The Middle Ages (ca. 476-1485)

Introduction: The Middle Ages

by D.J. Kingdon




Medieval depiction of knights hoisting the English flag.
“The English Army (1380-1400)” British Library.


        A warrior known for his strength kills monsters and has a final epic battle with a dragon. A courageous woman who despises the oppression of her people, decides to take matters into her own hands, confronts the man responsible and in a single act of outrageous bravery sets her people free.  A nephew is sent abroad to accompany a beautiful young woman on a journey to marry his uncle. But on the way, the nephew and the young woman fall in love and the uncle finds out and plots revenge. In yet another story, a very young and loyal knight volunteers for a challenge that will send him away to a castle, where he has to fight off a knight that he cannot seem to kill and fight off the many advances of a married lady that he cannot seem to quell. A man meets a group of people at a tavern in South London  to go on a few days journey together. To pass the time, the group decides to tell stories and it is agreed that the person who has the most interesting story will get a free meal when they return to London.

All of the above storylines could be contemporary. They might be found as plots in a Marvel comic, or in Japanese manga, or even in a Netflix movie. Yet, these stories are a thousand or more years old. One realises how even one thousand years ago, people still had very similar lives: they fought for justice, they fell in love (and sometimes not with the right person), they took on great challenges and had friends that they shared happy times with.  These stories make up our history and tug at our ancient memory. They are the stories of our past, present and future. What were the origins of these stories and how did our modern British Literature come to be?

        In order to fully understand where British Literature originated, one must go back to its beginnings. The British Isles, British Literature and most importantly, the English language has been shaped by many words, idioms and cultures brought by waves of migrations, wars and occupations over hundreds of years. It is a rich and varied history that cannot be traversed fully here, but there are thousands of books and online sources that can point you to more information on British History. For our purposes, we will focus on some basic points.


Britain in Earliest History

        It is known that about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, the British Isles were populated by hunter-gatherers from Europe. Farming in Britain began about 6,000 years ago where it  was settled by various tribal groups and clans. These were Neolithic tribes who are reported to have been the builders of the now iconic Stonehenge. At some point in history, around 2500 BCE, it is said that a culture called the “Beaker Culture” came in and settled with the existing inhabitants. They were called the “Beaker Culture” because of the beautiful lipped pottery that was found in its burial sites. The Beaker Culture is said to have come from the European continent and further east, from the Steppes in Eastern Europe. They seemed to have integrated into the Neolithic culture as archaeological information shows that beakers have been found in many Neolithic henges in Britain. Some believe that they assisted with the building of Stonehenge and Avebury, the great prehistoric stone circles in southwest England. The Beaker Culture gave way to what is now known as the “Wessex Culture”. The Wessex Culture  produced the most beautiful prehistoric artefacts. Many of them are crafted of gold and amber which has led experts to believe that there was a healthy trade between this culture and the Greeks.

        From 2500 BCE to 500 BCE, more Celtic settlers came from the European Continent. They still all belonged to different groups and they began to fall into more distinct tribes or clans: the Britons (who inhabited the middle and south of the island), the Gaels (who settled in parts of Ireland) and the Picts (who were in the north of the Island which is now Scotland). These were very distinct tribes, but they were united in a somewhat common pagan religion and a similar language and culture.

