Introduction to the Middle Ages in English History, Society, and Literature.
Created by dicksonk on Jan 13, 2009
Last updated: 03/06/10 at 01:16 PM
The End of a Millennium. With 1066, we come to the end of the “Old English Period.” The Germanic past of the Angles and Saxons was replaced by the continental culture of the new French court. Though the effects of this political change may have been less immediately felt by common laborers and craftsmen, a more gradual transition from a world of pagan violence to one of Christian forgiveness can be found in the literature on either side of 1066. The age that followed—though as Churchill notes free from the threat of invasion—was hardly a time of peace and stability. The foreign wars, epidemics, and uprisings that succeeded the Norman Conquest created new anxieties and opportunities for the English people. In a few days we will return to this interactive timeline to learn more about the latter half of the Middle Ages and the figures and events that shaped them. To Be Continued. . .
1066 and All That. After so many invasions and truces, it was Duke William of Normandy who would change English culture most radically. After his victory at Hastings over the son of the late English king, William the Conqueror ensured his hard fought victory by building castles across Britain. In strongholds like Windsor Castle or the Tower of London, he placed faithful Norman barons who would control local lands and churches, establishing French as the official language of government, law, and literature.
A Civil Peace. After skirmishes with the Vikings that freed London from Danish control in 886, Alfred the Great signed a treaty with the Danish king Guthrum which divided England along the Thames creating a territory for Scandinavian settlers called the Danelaw.
Something Rotten from the State of Denmark. For over a hundred years, Scandinavian invaders would attack the coasts of England, starting in the north with important towns and monasteries like Bede’s home in Jarrow and Lindisfarne near the Scottish border. By 872 the Vikings had penetrated major port cities further south, including the ancient capital of London.
Out of the Cloister. The Venerable Bede wrote the first comprehensive history unifying these disparate groups. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People defined Britain as a single nation now unified by the learning and literacy of Roman Christianity: “At the present time, there are five languages in Britain, just as the divine law is written in five books . . . These are the English, British, Irish, Pictish, as well as the Latin languages; through the study of the scriptures, Latin is in general use among them all.” Much of what we know of Britain’s early invaders and missionaries comes from Bede’s History.
A Peaceful Invasion. Perhaps the most significant landing force during Britain’s first millennium came Easter of 597 in the form of 40 missionaries sent from Pope Gregory I. As Bede says, “Gregory, prompted by divine inspiration, sent a servant of God named Augustine and several more God-fearing monks with him to preach the word of God to the English race.” After converting King Ethelbert, Augustine became the first archbishop of the English church at Canterbury.
The Original Melting Pot. This invasion was hardly as unified as it sounds. Following the Roman retreat, a number of Germanic tribes converged on England, bringing widely divergent cultures and languages with them. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes were concentrated in England while the Picts and Scots battled for the north and the Celts dominated Ireland and Wales.
From Brutus to Beowulf. After almost four centuries of Roman rule, trade, and relative peace, the approach of a new wave of raiders to the British coasts signaled an important shift. The “Old English Period” covers over 600 years and includes piecemeal invasions by more than a dozen Germanic and Scandinavian groups. Mediterranean culture and civilization would be driven out by tribal allegiance, blood feuds, and heroic sagas. Roman merchants and administrators were followed by Anglo Saxon warlords and Viking raiders. The noble virtue of Virgil’s Aeneid was finally replaced by the violence and retribution of Beowulf.
The Beginning of the End. In the years after 407, the Roman legions withdrew from Britain to defend the capital in Rome against the attacks of the Visigoths and then the Vandals. One effect of the power vacuum this left behind was a sharp rise in the number of local tribes who began to occupy different parts of the British Isles.
By this sign you will conquer. In 306, Constantine the Great was proclaimed emperor while in York on a military campaign. After a vision of a cross that promised victory in battle, Constantine was converted and Christianity became the official religion of Rome and its colonies.
Can anything good come out of Londinium? After invasion by Emperor Claudius, Britannia becomes the northernmost Roman colony. Just after the life of Christ, Britannia was comparable to Judea as a far-off province paying tribute to the Empire but also developing ties of trade and culture with Rome. Latin became the common language, and evidence of achievements from the period can still be seen in Roman Bath or Hadrian’s Wall.
We will fight on the beaches. . . The first historical account we have of Britain comes from an invader. Julius Caesar led the Roman legions across the channel in 55 and again in 54 BC but was twice frustrated by storms near Dover. The Romans would not return until the emperor Claudius invaded successfully in 43 AD.
In the days leading up to World War II, Winston Churchill would remind the British people, “We can still say that nearly a thousand years have passed since a foreign invader has set his foot upon English soil.” Few survivors of German bombing raids over London and much of southern England can forget how close they came to being occupied. It’s easy for us to imagine how different Britain’s history and culture might have been had Hitler’s invasion been successful. Churchill would later boast, “But since 1066, and all that, we have never seen the camp fires of an invader from a hostile and foreign power burning in our island home.” Though Churchill’s triumphant vision of the last millennium gave Britons courage during the dark days of the Blitz, it also contrasts significantly with the instability of Britannia’s first thousand years. As you explore the following interactive timeline, consider how Britain’s history has been marked by invasions. How has each of these foreign powers influenced the language, life, and literature of the English people? More specifically, why would Churchill choose 1066 as a turning point in Britain’s history? Why would this date signal a shift in politics and culture from the years that came before? Timeline written by Dr. Kyle Dickson Abilene Christian University