The invasion of the Norman French
under William the Conqueror in 1066
was a watershed event in early English
history. The Normans introduced
feudalism, a system in which all society
was organized into a huge pyramid.
Everything belonged to the king, and
every person owed fealty to the person
over him. This included paying taxes of
their produce and raising forces or
serving in the military. The central White
Tower of the Tower of London (right)
was constructed by William.
The English language fell into disrepute,
as commoners were the only ones who
spoke it. Many of the words in our
language today entered it during the
period. For example, cow, hog and
sheep were the words used by the
English common people who tended
them, while beef, pork and mutton came
from the French who ate them.
The world that Chaucer wrote in, that his Pilgrims populated, was
the world of the Middle Ages. Without cars, transport was slow,
at the speed of a horse. That was the way the pilgrims traveled to
Canterbury, and it gave them the leisure to visit and tell stories.
Common people didnâ€™t have books or TV, so story-telling
was one way to pass the time.
Four major events marked the Middle Ages in Britainâ€”the
Norman Invasion, the Crusades, the Magna Carta, and the Black
The church was a major force in the Middle Ages. It was the pope who
sent the whole of Europe to free the Holy Land from the Muslims. Thus
the Crusades formed the backdrop of the early years. In 1099, the
Crusaders captured Jerusalem,
From 1189-1199, Englandâ€™s King Richard the Lionheart was on
almost continual crusade, being captured during his return from the third
and ransomed by the nation. He was the famous King Richard of the
Robin Hood legends. His brother John, who stayed home and ruled the
country, was the evil Prince John.
Iâ€™ve found that one of the most
painless introductions to Chaucerâ€™s
times for people today is the Cadfael
series of detective novels set in the
Middle Ages, written by scholar Edith
Pargeter under the name Ellis Peters.
It features a former soldier in the
Crusades who became a monk and
who uses his knowledge of human
nature and botany to solve mysteries.
The novels formed the basis of a
television series starring Derek Jacobi.
The Black Death, or bubonic plague,
ravaged England in 1348, killing a third
to a half of the population. With fewer
people came a shortage of laborers
and a rise in wages. This was a major
step in the rise of the middle class and
This was the backdrop against which
Chaucer began work on Canterbury
Tales in 1387.
The nobles chafed under the centralization of
power of the king. Raising armies and
ransoms was expensive, and the nobles had
their crops to tend and their local affairs to
handle. They drafted a charter, the Magna
Carta, to demand certain concessions from
Signed by John in 1215 at Runnymede, the
Magna Carta was the first step toward the
building of English Common Law, which
became the basis of our legal system.