Middle English Life Depicted in 14th and 15th Century Literature

Updated on August 17, 2013
"The Peasants Revolt 1381"
"The Peasants Revolt 1381" | Source

Classic English literature provides readers a look into the past. Middle English life was difficult unless born to nobility. The feudal system kept noble families in power whereas the lower class people worked to support the wealthy. Middle English literature offers creative representations of the feudal system and the lives of Middle English people. Although the formats and characters may vary, the recurring themes of love, violence, travel, and power resound in each example.

Feudal System

The social structure of Middle English life was controlled by a feudal system. In this society the King and nobility held ownership of land and goods for which the common people would work. Class structures of England during the 14th and 15th century were divided into the upper class and lower class with several layers in between. The upper class was made up of kings and nobility, lords and barons came next, followed by church leaders. The lower class was made up of peasants and serfs. Kings were believed to have been born with divine right, right given by God passed on by heredity (Think Quest, n.d.). The king owned the land. Barons were given parts of the land, known as manors or fiefs. The barons managed the lands, maintained allegiance to the king, and provided troops for protection of the king and the king’s lands (Think Quest, n.d.). Barons were also chosen by heredity. Church leaders were powerful members of society taking part in religious and government roles, and often receiving manors from the king as well. Peasants supported the church through donations that they believed would help save their immortal soul. Peasants were divided into independent peasants, who had their own skill and worked for themselves, and indentured peasants who worked for a lord for room and board and did not keep the benefits of their work (Think Quest, n.d.).

Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer | Source

Class Structure in Literature

Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”

Geoffrey Chaucer may have offered the most in-depth view of social class differences with his work “The Canterbury Tales.” This collection of stories offers various characters from different social standings traveling together on a religious pilgrimage. Each pilgrim shares a story offering a view of their station in life, their life experiences, language, dialect, education, and perspective on Middle English life. Although Chaucer wrote in 14th century Anglo-Saxon London dialect his word choice provide information about the pilgrims’ social station (Crossref, 2013). The lower class pilgrims, for example the wife of Bath, offer bawdy tales using familiar pronouns, such as thee and thine, while the higher class pilgrims use more polite pronouns, such as ye and your (Crossref, 2013). An example of familiar language is when the Wife of Bath says “thou hast yhad five housbondes, quod he” (Greenblatt & Abrams, 2006, p. 208, 17). Chaucer provides entertaining stories about kingdoms, city life, and the adventures of the pilgrims while representing social structures in Middle English times.

"God Speed" by Edmund Leighton
"God Speed" by Edmund Leighton | Source

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”

Although the author of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is anonymous the story represents a heroic epic. The story provides evidence of the power of Kings and nobility in the social culture. When the Green Knight challenges King Arthur Sir Gawain steps up to defend his king despite being weak. Sir Gawain states “I am the weakest…the loss of my life would be least of any; that I have you for uncle is my only praise…this folly befits not a king” (Greenblatt & Abrams, 2006, p. 131, 354-358). The King’s nephew offers his own life to preserve the King. This shows how the king is upheld above all others. In each kingdom the king is held in highest esteem. When Gawain travels and stays in a far off kingdom he becomes a guest of the king. The king’s servants wait on Gawain, make meals and such for the King, his queen, and their guest, and take part in the hunting expeditions even though they will not partake of the winnings. The king serves as ruler over the kingdom and the people of that kingdom.

Sir Thomas Mallory

Malory shares tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in his stories “Morte Darthur.” The stories are full of battles, love, honor, and adventure, such as in the search for the Holy Grail. Although there is treachery among the knights the feudal system is upheld with King Arthur as ruler. Arthur takes actions against his friends as the law of the feudal system specifies, such as the banishment of Lancelot and the threat of burning Guinevere at the stake for betrayal. King Arthur offers his sorrow at this situation “my heart was never so heavy as it is now…for my good knight’s loss than for the loss of my fair queen” (Greenblatt & Abrams, 2006, p. 307, para, 7). The social structure maintains nobility at the head, but these stories recognize that the system may be flawed and that changes are likely to occur.

