literature in medieval Europe From: Encyclopedia of Society and Culture in the Medieval World.

The medieval era traditionally starts with the fall of Rome to Theodoric (r. 474–526), king of the Ostrogoths, in 476 CE and ends with the fall of Istanbul to the Turks in 1453. This represents almost 1,000 years of literature to take into account, when usually literary periods or fashions are envisioned on a much smaller scale. The situation is complicated by the linguistic picture of the Middle Ages. It may be described as a kind of generalized bilingualism, with Latin as the medium for philosophy, theology, and all serious matters and various vernacular languages (languages of the common people) for less-weighty literature. Manuscripts and Books The conditions for the production and diffusion of books were drastically different from those in the modern period. The first printed books date back to the last two decades of the 15th century. Before that time there were only manuscripts. Manuscripts are very expensive and take a long time to copy, so books were few at the best of times. Manuscripts are fragile, too. Very few existing manuscripts are older than the 13th century, although the works contained in some date back to the 12th century or earlier. Furthermore, one cannot be certain that the written version reproduces faithfully the oral version that was sung or played 200 or 300 years earlier. For instance, the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, a Welsh manuscript that dates to the end of the 13th century, transmits stories dating from the ninth or 10th century. Because the written version may be quite different from the original—whether transmitted orally, written in a different dialect, or transcribed at a different stage of linguistic evolution—it is somewhat hazardous to date texts. There was no concept of "copyright" until at least the 14th century, and it was very difficult, without the technical support provided by printing, to make exact copies of long texts. Moreover, the meaning of words changed over time, and scribes may have substituted new expressions for old ones; alternately, they may have provided explanations, or glosses, for facts or ideas that were no longer current or may have added to the original text a passage that seemed fitting. The notion of "author" presents similar problems. Many texts are simply anonymous because there was no centralized system preoccupied with remembering the identities of those who wrote them. What mattered was not the name of the person who composed a text but the authority that could be invoked to give weight to the work. In some cases a text was attributed to a much earlier and respected author; conversely, an older text may have been adopted by a contemporary writer who considered it no problem to erase the original author's name and substitute his own. Furthermore, numerous authors used pseudonyms, relying heavily on puns and word games. The existence and quality of manuscripts depended on the scribes who copied them; for a long time these scribes were almost exclusively clerics, who considered only Latin a respectable language and only religious matters worthy of being written down. Many antique texts were lost during the Middle Ages, some forever and others to be recovered at the dawn of the Renaissance.

Thomas Aquinas (1225–74). often borrowed from antique tradition. or summae. 1225–70). or history. the sciences. and science. however. The linguistic and philosophical theory of the four meanings of the scriptures (a belief among medieval scholars that each biblical verse had four meanings). These came to represent a body of popular wisdom that got translated into the vernacular languages. The texts themselves very often address this issue. and bishops were prone to use fables. such books are called in Latin specula. which plays on the complementary literal and secondary meanings of an apparently straightforward love story. using various words to describe what they are. Priests.Many new texts were not considered valuable enough to be copied and collected by the aristocracy. underwent such changes that they barely can be considered as the same anymore. sometimes as part of a larger allegorical construct. but the encyclopedic trend spread to vernacular texts and even to romances like the Lancelot-Grail. enlarged to secular pursuits. Criteria that have been honed during the last two centuries do not necessarily apply to medieval productions. like romance literature. Some medieval genres disappeared by the end of the 15th century or even earlier. modern categories defining certain types of literary works simply cannot cover the medieval corpus. Similarly. called exempla. Peter Abelard (1079–ca. 1220–92). Allegory also was present in the important body of literary visions or dreams describing the Christian afterlife. While there were attempts to translate the Bible into vernacular beginning around the fourth century—Bishop Ulfilas (ca. influenced such works as the Roman de la rose (Romance of the Rose. or brief anecdotes with a moral point. 955–ca. Although predication (preaching) long had been done in the various vernaculars of any Christian audience. From the ninth-century Navigatio sancti Brendani (The Voyage of Saint Brendan) to the 14th-century Divina commedia (Divine Comedy) by Dante (1265–1321). Religious Literature Throughout the medieval era Latin remained the primary literary language of philosophy. 1144). These authors included Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033 or 1034–1109). 382) produced a Gothic version of it. and Roger Bacon (ca. the common language for moral teachings and edification remained Latin. a series of volumes describing the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere and the search for the Holy Grail. abbots. Many of them were written in Latin. such as Thomas Aquinas's Summa theologica (Summary of Theology. it is difficult to establish a clear-cut typology. In the 13th century arose an encyclopedic ambition to charter the whole world. and the Anglo-Saxon abbot Aelfric (ca. Archaeologists must take into account a considerable attrition rate in trying to estimate the popularity of a text on the basis of remaining manuscripts. 311–ca. Whether in theology. 1010) translated the book of Genesis into Old English—the famous theologians of the Middle Ages wrote their treatises in Latin. . "sums" of knowledge. scholars tried to gather all the information pertaining to a subject in one work. 1265–74). vivid descriptions of hell and purgatory (less so of heaven) bore testimony to the eschatological preoccupations of medieval Europeans. Others. theology. "mirrors" of the world.

