
Pardoner’s Tale”
The Canterbury Tales
• Chaucer knew what people were SUPPOSED
to be and what they REALLY were. He knew
that life was not just a simple matter of blackwhite, right-wrong; therefore, we will see
varying degrees of goodness. He recognized
the ideal, but accepted the real. Represents the
pilgrims as they were—a panorama of human
• CT = “journey of life” motif; celebration of
spring; exuberance of life.
The Canterbury Tales
• All the characters are on a pilgrimage to
Canterbury—not all are necessarily religious.
• Chaucer had planned that each pilgrim would
tell 4 tales. There are 30 pilgrims (counting
Chaucer as narrator); therefore, he intended to
write 120 tales. Actually wrote only 24—4
unfinished (these were written towards the end
of his life when he believed that he had lost the
ability to write).
The Prologue
• Arrangement & order that the pilgrims are presented
in is important.
• Uses different techniques to describe different
characters: changes tone, serious, respectful for the
Knight; satiric for Prioress, etc.
• Therefore, we get a range in tone from the total praise
in the ideal portraits of the Knight, Parson, &
Plowman to the highly satiric portraits of the
Summoner & Pardoner.
• 5 groups of pilgrims:
– (within each group, you usually move down either the
social or moral scale)
The Prologue
Groups are often referred to as those who pray, plow, or
1. Military Class - 3 pilgrims:
– Knight, Squire, Yeoman
2. Clergy - 3 pilgrims:
– Prioress, Monk, Friar
3. Middle Class (largest group) - non-military, country
gentleman, reps of commercial classes, learned
The Prologue
4. Humble Virtue (smallest group) - 2 pilgrims:
Parson, Plowman
These are the climax of virtue & humility—the best of
the bunch; we hear about them right before the worst
of the bunch, group 5
5. Churls and Rascals - 6 pilgrims:
& he includes himself—the narrator persona
The Prologue
Chaucer’s Devices For Revealing Character:
– Attention to clothing and physical appearance =
PHYSIOGNOMY: belief in certain physical
characteristics revealing character type; e.g.,
Miller has wart on nose—flaw, blemish—
illustrates a “blemished” character.
– Selection of seemingly unimportant details, such as
how the person is addressed or a description of his
horse to illustrate difference between what is and
what should be
– Uses both direct and indirect characterization
Prologue Group Work
Military Group
Middle Class
Humble Virtue
Churls & Rascals
• Note physiognomy for each character: what
is significant about their appearance?
• What is the tone of each description?
• What is Chaucer trying to say about this
person through his descriptions? Is it
implied or obvious?