The Arrival of the Romans

        The conquest of Britain by the Romans was of paramount importance historically. This was accomplished over many years, but began with Emperor Claudius installing his own governor in 43 CE. Most significantly was the invasion of Britain by Augustus Caesar. Around 53 CE Caesar attempted his first invasion of the British Isles by coming in from the southeast or what is now known as Thanet in the province of Kent. The Romans knew that the island had massive reserves of tin and were very interested in the possible mineral and economic reserves the area might produce for the empire.  That first invasion failed. The Romans retreated and planned another invasion for 54 CE, a year later. In the summer of 54 CE the Romans mounted another invasion, using 25,000 troops, 2,000 cavalry, 600 transports and 28 warships.  This time, the Romans were successful. One of the most interesting historical battles to come out of this Roman occupation was that of Boudica, the Queen of the Iceni tribe. Her husband, who was an ally of Rome, had left his lands jointly to his daughters and to the Roman Emperor in his will. The will was ignored and the lands were seized. Boudica was flogged and her daughters raped.  In 60 CE,  Boudica led the Iceni, the Trinovantes and other renegade groups in a revolt. They managed to kill 70,000 to 80,000 Romans while destroying present-day London in its wake. In the end, Boudica was defeated and died soon after. She is now considered a folk hero in Great Britain. And while the invasion of Britain was to continue until 84 CE, it was the 54 CE campaign of Augustus Caesar that began to fully secure Britain or “Brittania” as a Roman territory. The Romans conquered the most of Britain, but could never make inroads north into the Pictish territory, which is now Scotland.  The Britons adapted themselves to Roman rule for five hundred years.  The Romans brought their customs, their language, their laws and their building skills. These skills can still be seen today in the many Roman ruins still found in Britain and the network of  roads that they left behind. The famous Hadrian’s Wall that stretches across the island even to this day,  is still a testament to the engineering feat of the Romans.

Rome and Emperor Constantine

        During the Roman occupation of Britain, there was an important historical event that took place. This monumental decision changed the course of the dissemination of the written word that was to come in Britain. The Emperor Constantine who reigned from 306-337 CE, adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. This was significant as it led to Christianity being introduced to Britain. While there were some conversions at that time, most still held to their pagan religions. Centuries later, a system of education and writing would be introduced through the Christian monasteries which would lead to the establishment and preservation of the early literature and language of Britain.


The End of the Roman Rule

        The Romans ruled over Britain until approximately 410 CE. By that time, the Roman empire was on the wane and losing power. Rome called back all of its available troops, from Britain to defend Rome against the incoming enemy. In 410 BCE, the Visigoths were let into the city of Rome by rebels and for three days they sacked and plundered the city leaving it a smoking ruin. Rome fell to the “barbarians” and the fall of the Roman empire was sealed. Britain was left to fend for itself and without a warrior class or  strong army, it was also in a vulnerable position militarily. This made it perfect again for conquest.


The Germanic Tribal Settlement of Britain

        After the Romans left Britain, there was a great seafaring migration of Germanic tribes that took place beginning in 450 CE.  The primary migrants were the Jutes, Angles and Saxons. It is from these tribes that the English language began to take shape. For example, the very word English comes from the word Angles. While the Venerable Bede called it an “invasion”,  current research has concluded that no military campaigns were ever fully mounted. It was simply a movement of Germanic groups settling in the British lands. This was also not a swift migration. It took decades. The Britons fought the incursions as they could but they were not successful. Eventually the Britons moved westward into what is now Wales where one can still hear the modern version of their original language still spoken today. While it was not an “invasion”, there was a gradual takeover of the lands that had been once occupied by the Romans in the areas that did not have enough Britons to mount a resistance.


Christianity after the Romans

        As noted before, during the last century of the Roman occupation, many Britons had converted to Christianity under the rule of Emperor Constantine. But after the exit of the Romans, Christianity was on the wane as the pagan religions under the Anglo-Saxons took precedence again. For the first 150 years of the Germanic settlements, the Christian religion was only practiced in the  areas where the Anglo-Saxons would not or could not venture. These were the mountainous regions or the regions filled with deep forests. Christianity was, in a sense, forced underground. But a hundred and fifty years later, that would change dramatically.


Pope Gregory and St Augustine

        Pope Gregory (who was pope of the Catholic Church from 590 to 604 CE) was instrumental in bringing Christianity to Britain. It is said that one day while walking through the slave market in Rome, he spotted two young pale Britons. He asked where these boys were from. The response was that they were “Angles”. To which, it is said that Gregory responded: “non angli, sed angeli” or “not Angles, but angels”. This  legendary encounter in the market  prompted Pope Gregory to dispatch Augustine, one of his most favoured and erudite monks (later to be St Augustine of Canterbury)  to Britain to begin the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons in 597.  Augustine went as a missionary to King Ethelbert of Kent who lived in the Southern area of Britain, while Irish missionaries continued their work for the Church in the North. Within 75 years, Britain had become fully Christian.