a ninth-century telling of Christ's life. French farces.Apart from predication. This ambitious work soon was translated into various vernacular languages. ca. Meanwhile. Reenactments of scriptural events (called plays in English. and the eighthcentury Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People). mainly because those who took it upon themselves to write a chronicle of past or contemporary events were almost always clerics. the French poet Raoul de Houdenc (fl. by the theologian known as the Venerable Bede (672 or 673–735). which are prime samples of allegorical musings. ca. were spectacular affairs striving to give a global rendition of scriptural history. although most of them preserved a strong religious component. by the Frankish bishop Gregory of Tours (538–94). Some monks painstakingly gave an account of the entirety of world history starting with the fall of Adam and ending with the dealings of their own abbey and its secular neighbors. to the 12th-century Gesta Danorum (Deeds of the Danes). Religious pageants seem to have stemmed directly from an effort to make the Holy Scriptures understandable to the people. Similarly. During the 14th and 15th centuries the large mystery plays. (Sometimes the linguistic choice was reinforced by the literary style. by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus (ca. such as the Cantilène de Sainte Eulalie (The Cantilena of Saint Eulalie). 1200–30) wrote both Le songe d'enfer (The Dream of Hell) an allegorical vision of a pilgrim's journey to hell. The anonymous author of Pearl. such as La farce de Maître Pierre Pathelin (The Farce of Master Pierre Pathelin. with the growing handicap that the people attending mass did not understand the language. The so-called legends of the saints were edifying tales that were meant to be read during mealtime in an abbey. in the first half of the 13th century. one of the most famous Arthurian romances in Middle English. In fact. which were commentaries to specific books of the Bible. 1150–after 1216). The tradition of Latin hagiography continued until the end of the Middle Ages. were not even remotely religious. encompassing secular and even farcical elements. while most Latin chronicles are in prose. jeux in French. an Arthurian verse romance. a late-ninth-century biography. Historic Literature Latin was the language of historiography until at least the 12th century. by the English historian . and the Old German Heliand (Savior). and La vengeance Raguidel (The Vengeance of Raguidel). which engaged a whole population for several days. Religious and secular literature was not mutually exclusive. 1470). Loosely in the same category are the moralized Bibles.) This tradition was maintained for a long time. from the sixth-century Historia Francorum (History of the Franks). Even earlier. a secular theater emancipated itself from any religious influence: Middle German Fastnachtspiele (Carnival plays) were presented during the festival of Carnival preceding Lent but were hardly related to the liturgy. numerous vernacular chronicles are in verse. and the 13th-century Chronica majora (Major Chronicles). Latin was the language of everyday liturgy. the most famous example was the huge Legenda aurea (Golden Legend) in which the Dominican brother Jacobus de Voragine (1228 or 1230–98) gathered all the hagiographic material pertaining to the saints honored during the Christian year. also wrote the 14th-century works Cleanness and Patience. several of the first vernacular literary texts are religious. and Spiele in German) took place outside the church.

