La Chanson de Roland (the Song of Roland) remains one of the most studied medieval epic poems. This is the story of Roland, nephew to Charlemagne, King of France. The army is dispatched to Spain to fight invading Moors in a quasi-crusade. As the victorious French army heads home, Roland, bringing up the rear, is attacked. He had been given a horn to sound in time of desperation, but he blows this horn too late for help to arrive. While the poem is far from historical truth, this tale remains one of the great examples of early French literature.
One of the greatest works in all of literature was penned in Italy during the Middle Ages. Dante Alighieri finished his La Divina Commedia (the Divine Comedy) in 1321. The first of the three volumes, the Inferno, is probably the best known and describes the afterlife for the wicked, where hell is comprised of nine descending circles and there is no forgiveness. The Ninth and lowest circle was reserved for Satan and betrayers of benefactors, kin, and country. Purgatorio and Paradiso, the remaining volumes of La Divina Commedia, continue Dante's journey through more of the afterlife.
Medieval England thrilled to the adventures of King Arthur and his knights. This king, who supposedly grew up near Cornwall, led his armies in battles against the Angles and Saxons. He called his warriors knights, hundreds of years before codes of chivalry would make this word commonplace. The first stories about Arthur were actually penned in French in a work called "La Morte d'Arthur" (the Death of Arthur).
Scribes were responsible for creating much of the printed material during the Middle Ages. Some began experimenting with ways to make books easier to reproduce, and eliminate human errors made in the copying process.
Medieval craftsmen, using ideas borrowed from the Chinese, carved entire scenes and stories into page-sized wooden blocks. These "block books" were much cheaper to make than hand-copied versions, and they became very popular. One of the best-known block books was the Biblia Paupernum (Bible of the Poor). The problem was, the blocks tended to wear out, and another would have to be carved in its place. These design flaws limited the pages counts of most books.
John Gutenberg, from Mainz, Germany began another experiment in the middle of the 15th century that would change the course of human history. His idea was to create individual letter blocks that could be organized to form a page, then re-used on another completely different page. He ran into problems right away.
Gutenberg's first letter sets were made of wood, and deteriorated much too quickly. Also, inks used for quill pens would not work on his printing press. He tried making the letters out of lead-the metal was too soft. He tried iron-the metal was too hard. He finally decided on creating molds for each, and melted a combination of metals to form the characters. Gutenberg tried inks used by Italian painters, made from lampblack and linseed oil, and finally was close to success. After exhausting his own fortune, Gutenberg enlisted the aid of partners to help him continue the project. He continued for years until 1456, when the first printed Bible was produced. But there was one other important development that made the printing press feasible. Vellum and parchment were fairly expensive, but larger quantities of paper were becoming available. This was another by-product of the Crusades, with Europeans learning this skill from the Arabs-who had learned it from Chinese
Medieval times often evoke images of knights battling on muddy fields, dank and dreary castles, hunger, plagues-in general, a lot of rather depressing scenes… …but these Dark Ages also witnessed the birth of a romantic movement.
Women in the Middle Ages were usually treated as property. While medieval country marriages were often the result of love, marriage among the noble class was more a business transaction than the culmination of ardent feelings. But knights returning from the crusades had learned a few things from their adversaries, who revered their women. Passion was considered sinful to 11th and 12th century moralists, but these ideals were slowly being worn away with the rituals of courtly love.
Secret rituals of Romance developed where women-long the loser in a double standard of adultery condoned among men-found champions who would fight in their honor. Courtly love became the subject of some of the most famous medieval poems, and where we get today's word, "Courtesy."
Medieval ladies found glorification when a knight would select her to be his chosen one. For a knight, this could mean any lady, except his wife. According to the "rules" of courtly love, a knight had to promise to be ardent, secretive, and above all, courteous. No matter how long the love was unrequited, a knight had to be true. Rules evolved-such as chosen women given a ring should wear it "on the little finger of their left hand, and always keep the stone hidden inside her hand." When writing letters, they refrained from using their proper names so their identities could never be revealed. Church leaders were distraught with this new movement, fearing that knights would lose sight of their religious obligations. This stance was softened somewhat, when they learned that some of the best songs of courtly love were being written by monks and nuns. A double standard existed within these rituals as well, for where knights might boast of their chosen lady, women, especially those who were married had to be quite cautious who learned of this relationship. If a man found out he was being cuckolded, he might repudiate his wife, and have the man castrated or executed. Fathers of the women might be exiled and their lands seized.
Romantic stories of courtly love were spread throughout medieval Europe by troubadours and minstrels. The language used by this new poetry was intended to be sung, played on musical instruments brought back from the crusades. This was a new style of expressive writing.
One of the first poems to take a romantic turn was La Chanson de Roland (the Song of Roland) an epic about the nephew of Charlemagne. Battlefield scenes were transformed into those of ideal love.
Arthurian legends brought the tale of Tristan and Iseult. Though no complete copy of this poem, written in French, survived to today, extant German translations made it possible to piece together this poem of overwhelming guilty passions.
Aucassin and Nicolette, written by an unknown author, was one of the first to tell a love story with a happy ending. Aucaussin, son of a noble Provencal count, falls in love with Nicolette, the captive servant and god-daughter of a neighboring nobleman. She later turns out to be the daughter of the King of Carthage-she was a princess.
Le Roman de la Rose (Story of the Rose) was an allegory of a love affair, unusual in that the main characters never appear as real people, but rather as different voices that stand for their qualities. This style was tremendously popular, and dictated a style that would be copied in France and England for two centuries.
Chivalry is the generic term for the knightly system of the Middle Ages and for virtues and qualities it inspired in its followers. The word evolved from terms such as chevalier (French), caballero (Spanish), and cavaliere (Italian), all meaning a warrior who fought on horseback. The term came to mean so much more during medieval times.
Chivalric orders first appeared with military activities against non-Christian states. During the Middle Ages, Western Europe aggressively sought to expand its area of control. The first orders of chivalry were very similar to the monastic orders of the era. Both sought the sanctification of their members through combat against "infidels" and protection of religious pilgrims, and both had commitments that involved the taking of vows and submitting to a regulation of activities.
13th Century conventions of chivalry directed that men should honor, serve, and do nothing to displease ladies and maidens. Knights were members of the noble class socially as bearers of arms, economically as owners of horse and armor, and officially through religious-oriented ceremony. While some were knighted on the battlefield, most spent long years as a squire, practicing the art of war while serving his master. People during the Middle Ages heard of the exploits of knights both mythical and real in epics like La Chanson de Roland and Le Morte D'Arthur.
After the Crusades, knights continued to show their prowess and skills in medieval tournaments.
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