Medieval British literature exists because of the waves of successive groups that made the British Isles a melting pot of cultures, with each contributing a piece of the puzzle. The Middle Ages spans over 1000 years of history, which would be impossible to reproduce in much detail in a concise summary; the avid student of history would do well to pick up a textbook (or two) on British medieval history for a more complete picture of events. The purpose of this introduction is to give an outline of major events that affected literature, including who was in Britain at what time, and how literature responded to the changing times. To understand the context of medieval British literature, it is necessary to begin much earlier, in Roman times.
1.2.1 Roman Britain
Although Julius Caesar invaded Britain in 55 and 54 BCE, it was not until 43 ACE that the Romans began a systematic invasion of the British Isles. The inhabitants, called Britons by the Romans, were not a unified group, but rather many different tribes; popularly, they now are referred to as Celts, although archaeologists and historians suggest that calling them Celtic language speakers would be more accurate. The Celts were not the original or only inhabitants of the island (archaeologists have found evidence of settlements dating back to the Stone Age), and even some sites now associated with the Celts, such as Stonehenge, predate them. Although these Celtic tribes had an oral culture, rather than a written one, Roman authors wrote about them (not the most unbiased of sources); it would be difficult to imagine later medieval British literature without references to their cultures (such as the druids, who served as priests and advisors, among other functions) and their languages. The tribes in the south—the ones first encountered by the Romans—spoke Common Brittonic, a Celtic language that would develop into modern Welsh, Cornish, and Breton (and the now-extinct Cumbric). The Goidelic, or Gaelic, language developed into Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx (spoken on the Isle of Man). The influence of Celtic languages can be found most prominently in place names, such as London, Dover, Avon, and Cornwall.
Image 1.1 | Map of Roman conquest of Britain
Artist | User “Notuncurious”
Source | Wikimedia Commons
License | CC BY-SA 3.0
The Roman conquest of Britain was met with considerable resistance; the most famous example was the revolt led by Queen Boudica of the Iceni, a Celtic tribe, in either 60 or 61 ACE. Boudica and her coalition of several Celtic tribes came close to driving out the Romans, but Roman forces under Suetonius managed to defeat the coalition and reassert control. To the north, the Roman Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a wall in 122 ACE to keep out the Picts, who inhabited what is present-day Scotland. The Picts may have been a combination of indigenous tribes (who predated the Celtic migration to the island hundreds of years earlier) and immigrants from Ireland (the word Scoti, from which the name Scotland derives, was used by the Romans to describe the Irish). The Picts were never conquered by the Romans, just as Ireland resisted Roman rule. Much later, in the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), the Scots would use this fact to argue to the Pope that they historically were an independent kingdom, and therefore Edward I of England had no right to their lands.
Image 1.2 | Map of Roman withdrawal from Britain
Artist | User “Notuncurious”
Source | Wikimedia Commons
License | CC BY-SA 3.0
Although the Middle Ages in Europe are often seen as beginning after the fall of Rome in 476 ACE, the Middle Ages in Britain start with the withdrawal of Roman troops. By 383 ACE, Roman forces had withdrawn from the north and west, with the final departure of troops from the island in 410 ACE. The medieval legend of King Arthur and his knights comes from the events that followed this departure.
1.2.2 Anglo-Saxon Britain
When Roman forces abandoned their British outposts, the Britons were left vulnerable after several hundred years of Roman military protection. The Irish and the Picts began raiding the lands formerly controlled by the Romans, while Saxon pirates stepped up their raids along the British coastline. Although historical records from this time are scarce (most literature at this point was transmitted orally), some later authors claim that a leader named Vortigern (possibly itself a title) made the colossal mistake of inviting Saxon mercenaries into the country to protect Britons from the Picts and Irish. Instead, according to later literary sources, the Saxons began their own invasion of the island. Although modern historians debate whether the invasion was actually more of a migration, literary sources follow the version of events found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (first composed in the ninth century). However it started, the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes would eventually overrun what is now England, or “Angleland,” pushing many of the Celtic tribes into Wales, Cornwall, Scotland, and Ireland, as well as across the British Channel to Armorica (modern-day Brittany in France).
