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Medieval literature

Medieval literature is a broad subject, encompassing essentially all written works available in Europe during the Middle Ages (roughly from the fall of the Western Roman Empire ca. 500 AD to the beginning of the Florentine Renaissance in the late 15th century). The literature of this time was dominated by religious writings, including religious poetry as well as theology and hagiography, but also produced important secular and scientific works. It varied from the utterly sacred to the exuberantly profane, touching all points in-between.



Since Latin was the language of the Catholic Church, which dominated Western and Central Europe, and since the Church was virtually the only source of education, most medieval writings are in Latin, even in those parts of Europe that were never romanized. In Eastern Europe, the influence of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Orthodox Church made Greek and Old Church Slavonic the dominant written languages.

The common people continued to use their respective vernaculars, however, and their oral traditions have mostly perished. Only a few examples, such as the Old English Beowulf, the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, and the Old French Chanson de Roland, have survived. Although the extant versions of these epics are generally considered the works of individual (but anonymous) poets, there is no doubt that they are based on the older oral traditions of the Germanic peoples. Celtic traditions have survived in the lais of Marie de France, the Mabinogion and the Arthurian cycles.


A large amount of medieval literature is anonymous. This is not only due to the lack of documents from a period that is often called the Dark Ages, but also due to an interpretation of the author's role that differs considerably from the romantic interpretation of the term in use today. Medieval authors were often overawed by the classical writers and the Church Fathers and tended to re-tell and embellish stories they had heard or read rather than invent new stories. And even when they did, they often claimed to be handing down something from an auctor instead. From this point of view, the names of the individual authors seemed much less important, and therefore many important works were never attributed to any specific person.

Types of writing


As shown in the chart to the right, theological works were the dominant form of expression in the Middle Ages. Catholic clerics were the intellectual center of society in the Middle Ages, and it is their literature that has survived in the greatest number.

Libraries: A Matter of Content - Distribution of theological vs. secular works over time
Libraries: A Matter of Content - Distribution of theological vs. secular works over time

Countless hymns survive from this time period (both liturgical and paraliturgical). The liturgy itself was not in fixed form, and numerous competing missals set out individual conceptions of the order of the mass. Religious scholars such as Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, and Pierre Abélard wrote lengthy theological and philosophical treatises, often attempting to reconcile the teachings of the Greek and Roman pagan authors with the doctrines of the Church. Hagiographies, or "lives of the saints", were also frequently written, as an encouragement to the devout and a warning to others.

The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine reached such popularity that it was reportedly read more often than the Bible. Francis of Assisi was a prolific poet, and his Franciscan followers frequently wrote poetry themselves as an expression of their piety. Dies Irae and Stabat Mater are two of the most powerful Latin poems on religious subjects. Goliardic poetry (four-line stanzas of satiric verse) was an art form used by some clerics to express dissent. The only widespread religious writing that was not produced by clerics were the mystery plays: growing out of simple tableaux re-enactments of a single Biblical scene, each mystery play became its village's expression of the key events in the Bible. The text of these plays was often controlled by local guilds, and mystery plays would be performed regularly on set feast-days, often lasting all day long and into the night.

During the Middle Ages, the Jewish population of Europe also produced a number of outstanding writers. Maimonides, born in Cordoba, Spain, and Rashi, born in Troyes, France, are two of the best-known and most influential of these Jewish authors.


The first page of Beowulf
The first page of Beowulf

Secular literature in this period is comparatively rare but varied. The subject of "courtly love" became important in the 11th century, especially in the Romance languages (in the French, Spanish, Provençal, Galician and Catalan languages, most notably), where the traveling singers -- troubadors -- made a living from their songs. The writings of the troubadors are often associated with unrequited longing, but this is not entirely accurate (see aubade, for instance). In Germany, the Minnesänger continued the tradition of the troubadors.

In addition to epic poems in the Germanic tradition (e.g. Beowulf and Nibelungenlied), epic poems in the tradition of the chanson de geste (e.g. The Song of Roland), which deal with the Matter of France, and courtly romances in the tradition of the roman courtois , which deal with the Matter of Britain and the Matter of Rome achieved great and lasting popularity. The roman courtois is distinguished from the chanson de geste not only by its subject matter, but also by its emphasis on love and chivalry rather than acts of war.

Political poetry was written also, especially towards the end of this period, and the goliardic form saw use by secular writers as well as clerics. Travel literature was highly popular in the Middle Ages, as fantastic accounts of far-off lands (frequently embellished or entirely false) entertained a society that, in most cases, limited people to the area they were born in. (But note the importance of pilgrimages, especially to Santiago de Compostela, in medieval times, also witnessed by the prominence of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.)

Women's literature

While it is true that women in the medieval period were never accorded full equality with men (in fact, misogynist tracts abound, although many sects, such as the Cathars, afforded women greater status and rights), some women were able to use their skill with the written word to gain renown. Religious writing was the easiest avenue--women who would later be beatified as saints frequently published their reflections, revelations, and prayers. Much of what is known about women in the Middle Ages is known from the works of nuns such as Clare of Assisi, Bridget of Sweden, and Catherine of Siena.

Frequently, however, the religious perspectives of women were held to be unorthodox by those in power, and the mystical visions of such authors as Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen provide insight into a part of the medieval experience less comfortable for the institutions that ruled Europe at the time. Women wrote influential texts in the secular realm as well--reflections on courtly love and society by Marie de France and Christine de Pizan continue to be studied for their glimpses of medieval society.


While medieval literature makes use of many literary devices, allegory is so prominent in this period as to deserve special mention. Much of medieval literature relied on allegory to convey the morals the author had in mind while writing--representations of abstract qualities, events, and institutions are thick in much of the literature of this time. Probably the earliest and most influential allegory is the Psychomachia (Battle of Souls) by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius. Other important examples include the Romance of the Rose, Everyman and Piers Plowman.

Notable literature of the period

See also

External links

Last updated: 05-07-2005 13:37:25
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04