Department of English

    Dr.  Marlo M. Belschner                 

Monmouth College


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Monmouth IL  61462

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Move from French to the English vernacular


Middle English



Medieval drama








Rise of the peasants' status




Three estates



War of the Roses













The Late Medieval Period

The Norman Conquest, in 1066, was arguably the most significant event in the formation of the modern English language: the victory of the French duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror, over the Anglo Saxon king, Harold. French dominated the language of the upper classes and the clergy for about two hundred years and contributed thousands of words to English.  The lower classes continued, however, to use English during this period. There are several events that contributed to the lessening of the use of French: the English aristocracy lost their French lands (beginning with King John in 1204); there was an influx of immigrants, which resulted in increasing English nationalism; the Hundred Years War (1337-1453); and the Black Death (1347), in which 30% of the English people died of the bubonic plague (see The Plague and Chaucer). Negative sentiments toward the French as well as the rising status of the lower classes as the population decreased from the plague meant that by the 14th century, English was universal, and by the 15th century, the French language had nearly disappeared from England except for its continuing influence on vocabulary.

Middle English was in use between 1150 and 1500. There are four dialects of Middle English: Northern, Southern, Kentish, and East/ West Midland; the East Midland dialect, which encompassed London and which is the language of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, would become standard modern English; it was a compromise between the Northern and Southern dialects and encompassed the largest and most populous dialect area. Oxford and Cambridge universities were also in the East Midland region. Additionally, the Great Vowel Shift is a significant event in the move to modern English from Middle English.

After the fall of the Roman Empire (410 AD), medieval English drama virtually disappeared until it began to reappear in dramatizations within church sermons called tropes. The earliest liturgical performances were the Quem Quaeritis tropes in Latin that enacted the Easter narrative; Christmas performances developed next. Mystery or miracle cycles were performed during the Feast of Corpus Christi.  Sponsored by guilds and performed on pageant wagons, mystery cycles dramatized biblical history from creation to judgment day. The four extant mystery cycles, named after their probable places of performance, are the York, Chester, Wakefield/Towneley (includes the Second Shepherds' Play), and Coventry or N-Town cycles. These Catholic cycle plays disappeared after the divorce of Henry VIII (1533) and his rejection of the pope as the head of the English church. The highly allegorical morality play developed in the late 14th century and helped to move toward the secularization of English drama.  Everyman is considered the most accomplished of the morality plays. Allegory was a particularly Christian literary technique as in the medieval period, it was used to reconcile the Old and New Testament as well as allowed for viewing the entire world through a religious lens.

During the late medieval period, the status of peasants (and their relationship to their ruler) began to change. In 1215, King John signed the Magna Carta, which established that the king ruled at the will of the people--not by divine right--and that he could be overthrown by the people if he did not follow the law. Under siege, the aristocracy clamored for stories of the Round Table that reflected the aristocratic chivalric values, and the Arthurian tradition thrived in the 12th and 13th centuries. During the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, peasants resisted the poll tax but more importantly, they resisted serfdom; despite the increasing demand for labor because of the plague, peasants were unable to take advantage of these changes because the landowners used Parliament to maintain control. Changes in the material and political conditions of the medieval period lead to the expansion of the three estates of the medieval period (peasants, aristocracy, and clergy). As Chaucer's Canterbury Tales makes clear, by the late medieval period, there was also a mercantile class as well as an educated class not destined for the clergy; the growing urban culture facilitated this societal change.

An important event at the end of the late medieval period, the War of the Roses (1455-1485) was really a series of civil wars between the house of Lancaster (white rose) and the house of York (red rose) (both descendants of Edward III). In 1485, Richard III (Yorkist) was killed and Henry Tudor (Henry VII) claimed the throne and married Elizabeth of York (Edward VI's daughter).  Thus the royal line that would legitimate the rule of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I was established.

See examples of medieval art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that are similar to the treasures of Sutton Hoo. Medieval triptychs are the visual equivalent of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales structure is often connected to medieval church architecture.







Building a medieval castle:

In Treigny, France, Michel Guyot is building a castle without modern tools or technology using stonecutters and horses.  

More news on the medieval period




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