The Romanized Britons attempted to repel the invaders, and it was during this time—approximately 450 to 550—that the legend of Arthur originates. There is no written evidence from that period that Arthur existed, although some historians have suggested that there may have been a leader (or several leaders) among the Romano-Britons who temporarily held back the Saxon invasion. Whether he was based on one war chief, or was a conglomeration of several historical figures, later authors named Arthur as the leader who defeated the Saxons in several key battles. Ironically, it would not just be later Celtic writers (such as the Welshman Geoffrey of Monmouth) who would write about Arthur, but also the very English/Anglo-Saxons against whose ancestors Arthur was supposed to have fought.
The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England (Wessex, Sussex, Essex, Kent, Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria, along with other smaller domains) were slowly Christianized in the seventh and eighth centuries. Missionaries often tried to convert the ruler first, who would then allow (or order) the conversion of his people. Bede describes part of this process in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in about 731 ACE. Bede begins with the Roman invasion and continues to this present day. For the previously-pagan Germanic tribes, the process of conversion involved reconciling the warrior code with Christian teachings. Anglo-Saxon literature, therefore, often couches traditional warrior behavior in a Christian context. Stories such as Beowulf take a clearly pagan story and retool it into a Christian framework (scholars still debate the extent to which this effort is successful in that story). One of the most successful examples of this reworking is The Dream of the Rood, which tells the story of Christ’s crucifixion as the actions of a warrior who defeats his enemies through his bravery. More frequently, as in the poem The Wanderer, the Christian meaning of the story appears added after the fact. The opposite transformation happens with the story of Judith, taken from The Book of Judith (still found in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, but removed from both Jewish and Protestant versions). The Hebrew Judith who fights the Assyrian Holofernes is described as a type of Anglo-Saxon shield maiden, worthy of her share of the enemy’s treasure. Our understanding of this process is limited as well by the scarcity of manuscripts that have survived; both Beowulf and Judith survive in only one manuscript, while only four manuscript books, or codices, of Anglo-Saxon poetry are extant.
1.2.3 Danelaw Britain
In 793, the Vikings raided the monastery at Lindisfarne, and Danish attacks on England began to increase. Over the next hundred years, Danish forces would occupy more and more Anglo-Saxon territory, at one point leaving only the kingdom of Wessex independent. Sections in the northern and eastern parts of England became known as the Danelaw, or areas where Danish laws were used, rather than Anglo-Saxon ones. Ironically, as Britain went through a temporary phase where fewer people knew Latin, more books were translated from Latin to Old English (or Anglo-Saxon, which is basically a dialect of Old German). In particular, King Alfred of Wessex (who ruled from 871 to 899) oversaw the translations of numerous Latin texts into Old English, so that past learning would not be lost. At the same time, areas under the Danelaw picked up quite a few loanwords from Norse/Scandinavian languages, including words like “anger,” “cake,” “window,” “glitter,” “mistake,” “eggs,” and “awkward.” Those words would spread to other areas of the island over time.
In 1016, King Canute of Norway and Denmark became king of all England, ruling until 1035. After a struggle with the succession among Canute’s heirs, the Wessex line was briefly restored when Edward the Confessor took the throne in 1042. Edward ruled until 1066, and his death led to a fight for the succession that resulted in the Norman conquest of England by William, Duke of Normandy (more commonly referred to now as William the Conqueror). William defeated his main rival, Harold Godwin, at the Battle of Hastings, on October 14, 1066.
1.2.4 Norman Britain
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the Norman Conquest as a punishment from God, although it is not complimentary about the instrument of that punishment, William, or his Norman troops. While suppressing revolts, William began the process of removing Anglo-Saxons from power and replacing them with his Norman followers. The Domesday Book (a survey of all the lands and wealth of England) records the removal of lands from Anglo-Saxon nobles, whose lands were then awarded to Normans. Many free peasants suddenly found themselves bound to the lord of the manor and required to work for him, signaling the start of the feudal system. At one point, fewer than 250 people owned most of the land in England.