sometimes. is more about the fundamental conflict between good and evil. however. ca. The Middle High German Niebelungenlied (Song of the Niebelungs. and the Old Norse sagas tell of seafaring expeditions and feuds between landed families in Norway and Iceland. represented by monsters and dragons the civilizing hero must conquer. 1150–1213). he then proceeds. French). His book was greatly successful. the Old Spanish Cantar de mio Cid (Song of the Cid. a descendent of the Trojan hero Aeneas. 700–1000). generation after generation. 1179–1223) of France. 1259). also known as Nuremberg Chronicle) by Hartmann Schedel (1440–1514). 12th century) borrows the material of thinly Christianized pagan legends. Wace's octosyllabic text clearly refers to elements of a nonhistorical. 1155–60) by Wace (ca. not the least being the invention of King Arthur's legendary Round Table. The epic is another genre that may be difficult to distinguish from either a historical work or a romance. from the 12th-century Kaiserchronik (The Book of Kings) to the 15th-century Weltchronik (World Chronicle. by the English bishop Geoffrey of Monmouth (ca. Geoffrey goes back to the Trojan War to introduce the founder of Britain. Two verse translations of his work were written in vernacular languages: the Anglo-Norman Roman de Brut (Romance of Brutus. until he comes to the modern period. The Old English Beowulf (ca. 1100–54). written down in 1207) and the Old French Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland. though perhaps less as a truthful historical account of past events than as a tool of political propaganda. 1090) offer a polarized vision of the world where Christians are right and pagans are wrong. Among the first written works of the Middle Ages appear a number of so-called heroic poems that tell of the prowess of some larger-than-life characters and of the wars fought by Christians against enemies of faith. the turning point happening during the reign of King Philip II (r. and the other by Robert de Clari. perhaps oral tradition concerning King Arthur. Brutus. 1447–1511) later presented it at the end of the 15th century in his Mémoires (Memoirs). one of the knights who went to fight for the freedom of the Holy Land and ended up besieging Constantinople. Both translations introduce numerous modifications in Geoffrey's storyline. This tendency is especially illustrated by the two Conquêtes de Constantinople (Conquests of Constantinople). Romance and Epic Literature At times it is difficult to identify a work as either history or romance. Most vernacular chronicles date to the late 13th or 14th century. the language begins as Latin but ends in a vernacular (here.Matthew Paris (d. ca. Perhaps the most famous instance of this ambiguity is found in the Historia regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). In this manner he was the first writer to coherently organize scattered annalistic or legendary material pertaining to the great figure of King Arthur. the apologetic tone of Villehardouin foretells the "new history" as Philippe de Commynes (ca. 1200). In effect. as in the case of the mainly anonymous Great Chronicles of Saint Denis. ca. one by Geoffroi de Villehardouin (ca. one of the chiefs of the ill-advised Fourth Crusade (1204). Vernacular chronicles or histories tended to become more secular and to give up offering a summary of the Bible as a foreword to contemporary events. . The Holy German Empire boasts a long tradition of vernacular chronicles. In their turn. 1100–after 1174) and the Middle English Brut by Layamon (fl.

evolved from verse to prose. Eleanor of Aquitaine (ca. was instrumental in the diffusion of what came to be called courtly culture. transmission. During the 12th century new ideas from a whole new culture were imported from southern France and Arabic Spain first into northern France and then to England. 1137–80). One. Courtly romance was a very successful genre in the 12th and 13th centuries. A few decades later they reached Germany and the northern parts of Europe and eventually spread throughout western Europe and beyond.Most of these epics are anonymous. In literature. however. Little is known about the production. Whether fin'amor and courtly manners ever were more than a parlor game for the aristocracy is debatable. Courtly Literature War songs about great heroes of the Christian faith performing exceptional deeds (gesta in Latin) seem to have catered mainly to a male. In the new game of fin'amor ("perfect love. it was written shortly after the fact by two authors whose perspectives are very different. probably intended mainly for feminine audiences. the Canso de la Crozada (Song of the Crusade) in Old Provençal. however. the queen of France and then. originally among the great lords of Provence and Aquitania and later at the courts of Blois and Champagne. It encompassed a number of topics. the individual epics were organized in cycles. some focus on more contemporary characters or events. While most French and Italian epics revolve around the figure of Charlemagne. After they were put into writing. war-oriented. It implemented a new set of values that were more refined than the feudal ones and often at odds with the teachings of the church. where Eleanor's daughters by her first husband had married powerful counts whose courts rivaled the royal courts in Paris or London. and evolved toward romance or chronicle. they were the ladies for whom the knights would accomplish great deeds." often roughly translated as "courtly love") women were the dominant figures. or songs. There are some chansons de geste (songs or tales about heroic deeds) about the historical Crusades. 1122–1204). were written down either by clerics intent on gathering these testimonies of popular faith or by literate performers interested in building a repertory of works. included short lays. develop the tenets of this new ideology. Although the modern reader would not consider these epics trustworthy sources for historical information. and remained characterized by the association of weaponry and love (arma et amor) along with a very un-Christian acknowledgment of adultery or a secret relationship between a lady and her knight. such as the French William of Orange cycle. or ballads. or works grouped according to theme. is about the early-13th-century crusade against the Cathar sect in southern France. queen of England as wife to Henry II (r. a large number of texts. at a later date in the medieval era many of these texts were rewritten in updated language and presented as chronicles. after her divorce from King Louis VII (r. The Three "Matters" . the manuscripts that preserve them represent probably the last stage of a prolonged creative process wherein cantilenas. In many respects. as well as huge narratives. Women were given a more important place in this new system. feudal audience. This culture was indeed found at court. and performance of these songs. 1154–89).