The Impact of Christianity on Literacy

        It may seem extraneous to spend so much time discussing Christianity in a course of Early Medieval Literature. But it is because of Christianity that the oral tradition began to be set down in books. These illuminated manuscripts were painstakingly copied by hand by the monks who inhabited the many monasteries that began to spring up all over Britain. In this way, knowledge began to spread all over Britain as the libraries in these monasteries grew to be repositories of history and literature.

Charlemagne and Alcuin

        Alcuin (born in 730) was a young child when he went to study under Archbishop Egbert.  He became Master of the York school in 778 and a deacon in the church though he never was ordained as a priest. He wrote educational books and hundreds of letters many of which are still extant. On his way back from a visit to Rome, he had an encounter that would change his life: he met Charlemagne (or Charles the First) who was so impressed with his knowledge that he asked him to join his court. Alcuin was made the head of the palace school in the court of Charlemagne where he established a great library. Eventually this palace school became Northwest Europe’s first university. Alcuin’s contributions fostered an intellectual movement which eventually swept to the monasteries and cathedrals all across Europe and Britain. Despite the fact that he ended up spending a great deal of his life on the continent, his writings at York and his educational contributions left a great insight into medieval Britain for posterity.

The (Berserk) Vikings

        This long era of the building of libraries, universities and monasteries to house information and disseminate education lasted for only a few more years.  Around 790 CE, the Vikings from Scandinavia (or the “Norsemen” becoming the word Norman in later years) began sailing and raiding countries in Northern Europe, Russia, the Mediterranean and on into Britain and France. They were ruthless warriors and were interested in only one thing: treasure. These Norsemen had no mercy and their ferocious bands killed and destroyed without a thought. The word “beserk” comes from these Norsemen whose behaviour was without remorse. They were called this as they wore nothing but bearskin or “berserkar”as battle raiment.  The greatest losses during this time occurred in Northumbria, the most important centre of learning  in Britain at that time. The Vikings destroyed the illustrious library at Lindisfarne and with it hundreds of illuminated books and manuscripts.  The reports stated that the plunderers trampled on the bodies of the monks and poured their blood out on the altars. Any monks that survived were taken into slavery. A similar fate came to the monastery at St Columba, on the island of Iona off the coast of Scotland in 806 CE. The monastery was 200 years old and was the premier church of Celtic Christianity. Most importantly, it was the burial place of Scottish kings. It was sacked and pillaged and left in total ruin. The site was abandoned for hundreds of years until it was re-established in the 1400’s.  The Viking raids destroyed much of the written chronicles and manuscripts which were being housed in monasteries dotted across Britain. Latin and learning went into decline as these raids became a regular occurrence.

The Arrival of the Danes

        In 865 CE, a huge army of “heathens” landed in East Anglia. They were the Danes from Denmark, another Scandinavian country intent on gaining new lands. They were conquerors and they basically began to move in and occupy parts of Britain. The Danes took East Anglia and proceeded to Mercia (the Midlands) and took it as well. But the Danes were bent on seizing all of Britain, so they continued attempted incursions into other areas. It was only when they got to Wessex that they began to meet resistance. For in Wessex, they encountered Alfred.

