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2. English Society in the Later Middle Ages: Deference, Ambition and Conflict1

S. H. Rigby

Subject Literature » Medieval Literature

Place United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland » England

Period 1000 - 1999 » 1300-1399, 1400-1499

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631219736.2007.00007.x


In trying to understand the meaning and significance of any literary text, particularly one from a culture as alien to modern readers as that of late medieval England, we necessarily have to put that text into some broader context. In recent years, an extremely popular context in which to understand medieval literature has been that of the social structure, social change and social conflict of the period. In this perspective, works of medieval literature come to be seen as social interventions in which the power relations of their time are reinforced or challenged. Literary critics thus ask whether any particular piece of imaginative literature buttresses the contemporary social hierarchy through its reproduction of the dominant ideology of the day, or whether it provides a dissident or questioning voice which challenges orthodox views about class, status and gender inequalities ( Rigby 1996 ). This approach to literature has much to recommend it but one problem is that medieval historians themselves are by no means agreed among themselves as to the nature of English society in the later Middle Ages. As a result, an appeal to historical context may provide a rather insecure foundation on which to build an edifice of literary interpretation. The reality of social inequality in late medieval England and its centrality for the social commentators of the time are points which hardly ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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