Overview
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Art, Literature and Music
Daily Life
Key Personalities

King Arthur (c. 5th-6th century)

Discussion of the Medieval era could not be complete without mention of the legend of King Arthur and his famed Knights of the Round Table. While Arthur was a historical figure, he may not necessarily a king. In fact, it is difficult to trace exactly who the real Arthur was. Many scholars today believe he may have been a brilliant military general whose prominence earned him a respected title among royalty. By some accounts, he became somewhat dull in his older age and allowed his advisors to manipulate him and his wife to betray him. Nevertheless, a multitude of myths and traditions grew up around Arthur. Camelot, King Arthur's town, was introduced to Arthurian legends in the 12th century by a French poet named Chretien De Troyes. It was in this mystical setting that the story of Merlin, The Knights of the Round Table, Lancelot and Guinevere were said to have taken place.


Charlemagne (c. 742-814)

Also known as Charles the Great, Charlemagne was the son of King Pippin the Short and Bertrada of Laon. "By the sword and the cross," Charlemagne became master of Western Europe. He ruled as the king of the Franks from 768 to 814, and king of the Lombards from 774 to 814. In 768, when Charlemagne was 26, he and his younger brother Carloman inherited the kingdom of the Franks. In 771, Carloman died, and Charlemagne became sole ruler of the kingdom. At that time, the Franks were falling back into barbarian ways, neglecting their education and religion. The Saxons of northern Europe were still pagans, and the Roman Catholic Church in the South was asserting its power to recover land confiscated by the Lombard kingdom of Italy. Charlemagne was determined to strengthen his realm and to bring order to Europe. In 772, he launched a 30-year military campaign to accomplish this objective. By 800, Charlemagne was the undisputed ruler of Western Europe. His vast realm encompassed what are now France, Switzerland, Belgium, and The Netherlands. It included half of present-day Italy and Germany, and parts of Austria and Spain. By establishing a central government over Western Europe, Charlemagne restored much of the unity of the old Roman Empire and paved the way for the development of modern Europe.

On Christmas Day in 800, while Charlemagne knelt in prayer in Saint Peter's in Rome, Pope Leo III placed a golden crown on the bowed head of the king. Charlemagne is said to have been surprised by the coronation, declaring that he would not have come into the church had he known the pope's plan. However, some historians say the pope would not have dared to act without Charlemagne's knowledge. In any event, upon his coronation as as Imperator Augustus, Charlemagne is regarded as the founder of the Holy Roman Empire, a reincarnation of the ancient Western Roman Empire.


Richard I (1157-1197)

Richard I ruled as King of England from 1189 to 1199, and is often referred to as Richard the Lionhearted. The third of King Henry II's legitimate sons, Richard was never expected to ascend to the throne. He is generally considered to have been the favorite son of his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, although his family life was generally thought to be contentious. In 1173, he and his brothers joined in a revolt against their father in an attempt to dethrone him. Although Richard was the last of his brothers to hold out against King Henry II, he refused to fight him face to face in the end and humbly begged his pardon. In 1174, after the end of the failed revolt, Richard gave a new oath of subservience to his father.

After his failure to overthrow his father, Richard concentrated on putting down internal revolts by the dissatisfied nobles of Aquitaine, especially the territory of Gascony. The increasing cruelty of his reign led to a major revolt of Gascony in 1183. Richard had a terrible reputation, including reports of various rapes and murders. The rebels hoped to dethrone Richard and asked his brothers to help them succeed. Their father feared that the war between his three sons could lead to the destruction of his kingdom. He led the part of his army that served in his French territories in support of Richard. Henry II's death on June 11, 1183, ended the revolt, and left Richard as the eldest surviving son and the natural heir to the joint thrones of England, Normandy and Anjou.

Richard has been criticized for doing little for England, siphoning the kingdom's resources to support his journeys away on Crusade in the Holy Land. Indeed, he spent only six months of his ten year reign in England, claiming it was "cold and always raining." After his coronation in 1189, Richard immediately prepared for the Third Crusade, inspired by the loss of Jerusalem to the Muslims under the command of Saladin. He raised the taxes to help fund the expedition, and was heard to declare during that time, "If I could have found a buyer I would have sold London itself." Leaving the country in the hands of various officials, Richard was far more concerned with his possessions in what is now France and his battles in Palestine. Afraid that during his absence, the French might usurp his territories, Richard tried to persuade King Philip Augustus of France to join the Crusade as well. Philip agreed and both gave their crusader oaths on the same date, and joined forces in Sicily. He conquered Cyprus on his way to the Holy Land, and the city's wealth helped to increase the Crusade's funds. Richard then joined in the seige of Acre in June 1191. The leaders of the Germans and French quarreled constantly during the siege, and the French and English armies almost came to blows. In July, Arce fell and by August, Philip was back in France.

