The Middle English Period
The Middle English period is also called the transitional period or the Norman-French period. Just before the coming of William the Conqueror, the Saxons and the Danes had more or less integrated and become one force. The king at the time was Edward the Confessor and he had good ties with France. He did not have any heirs to the throne. The Normans who had settled in France had come from Scandinavia. On the death of Edward the Confessor, William became King of England as the former had no other heirs. There was a Saxon king, King Harold who fought against William for the throne but William won.
With the coming of William the Norman dynasty was established in England. The Norman kings were William II also called Rufus, Henry I and Stephen. The Norman dynasty had a significant bearing on the literature of the period. The two major achievements of the dynasty are:
It is associated with the knights and it comes from the French word cheval meaning horse and chevalier meaning horsemen. Two important societal orders of knights were established during the Norman period:
The feudal system was established and William claimed that all the land in England belonged to him. However, since the land wasn’t vast, William had to distribute the land among the Barons. The hierarchy of loyalty followed was – the Kings, the Barons and then the Lords. The Lords were loyal to the Barons and the Barons were loyal to the Kings and therefore all of them were loyal to the King, thus was established forms of nationhood in England.
a. The Knights hospitallers of St. John – offered shelter to those making pilgrimages to the holy land (Jerusalem)
b. The Templars – they were the order of knights who vowed to protect the Holy Sepulchre. The Sepulchre had claims to Jerusalem. They protected the Holy Sepulchre from non-Christians. The Normans built churches and monasteries to spread Christianity. Poetry was translated in monasteries. The tales of the knights helped in growth of literature as it contained not only romantic but also extraordinary elements.
The last Norman king was Stephen. During his reign all order was disrupted, he dies in 1154 and on his death Henry the II took over. King Henry was the son of Norman Princess, Matilda and her husband Geoffrey Plantagenet of Anjou.
The new dysnasty, the Plantagenet dynasty was therefore established in England. It was also called the Angevin dynasty (belonging to Anjou is referred to as Angevin). When the Plantagenet dynasty began to rule there was a struggle for power between the King and Clergymen and the King and Nobles. This rivalry caused a lot of chaos in England. There were internal and external upheavals with Turks etc and also the Crusades.
The clergy being favoured by the Norman King was more powerful. The clergy had not only noblemen but also sons of noble men. They hungered for more power making them more politically inclined. The belief of the time was that the King was divinely ordained by God.
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