1066 and all that: Black Death, burnt cakes and pagans

A handy guide to the Middle Ages before they disappear off the historical map
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The Independent Online
hen the American historian Francis Fukuyama wrote a treatise on the fall of communism and called it The End of History, he was being more prophetic than he knew. For, according to a survey conducted by History Today magazine, history students come to university with little or no general knowledge of their subject outside the 20th century, and a creeping "intellectual inertia" makes them ill-disposed to broaden their knowledge.

It was also revealed last week that one of the examination bodies that sets A-level questions had decided to drop the paper on English history from 300 to 1500AD because of lack of demand. A second examination board said it would be "phasing out history before the Norman Conquest". After an uproar about this blithe dismissal of 600 years of Vikings, monks, Alfred the Great and King Canute, the Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett ordered an investigation into the exam bodies' cavalier decision.

If no one studies the Middle Ages any more, what will happen to them? Will they exist only in a wax museum called "The Pageant of England" or in the pages of The Story of Britain? It's too appalling a prospect to contemplate. So, before they disappear off the map of human knowledge, here is our handy cut-out-and-keep guide to the Middle Ages.

MIDDLE AGES

So-called because they are located in the middle of history, between the ancient Romans and Greeks and the modern era of civil wars, revolutions and e-mail. In fact they lasted just over 1,000 years.

DARK AGES

From the withdrawal of the Romans, summoned home by the Emperor Honorius (410 AD) to the Battle of Hastings. So called because England was overrun by barbarians, craft-making packed up, and trade collapsed. The Anglo- Saxons worshipped pagan deities such as Thor and Freya, and fought over their kingdoms. History has so little to say about the period that King Arthur and Camelot were made up to fill the gap.

RELIGION

Religion was the hot subject. The Celtic Church set about converting the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, with two talented missionaries, St Patrick, who converted the Irish, and St Columba who fetched up on Iona and converted the Scottish Picts. Then St Augustine (not the Confessions chap) was sent from Rome by the Pope to preach the Gospel. He converted King Ethelbert of Kent and was given a bishopric in Canterbury, which became the symbolic home of the English Church. Christianity then flowered all over the place: monks, pilgrimages, cathedrals, scripture, the Venerable Bede, manuscripts and holy relics.

VIKINGS

Antlered, pagan and belligerent Scandinavian farmers and fishermen whose home fields could not produce enough food to support them. Liked rape, plunder and pillage for quasi-religious reasons, conveniently. They settled down on the land they'd invaded, the Danes in England, the Norsemen in Scotland and Ireland. They wiped out all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms bar Wessex, which fought back under its king, who was ...

ALFRED THE GREAT

Precocious youngest son of King Aethelwulf. Keen on Anglo-Saxon poems of warrior bravery. Met Pope Leo IV in Rome when he was four. Defeated the Danes at Edginton in 878. Wessex kingdom expanded to take in southern Anglo-Saxons, plus London. As de facto King of the Anglo-Saxons, he passed laws, translated chronicles and moral tracts, brought scholars into court and built a navy. Saw off Viking invasions with defendable compounds called "burhs".

NORMAN CONQUEST, 14 OCTOBER 1066. 9 AM.

Harold Earl of Wessex was nominated by Edward the Confessor as his heir, though William, Duke of Normandy claimed he was chosen heir. Big fight over succession. Torn between invading Norsemen, Hardrada and Tostig in York, and invading Normans at Pevensey, Harold rushed south and found William at Hastings. Harold had better position on Senlac Hill but threw away advantage, sending army to pursue fleeing Normans on the flat. Hit in eye with arrow, and killed by knight with sword, as per Bayeux Tapestry.

WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR

Nasty piece of work. Had tremendous chip on shoulder about being a tanner's son. When besieging Alencon, he paraded 34 prisoners outside city gates, then chopped off their hands and feet and chucked them over city wall to encourage townspeople to surrender. Put down rebellion in Yorkshire by slaughtering every man and boy, burning houses and killing cattle. Abolished death penalty but directed that malefactors should have eyes gouged out instead.

FIRST CRUSADE

The result of the 12th-century invention of the knight as warrior-gentleman- scholar-lover and all-round good guy. Knights were supposed to be devoted to justice and Mother Church, warlike but decent, takers of prisoners. Many knights shocking bullies but had read stories of the Round Table at Camelot and believed they were gents. Having no war on, united in Crusade to free Holy City of Jerusalem from the infidels. Jerusalem not freed but First Crusade such a success that there were two sequels.

MAGNA CARTA

Wide yellow document presented to King John at Runnymede in 1215 by the barons who were fed up with his arbitrary taxes. The great charter set down laws about how the king should govern his people and what the people could expect in return.

OLDE TYME MEDIEVAL CUISYNE

People ate lots of chicken, bustard and other fowls because forbidden by Church edict from eating "four-footed flesh-meat". Also thrushes, cabbage, salted bacon and sheep's feet, washed down with ale called Dragon's Milk. Rich folk had fantastically sweet tooth, but teeth all fell out of their heads by age of 30.

HUNDRED YEARS' WAR

Lasted 116 years, from 1337 to 1453. Most popular war in English history. England v France. Reasons were disputes over trade, boundaries and who was rightful heir to French crown. Edward III decided he was king of France. Battle of Crecy, then Battle of Poitiers. Jousting tournaments, quests, Holy Grail and duty-free booty. Hero was the Black Prince, Edward's son, real title Prince Edward of Woodstock. Cool or what?

BLACK DEATH

Also known as bubonic plague. Symptoms: orange-sized boil in groin, armpit or neck, black spots on skin, spitting blood. Killed a third of the population in 1349, after two years of mayhem across Europe. Passed on by rat-borne east European fleas jumping from victims on to their nurses, though for years everyone thought it was rats themselves.

JOAN OF ARC

Clairvoyant, mystic, voices-in-my-head French teenager, born Jeanne La Pucelle, was told by angels to free the French from English rule. With fashionable gamine hairstyle and shiny Jean-Paul Gaultier-style man's breastplate, she defeated English at the Siege of Orleans. But captured by perfidious Burgundy army and handed over to British, who found her guilty of witchcraft and burnt her at stake.

WARS OF THE ROSES

The wars began in 1459 and ended in 1485. King Henry 's family were Lancastrians who fought off the throne-hunting York family. Henry Tudor, later Henry VII, beat the crook-backed Richard III (the one who killed the princes in the Tower) at the Battle of Bosworth but married Elizabeth York, thus uniting warring factions under himself. The Tudors brought in the enlightened world: the Reformation, the discovery of America, peace, civilisation, blank verse, the end of the Middle Ages.

Recommended reading: 'The Story of Britain' by Roy Strong; 'The Making of the Middle Ages' by RW Southern; 'The Waning of the Middle Ages' by Johan Huizinga; 'Horrible Histories: the Measly Middle Ages' by Terry Deary.

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