the middle ages - Nutley Public Schools

The Middle Ages (300-1350) bridged the gap between the collapse of Rome and the modern
world. This era was man’s effort in establishing a new system of life; building a bridge.
2 institutions held power over the individual man:
1. the Holy Catholic Church = spiritual
2. the Feudal System = secular
The Church was the greater power b/c it partook of feudalism, yet rose above it
Authoritarianism is the leading motif in medieval culture and learning
395 – Emperor Theodosius makes Christianity the sole and official religion of Western Europe
The Church is the sole means of furthering God’s plan on the earth. No other plan is possible!
Salvation could only be obtained through the offices of the Church and as an active participant
Sacraments were necessary to achieve happiness in the afterlife
The Devil, or Antichrist, was the adversary (the world was a battleground between the forces of
good vs. forces of evil) [i.e. Beowulf vs. Grendel]
The Hierarchy of the Church:
1. God
2. Pope
3. Cardinals
4. Archbishops
5. Bishops
6. Priests
7. …etc. (monks, nuns, friars, …)
The Hierarch of the State – Feudal system based on agriculture:
1. King or Emperor
2. Duke
3. Earl or Count
4. Baron
5. Knight
6. Serfs/Villains
The King owns all the land except the Church’s land
The Dukes lease land to the Earls; the Earls lease land to the Barons, etc…….
Serfs were bound to the noble’s land and owned a ½ acre while they tended and tilled the noble’s
Medieval Thought and Philosophy:
-the world is dominated by the struggle between God and the Devil
-the focus of everyone is on Judgement Day (the return of Jesus to judge all souls)
Thus, the Church’s function is to enforce a code of conduct – strict penalties were reserved for:
1. lack of faith or disobedience
2. re-interpretations (heresy)
1. this world is at best, temporary
2. humanity is on its way to either Heaven or Hell
3. the world is a pilgrimage
4. the afterlife is far more important and meaningful than this life (it’s a privilege)
5. man is born with original sin (Adam & Eve)
6. life on earth is a purgatory (a test)
7. if a man is “saintly” he will go directly to Heaven (a few saints and prophets)
Medieval Literature:
Phase 1:
400-800, England – poetic epics and sagas flourished in an oral tradition
Anglo-Saxon epic poetry is superior
Bards or scops developed the old Germanic alliterative verse into a superior art form
*all literary works prior to 400 were highly ecclesiastical or academic in nature
Phase 2:
Emperor Charlemagne creates a Frankish empire which became, in a way, a brand new “Roman”
Empire recognized by the Church
Charlemagne encouraged learning in all of its accepted forms – he founded Palace School which
later lead to the University of Paris
Phase 3:
Evolution of monasticism and Scholasticism – stricter obedience of monastic rules – revival of
the Rule of St. Benedict
“Age of Teaching” was done through catechistic devices, dialogues, and debates
Application of logic, dialects, and practical persuasion
Friars roamed the land and helped to found seats of learning – Bologna, Paris, Oxford,
Cambridge, etc.
Phase 4:
13th century – “peak of medieval culture”
1. feudal system was under strain
2. barons were restive
3. full prerogatives of the sovereign were in question
4. Magna Carta (1215) was signed by King John – it opened the wedge that began to
weaken and destroy royal privilege
5. struggle of power between Pope and Emperor
Scholastics argued that salvation could be attained through human reason
Man was truly blessed only when he withdrew himself from the world’s temptations
Thus, man regarded the present world as evil in contrast to Heaven
12th-13th centuries – The Chivalric movement – the aristocratic lady was paid reverence and
homage --- love = heavenly bliss
13thc. – the rise of the Guildsmen (ancestor of the modern middle class, or bourgeoise)
Due to weaknesses and power struggles w/in the Church (i.e. French papacy vs. Roman papacy),
guildsmen began to rise into positions of importance
John Wycliffe was one of England’s first heretics
Dante was truly medieval in many ways (rigidity and exactness)
Early Medieval Epics:
The epic hero, 800-900:
Masculine, typifies the ideals of his tribe/nation, performs marvelous feats, dies in the order of
The epic hero, 11th-12th c.:
Medieval romances (French influence)Hero was now a lover and warrior, a feudal servant to his lady and love, and followed the code of
chivalry ---- the feudal world was represented as glamorous, the literature appealed to the
emotions of both men and women
The Church did not approve of the eroticism and sinful behavior in the literature. Thus, the
Church began to either have the clergy write these romances or they would tell the writers what to
write about.
Thus, you now have medieval romances with moral preachment that also utilized allegory (ex. Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight, 1370)
By the 15th c. the romances were now being written in prose composition rather than verse
Commoners were exposed to short oral tales:
1. fabliau – anecdotal based on sex intrigue or practical jokes
2. exempla – moral teachings
1400 or later:
Popular ballads, narrative – which represent the people as a whole, not just aristocracy
Native dramas, miracle plays, and mystery plays were being produced by guilds. Such plays
often depicted saints and their miracles.
Morality plays emerged in the latter half of 15th c. Such plays often centered on human morals;
the human soul in peril or inner conflict (good vs. evil) [Ex. “Everyman”]
**It is pertinent to remember that the Church, in the Middle Ages had stewardship over all