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.
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.).
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.
“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.
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.
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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.
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
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