With Acre secured, Richard marched toward Jerusalem to free it from Muslim sultan Saladin, who had captured the Holy City in 1187. During the march Richard displayed his abilities as a strategist and logistician, moving his allied army of fifty thousand along the coast so that his fleet could parallel the advance and provide resupplies. Enforcing strict discipline, Richard did not allow his soldiers to break rank to pursue small Muslim bands that harassed the formation in an attempt to lure them into ambushes. Richard ignored the harassing Muslims until September 7, when, at a prearranged signal, Richard turned his entire army against Arsuf, killing seven thousand with the loss of only seven hundred. During the following year, Richard and Saladin skirmished, and Richard could not muster enough supplies and water to besiege Jerusalem. Saladin refused to engage in a decisive battle, and in September 1192 the two leaders, who, despite there great differences, had developed a mutual respect, agreed to a three-year truce, with the Crusaders maintaining Acre and a strip of land along the coast. Although the Muslims continued to occupy Jerusalem, Christian visitors had access to their holy shrines in the city.

Late in 1192, when Richard was sailing for home, his ship wrecked near Venice, and he became a prisoner of Leopold of Austria. Leopold held Richard in a series of castles, releasing him only after the payment by the English people, in February 1194, of an enormous ransom of 150,000 marks. After returning home, Richard was crowned for the second time, but he did not remain in England for long. In May, he sailed for Normandy, where, for the next five years, he engaged in minor skirmishes with various enemies that were contesting his crown and territories. Richard's major military accomplishment during this period was to demonstrate his understanding of fortifications and engineering by building the great fort Chateau-Gaillard on an island in the Seine River. In the spring of 1199, Richard besieged the castle of the archbishop of Limoges because the latter refused to turn over a horde of gold discovered by a peasant farmer. During a minor skirmish, Richard, leading his soldiers, as usual, received a wound in the shoulder from a crossbow arrow. Gangrene set in, and Richard died on April 6 at age forty-one.


Kublai Khan (12151294)

Kublai Khan, or "the last of the great Khans", was a Mongol military leader. He was Khan of the Mongol Empire (12601294) as well as the founder and the first Emperor of the Chinese Yuan Dynasty (12791294). Born the second son of Tolui and Sorghaghtani Beki and the grandson of Genghis Khan, he succeeded his brother Mongke in 1260. Kublai developed a new type of control by surrounding himself with a variety of religious advisors. He showed tolerance towards the religions of his new subjects and because of his leniency, a relationship formed between him and his people.

Kublai Khan's transformation from conqueror to ruler led to many developments in Chinese culture. Along with providing religious freedom, he created aid agencies, increased the use of postal stations, established paper currency, reorganized and improved roads, and expanded waterways. Under his rule, the winter capitol was moved from Mongolian territory to the Chinese City of Dadu, which is modern day Beijing. He established the summer capitol in Shangdu, which was referred to as Xanadu. In 1275, Marco Polo, a Venetian explorer, visited Xanadu and a relationship of trust was formed between the two. Polo's reports on Xanadu and China were new to Western Europeans and sparked further interest in eastern world exploration. The Yuan Dynasty failed, unfortunately, with the death of Kublai Khan due to many factors. Kublai's decision to move the capitol to Chinese territory and to install his lavish palace at Xanadu offended his Mongolian advisors. He was torn between establishing a stable country and following the traditional nomadic ways of his people. Kublai was eventually synicized and his Mongolian influenced government battled between their ways and the demands of the Chinese. The division in the government and frustrations of the Chinese people were not the only reasons for his downfall. Kublai sought expansionism to appease his frustrated Mongolian advisors and sought after Java and Japan. His attempts failed and cost his government extensive amounts of money. The paper currency he created caused inflation and continual conflicts between disgruntled religious groups arose in the mixed society he fostered. In 1281, the deaths of Kublai's favorite wife and the throne's next heir sent him into depression. Consequently, with a declining government in his hands and an ache in his heart, Kublai became an obese drunkard and died at the age of 79. Regardless of Kublai Khan's demise, the Yuan Dynasty made a lasting impact on China and established the legacy of The Great Khan.


Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400)

