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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 639

In 1299, before the turn of the century, Europeans are experiencing religious and social turmoil. People fear the end of the world. Some escape the need to make spiritual and moral decisions by engaging in drunken brawls and orgies. Christians try to expiate their sins in preparation for Judgment Day....

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In 1299, before the turn of the century, Europeans are experiencing religious and social turmoil. People fear the end of the world. Some escape the need to make spiritual and moral decisions by engaging in drunken brawls and orgies. Christians try to expiate their sins in preparation for Judgment Day. Religious leaders like Father Paul think sinners must withdraw from the world, pray and meditate, practice self-denial, and reject temptation while awaiting Doomsday. Father Gregory thinks sinners must "walk away from" sin and guilt by confession, praying for salvation, and doing a penance, such as performing an arduous task or going on a pilgrimage to a religious shrine. Lady Elenor of Ramsay Castle and Sir Thomas Thornham, burdened by personal sins and guilt, take the written confessions of people in Thornham village and go on pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint James at Santiago de Compostela in spiritual preparation for an uncertain future.

The Holy War between Christians and Muslims, called the Crusades, has come to a grinding halt after Christian soldiers failed to defeat the Islamic "infidels." Many have returned home wounded and sick at heart. Other armed soldiers, after joining ranks and becoming mercenaries, are roaming Europe like bandits, killing heretics, seizing property, raping, and pillaging. Thomas Thornham returns home from the Crusades disillusioned by the waste of human life and guilt-ridden over his experiences as a mercenary. He confesses to his priest that he is unwilling to perform his expected "duties" as a feudal lord: to obey his father's wishes and marry fourteen-year-old Elenor and to administer the lives of the peasants who live in Ramsay Castle and in nearby Thornham village.

To consolidate property and power, marriages between those of noble rank are arranged by parents or guardians. Very young girls with a title or property are assets to be bargained off to the highest bidder. Many teenage girls marry strangers and later die in childbirth. Elenor's mother died giving birth to her sister, an experience that made Elenor apprehensive about marriage and bearing children. Because Elenor's father, Guerrard Ramsay, could not pay his tax (scutage) to the Earl of Leicester, Sir Robert Thornham paid it and became Lord of Ramsay Castle and Thornham. The two fathers arranged a marriage between six-year-old Elenor and fourteen-year-old Thomas, a union that they thought would unite the interests of the castle fortress with those of the fast-growing village. After Ramsay dies, Sir Robert becomes Elenor's guardian.

Now Elenor is fourteen and Thomas is twenty-two. He thinks she is still a "brat," and she thinks he is still the bully who once locked her in the chicken house. Both are unwilling to honor the marriage contract. Father Gregory advises them to go on a pilgrimage as chaste companions and postpone a decision about marriage. He believes that the act of walking, combined with prayer, helps people resolve emotional and spiritual dilemmas.

By the end of the thirteenth century, the feudal system is in decline. During knights' and vassals' long absences from home, peasants and merchants have become more independent. After all, the labor of their hands and backs provides the necessities of life in a harsh and impoverished world. Many peasant women have assumed tasks usually performed by their absent men. Some have remarried and started new families. Returning Crusaders are neither triumphant nor especially welcome. Peasants no longer need knights for defense. The people of Thornham engage in drunken brawls and orgies to escape their problems, making the situation worse. To absolve their sins and restore order, Father Gregory suggests that Ramsay-Thornham peasants and merchants entrust signed confessions to Elenor and Thomas, who are leaving on pilgrimage. They promise to return with a scallop shell from Santiago de Compostela as proof of the townspeople's absolution. With this symbolic act, they hope to face whatever comes in the new century.

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