Portal:Medieval Britain

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The Medieval Britain Portal

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Viking voyages and settlement

Great Britain during the Middle Ages (from the 5th century withdrawal of Roman forces from the province of Britannia and the Germanic invasions, until the Early modern period) was fragmented into a number of independent kingdoms. By the High Middle Ages, after the end of the Viking Age and the Norman Conquest, the kingdoms of England and Scotland emerge as the main poles of political power.

The medieval period in England can be dated from the arrival in Kent of Anglo-Saxon troops led by the legendary Hengest and Horsa. Subsequently the Brythonic, Celtic powers were conquered by Jutes, Angles and Saxons Germanic tribes, from the contemporary Angeln and Jutland areas of northern Germany and mainland Denmark. Political takeover of other areas of England proceeded piecemeal and was not completed until the tenth century. Similarly, the end of the medieval period is usually dated by the rise of what is often referred to as the "English Renaissance" in the reign of Henry VIII of England, and the Reformation in Scotland, or else to the establishment of a centralized, bureaucratic monarchy by Henry VII of England. From a political point of view, the Norman Conquest of England divides medieval Britain in two distinct phases of cultural and political history. From a linguistic point of view the Norman Conquest had only a limited effect, Old English evolving into Middle English, although the Anglo Norman language would remain the language of those that ruled for two centuries at least, before mingling with Middle English.

At the height of pre-Norman medieval English power, a single English king ruled from the border with Scotland to the border with Wales to the border with Cornwall. After the Norman Conquest, English power intruded into Wales with increasing vigour, but the process of consolidation was continuous and is not just a medieval feature. The other problem with suggesting such a unity is that the various states had relations with Scandinavia and Continental Europe which are excluded by the concept. For example, northern Scotland often had closer ties with Norway and France (see Auld Alliance) than England or Wales in the medieval period, with Orkney and Shetland only becoming part of Scotland in 1471. Southern England, due to its proximity to Normandy, Flanders and Brittany, had closer relations with them than the other regions. (read more . . . )

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The Book of Kells, (folio 292r), circa 800, showing the lavishly decorated text that opens the Gospel of John.

The Book of Kells (Irish: Leabhar Cheanannais) (Dublin, Trinity College Library, MS A. I. (58), sometimes known as the Book of Columba) is an illuminated manuscript that is a masterwork of Western calligraphy and represents the pinnacle of Insular illumination. It is also widely regarded as Ireland's finest national treasure. Transcribed by Celtic monks ca. 800, it contains the four Gospels of the New Testament in Latin, together with various prefatory texts and tables. The text of the Gospels is largely drawn from the Vulgate, although it also includes several passages drawn from the earlier versions of the Bible known as the Vetus Latina. The illustrations and ornamentation of the Book of Kells surpass that of other Insular Gospels in extravagance and complexity. The decoration combines traditional Christian iconography with the ornate swirling motifs typical of Insular art. Figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts together with intricate knotwork and interlacing patterns in vibrant colours enliven the manuscript's pages. Many of these minor decorative elements are imbued with Christian symbolism and so further emphasize the themes of the major illustrations.

The manuscript today comprises 340 folios and since 1953 has been bound in four volumes. The leaves are on high quality calf vellum, and the unprecedentedly elaborate ornamentation that covers them includes ten full-page illustrations and text pages that are vibrant with historiated initials and interlinear miniatures, and mark the furthest extension of the anti-classical and energetic qualities of Insular art. The Insular majuscule script of the text itself appears to be the work of at least three different scribes. The lettering is in iron-gall ink, and the colors used were derived from a wide range of substances, many of which were imports from distant lands. The manuscript takes its name from the abbey in Kells that was its home for centuries. Today it is on permanent display at the library of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. The library usually displays two of the current four volumes at a time, one showing a major illustration and the other showing typical text pages. (Read more...)

Selected biography

Gunhildr and her sons

Gunnhildr konungamóðir (mother of kings) or Gunnhildr Gormsdóttir (c. 910  –  c. 980) was the wife of Erik Bloodaxe (king of Norway 930–34, "king" of Orkney c. 937–54, and king of Jórvík 948–49 and 952–54). Gunnhild is a prominent figure in many Norse sagas, including Fagrskinna, Egil's Saga, Njal's Saga, and Heimskringla. Many of the details of her life are disputed, including her parentage. Gunnhild lived during a time of great change in Norway. Her father-in-law Harald Fairhair had recently united much of Norway under his rule. Shortly after his death, Gunnhild and her husband were overthrown and exiled. She spent much of the rest of her life in exile in Orkney, Jorvik and Denmark. A number of her many children with Erik became co-rulers of Norway in the late tenth century. What details of her life are known come largely from Icelandic sources; because the Icelanders were generally hostile to her and her husband, scholars regard some of the more negative episodes reported in them as suspect.

According to the 12th century Historia Norvegiae, Gunnhild was the daughter of Gorm the Old, king of Denmark, and Erik and Gunnhild met at a feast given by Gorm. Modern scholars have largely accepted this version as accurate. In their view, her marriage with Erik was a dynastic union between two houses, that of the Norwegian Ynglings and that of the early Danish monarchy (who may have claimed descent from Ragnar Lodbrok), in the process of unifying and consolidating their respective countries. Gwyn Jones in particular supported the identification of Gunnhild as the daughter of Gorm, and regarded the stories of her origins in Halogaland and her tutelage by Finnish wizards as part of a general Icelandic hostility towards Gunnhild and Erik. (read more . . . )

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Henry IV

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Iona location of Iona Abbey a focal point for the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland during the middle ages.
Credit: Torsten Henning
Iona location of Iona Abbey a focal point for the spread of Christianity throughout Scotland during the middle ages. (Read more...)

Topics

Early Middle Ages (7th to 11th centuries): England in the Early Middle AgesScotland in the Early Middle Ages, Wales in the Early Middle AgesAnglo-Saxon EnglandViking Age

High Middle Ages (11th to 15th centuries): England in the High Middle AgesScotland in the High Middle AgesWales in the High Middle AgesNorman England (1066-1154) • House of PlantagenetHouse of Dunkeld (1058–1286)House of Balliol (1292–1338)History of the Jews in Medieval England

Late Middle Ages (14th and 15th centuries): England in the Late Middle AgesScotland in the Late Middle AgesWales in the Late Middle AgesHouse of Lancaster (13991471) • House of York (14611485) • House of Bruce (1306–1371) • Transition to Early Modern Britain

Arts: English historians in the Middle AgesMedieval Welsh literatureAnglo-Saxon literatureAnglo-Norman literatureMiddle EnglishMedieval Scottish literatureAnglo-Saxon artViking Art

Conflict: Norman ConquestHundred Year WarWars of Scottish Independence


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