William did not speak English, so Norman French became the most commonly-used language of the British royal court—as well as government offices and the legal system. Just as the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons had introduced Latin words into the language, Old English incorporated more and more French vocabulary over time. As a result, English speakers can say that they are going to have a “drink” (Anglo-Saxon origin) or a “beverage” (Old French origin), or that they are going to “weep” (Anglo-Saxon) or “cry” (Old French). Additionally, the very word “government” is of French origin, as are the words “office,” “city,” “police,” “tax,” “jury,” “attorney,” and “prison.”
The Norman invasion also led to a resurgence of interest in King Arthur, and it would be during the next few centuries that the most common modern image of Arthur was created. The three main topics of literature in medieval Britain were “the Matter of Rome” (stories of the Trojan War, using Virgil’s Aeneid as a reference), “the Matter of France” (mostly stories of Charlemagne and his men), and “the Matter of Britain,” which were mostly stories related to King Arthur. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, written around 1135-1139, introduced many Normans to the story of Arthur, including a new character from a different tradition: Merlin. (Well over two hundred years later, Chaucer would mention in The House of Fame that some people considered Geoffrey of Monmouth a liar.) Many of the most well-known elements of the Arthurian legend were added over the next forty years or so; the Anglo-Norman writer Wace, in his Roman de Brut (1155), added the Round Table, while the French writer Chrétien de Troyes added a French knight, Lancelot, as the lover of Queen Guinevere and the greatest knight of King Arthur’s court in his The Knight of the Cart; or Lancelot (written roughly between 1175 and 1181).
The quest for the Holy Grail evolved during this time as well. In the Welsh Peredur, the grail is a platter with a severed head on it; in Chrétien’s Perceval, it is a serving dish with contents that light up the room; and in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, the grail is a stone (possibly a meteorite) guarded by the Knights Templar. It is in Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathe that the grail becomes the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper and used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch blood from Jesus during the Crucifixion. By the time that Sir Thomas Malory wrote his huge compilation of Arthurian stories in Le Morte d’Arthur, the Grail knight was no longer Percival, but Galahad, the son of Lancelot and Elaine, the daughter of King Pelles (a version of the Fisher King of the Grail stories), although Percival accompanies Galahad on his quest.
Several British monarchs attempted to use the Arthurian stories for their own political advantage. Henry II (who reigned from 1154-1189) claimed to have found the grave of Arthur and Guinevere in Glastonbury, possibly to discourage the popular idea that Arthur might return one day. During the reign of Edward I (1272-1307), a Round Table was constructed (5.5 meters in diameter), which now hangs on the wall in the Great Hall of Winchester Castle. Edward III (1327-1377) created the Order of the Garter (rather than a Round Table, which he considered at one point) to create a new type of community of knights. It was during Edward III’s reign that the English language, rather than French, slowly became prominent again. In 1362, English was re-established as the language of the legal system (before the Pleading in English Act of 1362, all legal proceedings were conducted in French, even though most of the English did not know French), although it would not be until the reign of Henry V (1413-1422) that English would be re-established as the official language of government for the first time since the Norman conquest.
By the time that Geoffrey Chaucer began writing, English was slowly becoming the language of literature in Britain once more. Although some of his contemporaries, such as John Gower, wrote in French and Latin as well as English to reach a wider audience, Chaucer wrote his works in Middle English, as did the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, William Langland with his Piers Plowman, and other authors. By the time that William Caxton printed a copy of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in 1476 (long after Chaucer’s death in 1400), Chaucer was considered the master that many English and Scottish authors sought to emulate. In the Renaissance, Shakespeare took Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde and turned it into a play, writing in Early Modern English.
The Middle Ages in Britain end (more or less) in 1485, when Henry VII ends the Wars of the Roses (and the Early Modern Period begins). Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur was published in the same year, and it is the literary reaction to the wars between the houses of Lancaster and York that had just ended. As the Middle Ages drew to a close, Malory records a picture of knighthood that is both nostalgic and, at times, cynical: celebrating the concept while criticizing the practice of it. Just as the start of the Middle Ages gave rise to the legend of King Arthur, Le Morte d’Arthur serves as a bookend to the period.