Medieval literature  

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"For a century and more, “Go, little book," which we have already noted in John de Hauteville and in Gower, dominates the close of the poems, religious and secular, of the Chaucerian school."--"The Envy Theme in Prologues and Epilogues" (1917) by Frederick Tupper

"About the middle of the present century there began to be a disposition to grant to mediaeval times their proper place in the history of the preservation and dissemination of books, and Merryweather's Bibliomania in the Middle Ages was one of the earliest works in English devoted to the subject."--Bibliomania in the Middle Ages (1900) by Frederick Somner Merryweather

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Medieval literature is a broad subject, encompassing essentially all written works available in Europe and beyond during the Middle Ages (encompassing the one thousand years from the fall of the Western Roman Empire ca. AD 500 to the beginning of the Florentine Renaissance in the late 15th century). The literature of this time was composed of religious writings as well as secular works. Just as in modern literature, it is a complex and rich field of study, from the utterly sacred to the exuberantly profane, touching all points in-between. Because of the wide range of time and place it is difficult to speak in general terms without oversimplification, and thus the literature is best characterized by its place of origin and/or language, as well as its genre.

It follows classical literature and precedes movable type.



A notable amount of medieval literature is anonymous. This is not only due to the lack of documents from a period, 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.

Medieval satire

Medieval satire

In the Early Middle Ages, examples of satire were the songs by goliards or vagants now best known as an anthology called Carmina Burana and made famous as texts of a composition by the 20th century composer Carl Orff. Satirical poetry is believed to have been popular, although little has survived. With the advent of the High Middle Ages and the birth of modern vernacular literature in the 12th century, it began to be used again, most notably by Chaucer. The disrespectful manner was considered "Unchristian" and ignored but for the moral satire, which mocked misbehaviour in Christian terms. Examples are Livre des Manières (~1170), and in some of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The epos was mocked, and even the feudal society, but there was hardly a general interest in the genre.

During Renaissance lived the two major satirists of the Medieval Europe, Giovanni Boccaccio and François Rabelais. Other examples, part of the Renaissance reawakening of Roman literary traditions, were the satires Till Eulenspiegel and Reynard the Fox were published, and also in Sebastian Brant's Narrenschiff (1494), Erasmus' Moriae Encomium (1509) and Thomas More's Utopia (1516).

Chivalric romance

Chivalric romance: In the later medieval and early Renaissance period, there was an important European trend towards fantastic fiction. Works such as Le Morte d'Arthur (1485) and Amadis of Gaul (eC14) spawned a large number of imitators. By 1600, the poor quality of many of the romances had led to them being seen as harmful distractions. Don Quixote is the story of an elderly man driven insane by reading too many romances of chivalry.

Women's literature

antifeminism in Medieval literature

While it is true that women in the medieval period were never accorded full equality with men (although some 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 canonized 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.

The fantastique

The fantastique was virtually defined in the Middle Ages. This was a time when the supernatural was perceived as something to be avoided, but not unbelievable. The old Celtic, Frankish and Germanic myths were translated from religion (implying belief and worship) into popular folklore (implying belief but not worship). At first, the Catholic Church allowed the telling of the stories as stories. As time went by, the people's practice of worship came to be more closely associated with Christian tradition and less with pagan tradition. In many cases, one prominent example being the Arthurian Romances, this practice is reflected in the telling of the stories, which were also purposefully altered to incorporate Christian tradition as time went by.

The root of modern thought about and artistic depiction of many things which are today often termed 'supernatural' (such as angels, demons, fairies, witches, et cetera) has its beginnings in the period often called the Middle Ages. Concepts and characters such as Melusine, Harlequin, Oberon, Morgan Le Fay, et cetera, were first given their definitive shapes at this time.

Significant contributions of the times include:


Secular literature in this period was not produced in equal quantity as religious literature, but much has survived and we possess today a rich corpus. The subject of "courtly love" became important in the 11th century, especially in the Romance languages (in the French, Spanish, Provençal, Galician-Portuguese and Catalan languages, most notably) and Greek, where the traveling singers—troubadours—made a living from their songs. The writings of the troubadours 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 troubadours.

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 & Digenis Acritas) which deal with the Matter of France and the Acritic songs respectively, 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 in which they were born. (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.)

Vernacular literature

One of the features of the renaissance and renaissance literature which marked the end of the medieval period is the rise in the use of the vernacular or the language of the common people for literature (as opposed to Latin). The compositions in these local languages were often about the legends and history of the areas in which they were written which gave the people some form of national identity. Epic poems, sagas, chansons de geste and acritic songs (songs of heroic deeds) were often about the great men, real or imagined, and their achievements like Arthur, Charlemagne and El Cid.

The earliest recorded European vernacular literature is that written in the Irish language. Given that Ireland had escaped absorption into the Roman empire, this had time to develop into a highly sophisticated literature with well-documented formal rules and highly organised Bardic schools. The result was a large body of prose and verse recording the ancient myths and sagas of the Gaelic-speaking people of the island, as well as poems on religious, political and geographical themes and a body of nature poetry.

The formality which Latin had gained through its long written history was often not present in the vernaculars which began producing poetry, and so new techniques and structures emerged, often derived from oral literature. This is particularly noticeable in the Germanic languages, which, unlike the Romance languages, are not direct descendants from Latin. Alliterative verse, where many of the stressed words in each line start with the same sound, was often used in the local poetry of that time. Other features of vernacular poetry of this time include kennings, internal rhyme, and slant rhyme. Indeed Latin poetry traditionally used meter rather than rhyme and only began to adopt rhyme after being influenced by these new poems.

Farces, sotternies, fabliaux, kluchten, boerdes and contes en vers

Medieval forms of literature such as lais, farces, sotternies, fabliaux, kluchten, boerdes and contes en vers have fed Boccaccio's The Decameron, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Queen Navarre's Heptameron like jokes permeate culture and the collective unconscious.

The birth of Western literature starts with the -- often bawdy -- Italian novella framed by a larger tale, see frame tale.

Notable literature of the period

Specific articles

By region or language

By genre

By period

See also

See medieval vernacular literature, bestiary, speculum literature, manuscript culture, Medieval and Renaissance bestsellers

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Medieval literature" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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