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Society, allegory and gender

This book on Geoffrey Chaucer explores the relationship between Chaucer's poetry and the change and conflict characteristic of his day and the sorts of literary and non-literary conventions that were at his disposal for making sense of the society around him. Critics who consider the social meaning of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales fall into two main schools: those who present his social thought as an expression of the dominant spirit or ideology of his day and those who see Chaucer as possessing a more heterodox voice. Many of the present generation of Chaucer critics have been trained either as 'Robertsonians' or as 'Donaldsonians'. For D. W. Robertson, even those medieval poems which do not explicitly address religious issues were frequently intended to promote the Augustinian doctrine of charity beneath a pleasing surface; for E. Talbot Donaldson, there are 'no such poems in Middle English'. The book sets out the basics of the Augustinian doctrine of charity and of medieval allegorical theory and examines 'patristic' interpretations of Chaucer's work, particularly of the 'Nun's Priest Tale'. It looks at the humanist alternative to the patristic method and assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the patristic approach. The book also outlines some of the major medieval discourses about sexual difference which inform Chaucer's depiction of women, in particular, the tendency of medieval writers to polarise their views of women, condemning them to the pit or elevating them to the pedestal.

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In a period of French cultural dominance, it was in French handbooks of knighthood and in romances in French that the ideals of medieval European chivalry found their most powerful expression. As the companions and partners with the chivalrous knighthood in the chivalrous business of war, the culture and values of chivalry rubbed off naturally on the newcomers to recognised gentility, and was absorbed by them as theirs as well as the knights'. The military experience of the fourteenth century had cemented a mental equation of chivalry and gentillesse, which now included the esquires, and had anchored it firmly in the mind-set both of the gentry themselves and of their superior patrons. Acculturation must be the keynote in any assessment of the place of chivalry in the culture of the gentry in the late Middle Ages.

in Gentry culture in late-medieval England

Four principal types of disturbance can be identified between 1200 and 1500. First, 'reformist' rebellions, intended to correct what were perceived to be abuses and to remove from his presence those advisers responsible for the abuses. Reformist movements could nevertheless be transformed into the second major category of rebellions to be considered: dynastic risings, whose declared intent stretched beyond the criticism of royal policies to an attempt to remove the king held responsible for them from power. The third major group of rebellions consists of the popular risings: preeminently the 'English rising' of 1381 and Cade's rebellion in 1450. It was left to the last group of rebellions, the religious risings, to articulate a radical set of social and political demands. How the balance of advantage between opportunity and danger is to be struck largely depends upon an estimate of the seriousness of the civil wars and rebellions.

in Political culture in later medieval England

The 'county community' in later medieval England enjoyed a brief but influential vogue during the 1980s. It was one of a number of lesser solidarities, the parish, the hundred, the kindred, the affinity, which might each play a part of variable significance in the social, and occasionally the political, life of the later medieval gentry. This chapter defines what that part was and suggests how it may have changed over time. It can be assumed that there were three separate stages in the evolution of the county community. In the first stage, the shire gained both definition and authority by its acquisition of a range of new administrative powers and responsibilities. The second, the 'social' phase, saw changes that were principally demographic and driven by high levels of plague-related mortality. In the third, chiefly political, phase, county society responded to external pressures, principally the polarisation of national politics.

in Political culture in later medieval England

The procedure that the British call compulsory purchase, though it is really compulsory sale, and that Americans call 'eminent domain', also a slightly misleading name, is in the civil-law tradition simply 'expropriation', or an equivalent word (espropriazione, Enteignung, etc.). This chapter argues that an immanent sense of the common good may have allowed both rulers and local communities to take land from individuals for the sake of that common good even before the Carolingians and outside the kingdoms of the Franks and Anglo-Saxons. The most striking example in the early Middle Ages of what looks like a modified form of expropriation is what has traditionally been seen as the plundering, spoliation or secularization of Church land by Charles Martel and his descendants, the Carolingian kings and emperors.

in Frankland
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A more useful way of approaching success or failure is to view peacemaking and diplomacy as a web of different relationships that contributed to ultimate success or failure. Successful peacemaking in the twelfth century was, in many ways, more about how to make peace than it was about the longevity of the terms of individual agreements. Peacemaking involving the Danish kings further shows that the principles and practice altered slightly over the course of the medieval period. War in the medieval period broke out because participants thought that they had more to gain from war than from keeping the peace. The notion that successful peacemaking in the Viking period rested on a shared concept of peace through Christianity, achieved mainly through sponsorship at baptism or at confirmation, is a well-attested phenomenon in early medieval Europe.

in Peacemaking in the Middle Ages
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This conclusion presents some closing thoughts on the concepts covered in the preceding chapters of this book. The book explores ecclesiastical reform as a religious idea and a movement against the backdrop of social and religious change in later tenth- and eleventh-century Europe. It seeks to place the relationship between reform and the papacy in the context of the debate about 'transformation' in its many and varied forms. There has been considerable emphasis on how the papacy took an increasingly active part in shaping the direction of reform as well as shaping society. The reform movement left an indelible mark on western European society, and its repercussions would be felt for centuries. The challenge that faced the reformers of the eleventh century, to renew the Church and Christian life, was ultimately the wholesale reinvention of Latin European society.

in Reform and papacy in the eleventh century
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The study of the medieval English peasantry began, in the nineteenth century, as an adjunct to the study of other themes. Thus, the history of the manor, of rent, of the early origins of the community, all included inevitable reference to the peasantry. Historians have addressed rural society and the peasantry in particular through sources generated at the level of the manor and the estate. It is also noteworthy that there has been an important shift in emphasis in terms of sources, and especially a heightened focus upon manorial court rolls as the principal object of study for comprehending peasant society and economy in medieval England. Historians of the medieval English peasantry have, with their predominant focus upon matters economic and structural, abandoned most opportunities for close engagement with literary and artistic sources potentially relevant to the study of medieval peasants.

in Peasants and historians
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Chaucer: validity in interpretation

It would seem that on virtually every aspect of Geoffrey Chaucer's work, his readers are currently assailed by a host of mutually exclusive interpretations and critical approaches. On the one hand, Chaucer is an Augustinian allegorist; on the other, he is sceptical about exegesis as a mode of interpretation and satirises the excesses of moral allegorising. On the one hand, he is a misogynist; on the other, he a defender of women. This book emphasises the ways in which seeing Chaucer in the context of the political issues, social values, generic conventions and literary theory of his own day can help us to understand the meaning of his work. It concludes that what a contextual approach to Chaucer's work reveals, above all else, is that literary texts are nowhere more historical in their nature than when they seek to pass themselves off as timeless and dehistoricised.

in Chaucer in context
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This chapter aims to survey and assess the studies on what might be called literary or reading networks. It focuses on a highly literate group of book owners and writers connected with the household of Sir John Fastolf at Caister Castle, Norfolk. The richness of the information on the Fastolf household and East Anglian culture is well known and may lead to doubts that such an approach to literary and regional networks can be adopted for other lesser known groups and areas. When Raymond Williams stated that 'culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language', he probably did not have 'gentry' and 'networks' in his mind as the other two. The chapter highlights the problematic nature of those three words, separately and in combination.

in Gentry culture in late-medieval England