The known facts of writer Geoffrey Chaucer's life are fragmentary and are based almost entirely on official records. He was born in London between 1340 and 1344, the son of John Chaucer, a vintner. In 1357, he worked as a page in the household of Prince Lionel, later duke of Clarence, whom he served for many years. In 1359 through 1360, he served in the army of Edward III in France, where he was captured by the French but ransomed. By 1366, he had married Philippa Roet, who was probably the sister of John of Gaunt's third wife; she was a lady-in-waiting to Edward III's queen. During the years 1370 to 1378, Chaucer was frequently employed on diplomatic missions to the Continent, visiting Italy in 13721373 and in 1378. From 1374 onward, he held a number of official positions, among them comptroller of customs on furs, skins, and hides for the port of London (1374-1386) and clerk of the king's works (1389-1391). The official date of Chaucer's death is October 25, 1400. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Chaucer's literary activity is often divided into three periods. The first period includes his early work (to 1370), which is based largely on French models, especially the "Roman de la Rose" and the poems of Guillaume de Machaut. Chaucer's chief works during this time are the "Book of the Duchess," an allegorical lament written in 1369 on the death of Blanche, wife of John of Gaunt, and a partial translation of the "Roman de la Rose." Chaucer's second period (up to c. 1387) is called his Italian period, because during this time his works were modeled primarily on Dante and Boccaccio. Major works of the second period include "The House of Fame," recounting the adventures of Aeneas after the fall of Troy; The Parliament of Fowls, which tells of the mating of fowls on St. Valentine's Day and is thought to celebrate the betrothal of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia; and a prose translation of Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae. Also among the works of this period are the unfinished "Legend of Good Women," a poem telling of nine classical heroines, which introduced the heroic couplet (two rhyming lines of iambic pentameter) into English verse; the prose fragment "The Treatise on the Astrolabe," written for his son Lewis; and "Troilus and Criseyde," based on Boccaccio's "Filostrato," one of the great love poems in the English language. In "Troilus and Criseyde," Chaucer perfected the seven-line stanza later called "rhyme royal."

To Chaucer's final period, in which he achieved his fullest artistic power, belongs his masterpiece, "The Canterbury Tales," written mostly after 1387. This unfinished poem, about 17,000 lines, is one of the most brilliant works in all literature. The poem introduces a group of pilgrims journeying from London to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury. To help pass the time, they decide to tell stories. Together, the pilgrims represent a wide cross section of 14th-century English life. The pilgrims' tales include a variety of medieval genres from the humorous fabliau to the serious homily, and they vividly indicate medieval attitudes and customs in such areas as love, marriage, and religion. Through Chaucer's superb powers of characterization the pilgrims (such as the earthy wife of Bath, the gentle knight, the worldly prioress, the evil summoner) come intensely alive. Chaucer was a master storyteller and craftsman, but because of a change in the language after 1400, his metrical technique was not fully appreciated until the 18th century. Only in Scotland in the 15th and 16th centuries, did his imitators understand his versification.


Joan of Arc (1412-1431)

Joan of Arc was a national heroine who turned the tide of the Hundred Years War in France's favour. She was the daughter of a Domremy farmer, Jacques d'Arc, and his wife Isabella Devouthen. Joan was a pious child and had her first vision when she was 13. She claimed that she heard the voice of God in her father's garden, and over the next five years was approached by St. Catherine, Margaret and Micheal the Archangel. During her childhood, Northern France was occupied by Henry VI and his armies. The voices that she claimed to hear commanded her to liberate Rheims, the traditional site for coronations, so that the Dauphin Charles (later King Charles VII) could be crowned.

The English laid seige to Orleans in 1429, which promted Joan to seek an urgent audience with Charles. She met privately with Charles at the age of 16 for two hours. She told Charles that she was God's messanger and that as the king's son, he was the true heir to the French throne. Her claims were certified by the board of Roman Catholic Church theologians, and she was sent to Tours to assemble an army. She arrived dressed in white armor and carring a sword emblazoned with five crosses and a banner with a painting of the king of heaven holding an orb and the motto, "Jesus Maria". Troups entered Orleans on April 30 and stormed the Bastille of Augustines, where they captured Tourelles. It was there that Joan planted the first scaling ladder and was wounded in the shoulder. Joan participated in several swift victories which led to Charles VII's coronation at Rheims and settled the disputed succession to the throne. She later stood by Charles' side as the Maid of Orleans crowned him king. Joan herself was enobled on recognition of what she had done for her country by following successful routes of the British.

The renewed French confidence outlasted Joan of Arc's own brief career. She refused to leave the field when she was wounded during an attempt to recapture Paris that fall. Hampered by court intrigues, she led only minor companies from then on, and fell prisoner during a skirmish near Compiegne the following spring. The English wanted to destroy her influence and discredit Charles. Joan was turned over to a court in Rouen for trial in January, 1431. The interrogation lasted for 14 months and a politically motivated court found her Joan guilty of twelve counts: her visions had been faked, her use of masculine dress had been censured, and, the most damning of all, her belief that she was directly responsible to God, not the church, was condemned as heresy. The English regent, John, Duke of Bedford, had her burnt at the stake in the Old Market Square in Rouen. At her execution, she gazed intently at the cross she held in her hands as she was burned and cried out, "Jesus", as the flames engulfed her.

Some twenty-four years later, Pope Callixtus III reopened Joan of Arc's case, a new finding overturned the original conviction. The judgment that caused her death was annuled in 1456 and Joan was canonized by Pope Benedict in 1920. She is now honored as a patron saint of France. Joan of Arc has remained an important figure in Western culture. From Napoleon to the present, French politicians of all leanings have invoked her memory. Major writers and composers, including Shakespeare, Voltaire, Schiller, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Twain, Shaw, and Brecht, have created works about her, and depictions of her continue to be prevalent in film, television, and song.