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Literary genres: Poetry, Drama and Fiction

Medieval poetry

• Ballad.
• Narrative Poem.
• Romance.
• Exempla: fables and parables.

Middle English

(1100-1500 during the Middle Ages) after the Norman conquest.

The influence of French and the rise of Middle English.
• French used by nobles and aristocracy.
• English (vulgar) used by the peasants having no formal education.
• Latin used by Church, considerate as the language for learning.
• Introduction of lots of French words.

Historical events

• The battle of Hasting (1066) started the Norman Period.
• William the Conqueror makes an economic survey keeping a register called “Doomsday Book” (1086).
• The Constitution of Clarendon (1164) a reform bill asked by Henry II to give the king more authority on the Church by appointing the bishop.
• Murder of Thomas Becket (1170).
• The “Magna Charta” signed by Jon Lackland in 1215, forced by the baron and the clergy denied the king the power to impose taxes without the general consent, thus limiting his power.
• The Model Parliament, under the reign of Edward I (1272-1307) was summoned in 1295: it laid the foundations for the present House of Lords and House of Commons
• The Hundred Years’ War against France under Edward III(1327-1377) whose consequence was the conquest of lots of French territories
• The Black Death (1348) an epidemic bubonic plague, interrupted the war
• The peasants’ revolt (1381) started because of taxes on all the population.
• The War of the Roses in 1455: a family war taking this name from the red rose, the emblem of the Lancastrians, and the white rose, the emblem of the Yorkists, it lasted for about thirty years with alternate results and the final consequence was the beginning of the Tudor dynasty.
Norman Conquest: In 1066, William the Conqueror attacked and defeated Harold of Wessex starting the Norman Period. The most important consequences were:
• The introduction of the feudal system.
• The influence of French and the rise of Middle English.

The introduction of the feudal system

Pyramidal System: king – barons – knights - peasants (freeman/serfs).
The Barons held their lands from the king and were obligated to follow him in the battle.
Below the knights came the peasants:
• The villains or freeman who had land for their own.
• The serfs who had no land.

Medieval poetry

The Ballad:
• Anonymous, popular poems.
• Accompanied by music and dances.
• Originally transmitted orally, then printed on one sheet of paper called “Broadside ballads”.
• Tells a story(usually tragic: about murders, love and death, revenge, war,
betrayal etc.) focalizing a single event.
• Usually divided into four-line stanzas intermingled with refrains.
• Composed with simple language that people could understand.
• Contains lots of repetitions and stock phrases to help memorization.
• Has a supernatural element.
• Inspired to local or national history, to folklore and legends.
• Born in Spain and France were sung by Minstrels and Troubadours.


• Poet-composers.
• Aristocratic people.
• France, northern Spain and northern Italy.
• From 12th to 14th century.
• Their main subject was “courtly love”.


• Professional musicians
• Employed by rich people or at the court
• Organized into guilds

The medieval Ballad tells a dramatic story not as a continuous sequences, but as a rapid flashes. The author of ballads is unknowns.
The ballad is a mixture of dialogue and narration and the author speak in third person, never in first. The rhyming is ABCB and there’s a refrain, a repeated section of the text, where there are a series phrases repeated, like in “Lord Randal”. The language in the ballad is simple with formulary phrases. Usually there are speaking animals and bird, fairies, witches and ghosts.
Ballad can be divided by themes in:
• border ballads
dealing with the rivalry between English and Scottish people.
• outlaw ballads
celebrating the lives of outlaws as Robin Hood.

• ballads of magic
telling stories about witches, fairies and ghosts.
• town ballads
commenting on difficult urban conditions.

The medieval narrative poem

It tells a story in verse and contains a rich variety of narrative elements like the setting in time and place, description and it’s often in first person. The purpose was to entertain and instruct and it speak about real event or fantastic situation. Other narrative genres is the romance (it explored the concepts of love and war in a court setting) and the fabliau (it’s an anti-clerical stories. The most famous of this narrative poem is the “Canterbury Tales” of Geoffrey Chaucer. It’s a long poem with a “General Prologue”. Geoffrey Chaucer was born in 1343, the son of a rich merchant in London. He comes also in Italy where he became interested in Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio. In 1386 he was dismissed from all his offices and he began to work on Canterbury Tales. The plot is simple. In Spring a group of 30 people, men, women, member of clergy, merchants and Chaucer himself, is going on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket and in Tabard inn in London pilgrims tell two stories while going to Canterbury and two coming back. There is a “General Prologue” where the pilgrims are introduced and 24 tales with a Prologue and an Epilogue. Chaucer wanted to give a portrait of English society, without the aristocracy and peasants because no nobleman travelled with commoners and the peasants hadn’t money. He mixed female and male because the women had a new importance in the middle class.

Medieval drama

Religious festivities:
- performances of Christian rites on occasion of Christmas, Easter, Corpus Domini etc.
- in the church.
- in form of dialogues between the priest and choir.
- in Latin.
- purpose: didactic.

Mystery Plays

- (13th cent.)
- performances of episodes from the Bible and the Gospel.
- outside the church, on the “pageants” (moveable wagons).
- in vulgar.
- purpose: didactic.

Miracle Plays

- (13th cent.)
- performances about the lives of saints.
- outside the church, on the “pageants” (moveable wagons).
- in vulgar.
- purpose: didactic.

Morality Plays:
- (15th cent.)
- allegorical plays.
- the characters were personifications of abstract ideas.
- outside the church, on the “pageants” (moveable wagons).
- in vulgar.
- purpose: to teach a moral behavior.
- the most famous morality play is “Everyman”.


Everyman is the most important example of Morality Play. It was writing in 15th century and included the theme of timor mortis and ars moriendi. It tells the story of Everyman, a merchant, who is summoned by Death and none of his friends will accompany him. He asks Fellowship, Beauty, Strength but they deserted him. Only Good Deals will accompany him. God, who calls Everyman is presented as vindictive and harsh and Everyman’s appears as an honest man whose life is simple and with a little excess.
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