The Middle Ages to Middle English Literature 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 courtly. – 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 religion. – Drama of the day • Mystery Plays – The Passion, Bible stories • Miracle Plays – based on the lives of the saints • Morality plays – dramatized sermons; Everyman 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 French – 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 aristocracy. – 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 marriage. 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 : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QE0MtENf OMU 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 types • 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 fight 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 professionals 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: – – – – – – Miller Manciple Reeve Summoner Pardoner & 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 Clergy 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?