I apologize for all the mistakes I might make in this. English is not my first language and I'm neither an expert for English Literature nor for British History. Please correct me if you find any mistakes. The info I use mostly comes from lectures and seminars I have taken as well as some books, most of which are in German. I also apologize if this has been done elsewhere - I don't want to steal anything.
I hope I can give in an insight into Medieval History - it truly is fascinating. I don't want to scare you off, so just a short introduction post for now...
I. The Middle Ages and what we see in them
When we think of the Middle Ages, there are two pretty different things immediately coming to our minds - the Dark Ages, where everything was dirty and a bit barbaric, and the image of brave knights fighting to rescue princesses (*cough* manservants *cough*) or having epic jousts. The reasons for this is that our perception of the Middle Ages is heavily influenced by the perceptions our ancestors had. To explain this we first have to look at the concept of periodization which gives us the concept of a "Middle Age".
Periodization means the division of history in smaller bits for easier use. The most common one is the distinction between ancient, medieval and modern history; the borders between them are blurry because change is always gradual. In spite of that most transitions are marked by events. The events that frame the Middle Ages are the fall of the Western Roman Empire at about 500 AD (we come back to that next time) and some rapid changes at about 1500 AD. At that time Columbus discovered America, Gutenberg invented movable type printing and protestants started to challenge the Roman Catholic Church. New ideas took hold and the Renaissance ("rebirth") movement took hold. People started to look back to the Romans and admired them for their technical skills and their knowledge, much of which had been lost in the last thousand years or so. They started to call those years the "Middle Ages", wedged between ancient glory and the rebirth of said glory. And yeah, some of this is true. The Romans were amazing people in some regards, even Monty Python has recognized this.
However not everything in the Middle Ages was bad - they invented the three-field crop rotation and universities for example - but that 16th century attitude is what formed our picture of the Dark Ages. Well, the Black Death didn't help much.
Then the 19th century and Romanticism came along. Suddenly old castle ruins and noble knights looked awesome. That was the period Turner painted stuff like this:
But old castles were cold and kind of ugly and mostly in ruins and not at all comfortable to live in, so some of the more well-off people build nicer ones. For the king of Bavaria, it looked like this:
Others took ruins of existing castles and restored them. So this bleak ruin
turned into a beautiful castle:
Which, of course, is awfully familiar.
So in the last hundred years the extremely dramatic and the extremely romantic views of the Middle Ages mixed and formed an image that is a bit skewed. It doesn't help that this period gets a bit looked over in school. Or that Fantasy books and films borrow heavily from the Middle Ages and in turn influence the picture in our head.
And I haven't even started with the fact that knights as we know and see them in Merlin were only around for a part of that thousand years - and certainly not the same part Arthur is supposed to have lived in.
Next time: The Origins of Arthur