The Norman Conquest, 1066 The Black Death

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  1. The Norman Conquest, 1066

  2. The Black Death

We typically think of England as being a fancy-pants font of high culture. After all, British people have those upmarket accents, Shakespeare, and the high-quality programming of the BBC. Not. Fair.

But the U.K. didn't always have it all together. (Which isn't to say this perception is true-to-life now, either.) If we get into the way-back machine, and travel back to the 10th century or before, we see that England had its beginnings as a sort of mongrel nation. It was made up of a variety of cultural and linguistic traditions.

So, when we talk about Medieval Literature, we're not dealing with the famed British Empire. In fact, Britain didn't even have an Empire at this time, but was instead the victim of many waves of attack and invasion.

First came the Romans (relatively civilized dudes), and then the barbarian invasions of the Germanic tribes (think of the guys we see in Beowulf). Next were the Vikings… who were essentially more tough, seagoing guys with impressive facial hair.

Finally, in 1066, we get to the Normans. Back then, there was a dispute over who had the best claim to the throne of England. This spurred William, Duke of Normandy—Normandy is a region in northern France, BTW—to sail on over to England and claim that throne all for himself.

And he did so without too much effort. He was all, "Time to defeat King Harold at the Battle of Hastings." And so it happened.

This French invasion changed Britain's formerly Anglo-Saxon culture and language to one that was much more like mainland Europe. And this invasion shaped the English language irrevocably; the new French influx pushed Old English down the path toward Middle English, a variety nearer to what people speak today.

Prior to the Norman Conquest, the Anglo-Saxon language (a.k.a. Old English) wasn't considered appropriate for the high-falutin' realm of literature. Anything that was thought to be vaguely important or permanent was penned in Latin. Similarly, after the Norman Conquest, the language spoken at the English courts was always a form of French—a dialect called, unsurprisingly, "Anglo-Norman French."

This dialect started exerting an influence on Old English, and all that sexy language intermingling was what gave birth to Middle English. Writers like Geoffrey Chaucer then started showing people that this whole new English business could be used as a genuine literary language. That it could stand its ground against the "fancy" languages of French and Latin.

So, the Norman Conquest haunts many English texts of the medieval period in the very language they're written in. But the sort of step-sibling rivalry between England and France often emerges in the tensions of many of the time's tales, too. Like how Lancelot is the Bestest Knight Ever to Knight in many Arthurian romances. Hm. Clever.

The Black Death

Okay, so here's one of the more unpleasant episodes of the Medieval Period: the Black Plague. People back then also referred to it as the Great Mortality or, even more bluntly, the Pestilence. This horrific sickness first swept through England and other areas of Europe around 1348-1349, and it spread through the population faster than the Gangnam Style craze.

Since you can't WebMD it, we'll tell you a tiny bit of what the Plague did to its human hosts. People would get these huge lesions on their necks and groins, which would start out red and then darken to black. Pretty gross, right?

Then, well. They'd die. And quickly. Usually within about six days, in fact.

And since the medieval period wasn't particularly known for its high-tech medical advancements, people thought they were suffering the wrath of God for their sins. Lucky for us, medical science has advanced tremendously since then. But if you think that makes us modern folks smarter and more immune than our medieval counterparts to the fear that a fast-spreading disease might take us out, then you just haven't watched enough zombie movies.
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