King Alfred the Great who Burnt the Cakes

        If anyone was to have been thought of as “least likely to be king” it would have been Alfred. He was the youngest son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex. He had three older brothers in the line of succession before him, all who reigned before him and all who died. Alfred became King of Wessex in 871 CE after the death of Aethelred, his brother. Alfred had spent years fighting against the Danish invasions alongside his older brother. He had been a very brilliant and precocious child who enjoyed studying and reading. After years of fighting,     King Alfred was finally able to broker the first treaty with the Danes but that peace lasted only one year as the Danes quickly captured Wareham and Exeter in 877 .  At that point, Alfred laid siege and the Danes were forced to retreat to the North. In 878, the warrior chief Guthrum and the Danes marched against Alfred again while he was wintering in Chippenham in what is now Wiltshire province. Guthrum descended from the north and directed another of his armies to move north from the south in an attempt to pin Alfred from both directions. However, the Danish moving northward decided to capture a small fortress held by a Wessex alderman named Odda. It turned out to be a very ill-conceived strategic move. Odda and his Saxon men attacked the Danes in their sleep and managed to save Alfred from the encroaching northbound Danish warriors. Despite that, Alfred and his men were no match for the Danish. For the rest of the winter and spring of 878, Alfred was forced to go into hiding.

        The folk legend says that it was a Saxon  farm family who took him in, not knowing who he was. One day, the farmer’s wife asked him to please watch the cakes she was baking while she went out. Alfred, lost in contemplation over his next move against the Danes, forgot all about the cakes and received a verbal thrashing from the farmer’s wife when she found that they had all burnt. Still Alfred never told her who he was. He simply took the tongue-lashing and apologised for his negligence. It is said that this was a testament to the humility of the King and his sterling character which in later years came to be proven true as he emerged as an extraordinary and fair ruler. In the spring (after the cake debacle), Alfred gathered up his army once again and attacked Guthrum in Edington, Wiltshire. The Danes retreated to Chippenham pursued by Alfred and his army who laid siege to Guthrum and his men. Guthrum could not hold out and surrendered. King Alfred laid out his terms of surrender: one of which was that Guthrum would agree to be baptized a Christian with Alfred as his godfather. Guthrum accepted. And though Guthrum retreated north after that and attempted to attack Kent in 884 CE, he was defeated. It was at that time that the “Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum” was drawn up which established the boundaries of “Danelaw” and allowed for Danish self-rule in that region ( the northeastern region of present-day England).

        King Alfred would prove to be a very effective and intelligent ruler. It is said that he was one of the most learned and educated kings in British history. He was a gifted strategist as well. He built fortresses all around Britain with ramparts that would help to stave off any further attacks by the Danes. He also constructed a strong navy with the same longships as the Danes and then, very cleverly, hired Danish mercenaries to man them. With this navy, he was actually able to win victories over the savage Viking raiders including the defeat of 250 naval ships that were found off the coast of Kent in 892 CE. (These Vikings were not from Scandinavia, they were coming from France, where the French king was about to grant them land in the North later to be known as “Normandy”).

        Alfred established his capital to Winchester, Hampshire. Here, when he had time to settle,  he began to bemoan the fact that after the destruction of the monasteries, in all of his kingdom, he could not find one clerk who could speak Latin. Alfred then began to invite scholars from the European continent and took half of his royal revenues to give to church schools so that his people could once again be literate and that his court could rival the great courts of Europe. He oversaw the translation of texts into Anglo-Saxon including his own work about Boethius. In 890 CE, he commissioned the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which became the basis of all knowledge after the time of Bede. He was instrumental in the propagation of learning and literature in his time. Alfred was the first monarch to come up with a legal code that made kings subject to the law. He cared for the future of the country, of his people and for the preservation of the history and learning of his land. He was known as a just ruler and was the first to call himself “King of the Anglo-Saxons,” and he was also the first to use the word “England” for his kingdom. King Alfred was lauded for all his contributions to society in the areas of justice and education. His bravery against the Vikings and  Danish was unparalleled. In the 16th century he was named “King Alfred the Great” by writers and historians of the time. He still is, to this day, the only British monarch to have been granted the title “ the Great”.

        It was out of this historical melting pot of Celtic origins with Germanic influences, Scandinavian invasions and ancient Roman culture that British literature and language was formed. And, in 1066, the Anglo-Saxon culture was to undergo the greatest change of all.






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An Open Companion to Early British Literature Copyright © 2019 by Allegra Villarreal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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