"King Arthur and the Round Table Experience a Vision of the Holy Grail" from a 15th century manuscript
"King Arthur and the Round Table Experience a Vision of the Holy Grail" from a 15th century manuscript | Source

Literary Elements


Although the characters, social ranks, and situations are different in each of the stories mentioned there are some recurring themes. Love is a theme offered in all of the examples. In the “Canterbury Tales” the “Wife of Bath Tale” ended with the unlikely love between the rapist and the crone, and “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” offered interesting views on love through the multiple marriages of the wife. In “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” love was presented as Sir Gawain fought out of love and dedication to his uncle the king, he fell in love with his friend’s wife, and realized the folly of loving another man’s wife and wore the green band as a symbol of his failure. In “Morte Darthur” Lancelot fell in love with Queen Guinevere. Arthur loved Guinevere but also loved his trusted friend Lancelot. Each of the stories ties in religion in many ways as a recurring theme, often attributing God for good fortune, and praying for guidance and mercy. Other recurring events are travel, as the pilgrims travel to the holy lands, Sir Gawain searches for the Green Knight, and Lancelot flees from Camelot and returns.

"A Tale from the Decameron" by John William Waterhouse
"A Tale from the Decameron" by John William Waterhouse | Source


The stories offer unique formats. “The Canterbury Tales” offer multiple stories from differing perspectives. This provides insight into the familiar oral storytelling culture of medieval and Middle English times. The stories are also formatted into iambic rhyming pentameter providing a poetic versification of the stories. “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight” is written as an epic poem with line after line of alliterations giving the work a rhythmic sense. “Morte Darthur” is also written as a heroic epic although more simply in story telling form with breaks for differing chapters divided by dramatic scenes, such as in a play. Each form provides interesting reading portraying Middle English and medieval life.


Although theme and format are important to establishing an excellent story the characters are the main vehicles of the tale. Chaucer may have offered the most diverse characterization by presenting people from all walks of life to present the unity of spirit and how even if social class is different people are all very much the same. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” offers interesting characterization. The meek Sir Gawain grows through the story from a humble nephew to a respected knight, then is returned to humility after coveting his friend’s wife. Sir Thomas Malory also offers fascinating characters as Arthur the young boy pulls the sword from the stone to become king, the magical associate Merlin, the brave Lancelot who betrays Arthur, and the beautiful Guinevere who wins the love of Arthur and Lancelot. The story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table set the tone for classic tales of bravery and is still loved in modern times.

"The Vigil" by John Pettie, Sir Gawain represents the prefect knight: brave, noble, a lover, and religious
"The Vigil" by John Pettie, Sir Gawain represents the prefect knight: brave, noble, a lover, and religious | Source

Middle English literature offers readers a fascinating view into the past. The characters depicted in the stories provide insight into Middle English life, the dialect, social classes, and situations of this period. The feudal system and difficult life of peasants are presented within the many works of literature from this time. Although most of the stories center on the lives of nobility, each character presents the opportunity to learn more about Middle English life. The format of heroic epic provides a nod to the past, while grouping of collective stories pay homage to the culture of oral storytelling. Despite the differences of the stories topics the social structure and feudal system remains constant in each example providing enlightenment to the situation of Middle English people.


Crossref. (2013). Chaucer English. Retrieved from http://www.crossref-it.info/textguide/The-Wife-of-Bath's-Prologue-and-Tale/30/2023

Greenblatt, S. & Abrams, M.H. (2006). The norton anthology of English literature. (8th ed.). New York, NY:W.W. Norton & Company.

Think Quest. (n.d.). The feudal structure of the medieval world. Retrieved from http://library.thinkquest.org/10949/fief/hifeudal.html

Questions & Answers


      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment
      • profile image


        17 months ago



      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

      Show Details
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
      ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)