12th century) and Gottfried von Strassburg (fl. 1220–97) and the anonymous Prose Tristan. when its fashion began to wane on the Continent. The Champenois writer Chrétien de Troyes (fl. Oral tales probably were told first by itinerant minstrels and later evolved into short poems and then romances. The richest and most famous topic is the "matter of Britain. 1220). On the comical side. The doomed love story of Tristan and Isolde was widely read in the 12th and 13th centuries. the 13th century brought the development of the fabliaux. and many humanists enjoyed the freedom of . This tradition continued deep into the 16th century. 1210). in narrative literature. and the knights of the Round Table associated with the Grail in huge romance cycles that came to include Tristan and Isolde and even Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE). 1349). soon to be the Holy Grail. 1167–1210) identifies three "matters. starting with the Italian Trecento. a new couple of courtly lovers: Lancelot of the Lake and Queen Guinevere. The "matter of Rome" deals with stories borrowed from antiquity. but the whole story was translated and adapted several times into Middle English during the 14th and 15th centuries. in Middle High German by Eilhart von Oberge (fl. but Sir Thomas Malory (fl. whose love was to become the core of the huge 13th-century Prose Lancelot." or main topics. 1170–ca. is one of the first. a new fashion appeared: the collection of short stories. the Tristan and Isolde legend. He created. The three "matters" do not cover the whole range of narrative texts during the golden age of medieval literature (roughly 1150 to 1470). the Grail. Arthurian literature was primarily French until the end of the 13th century. and the Arthurian tales. Despite the obviously British origin of the Arthurian material. in Middle English (Sit Tristrem). King Arthur. who was presented as an ancestor to Arthur.In a French polygraph from the late 12th century the poet Jehan Bodel (ca. Among the many versions are ones in Old French by Béroul and Thomas of Erceldoune (fl. 1386–1400) of Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. by Giovanni Boccacio (1313–75). and in Old Norse (Tristrams saga ok Isøndar). as a response to the not-quite-courtly Tristan-and-Isolde story. The famous early14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight develops an original motive. Germany showed little interest in King Arthur and his entourage. 1145–before 1210). cannot be restricted to specific categories. 1470) gives in his Morte d'Arthur (Death of Arthur) the definitive version of the legend that was remembered into the modern period. the writings of the ancient Greek writers Homer (eighth or ninth century BCE) and Virgil (70–19 BCE) are the models of various medieval romances. Merlin. At the end of the Middle Ages. such as the Old French Roman d'Eneas (Romance of Aeneas) and Roman de Troie (Romance of Troy) and the Middle High German Eneit (Aeneas) by Heinrich von Veldeke (ca. These were organized loosely under various headings: Decameron (ca. followed by the Canterbury Tales (ca. With the notable exception of Parzival. by Wolfram von Eschenbach (ca. The "matter of France" describes factual epics about Charlemagne and the Crusades." which regroups stories about fairy lovers (both male and female). short texts exploiting sexual and scatological motives and taking the counterpoint to courtly ideals. in verse or in prose. 1170) was the first to compose Arthurian romances. 1342–1400) and the 15th-century Middle French Cent nouvelles nouvelles (One Hundred New Tales). many romances or short stories. Chrétien was also the "inventor" of one of the most enigmatic and fascinating literary objects ever created.

1230). ca. 1270–84) of Alfonso X (r. The love expressed in their songs is of necessity adulterous. songs of love for and praise of the Virgin Mary represent an important repertory that later influenced the vernacular languages. The supposedly personal confessions of. Even when the would-be lover and poet is in fact one of the most powerful princes of the time. ca. but the topics and ideology remained the same. This reflected the ideology of courtly love and depicted the poet-singer (trobador) as a lover entirely subservient to the whims of his (usually cruel) lady. Conversely. such as the pleasures of drinking. 1195). in 13th-century Germany. Thibaut IV de Champagne (1201–53). This is the case with Bernard de Ventadour (d. for instance. Religious poetry was dominant. The rise of didactic poetry was facilitated by the separation of music and text as new types of verse. 1200–75). While the courtly ideology lost favor toward the end of the 13th century. it places the woman above her lover and gives her the freedom of choosing whether to yield or to resist his prayers. Political and satirical poetry. 1202–15). 1252–84). for instance. however. Poetry Latin poetry represents an uninterrupted tradition from ancient to medieval times. bloomed during the Hundred Years War (1337– 1453). although modern readers tend to interpret it as the expression of deep and sincere feelings. who was instrumental in importing this type of poetry into the northern courts. Minnesänger ("love singers"). as in the Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs of the Virgin Mary. and wandering freely instead of being confined in a cloister. as in the case of William IX (1071– 1127). the works of Guillaume de Machaut (ca. closer to the rhetorical model than to the lyrical one. ancestors to numerous bon vivant churchmen satirized in various literary productions of the Renaissance. the count of Poitiers and duke of Aquitaine and Gascone. king of Castile and Léon. Ulrich von Lichtenstein (ca. Petrarch (1304–74). William also composed erotic poems that do not fit in the usual frame of fin'amor discourse. There the poets were called troveors or. and Dante (1265–1321) all sang of the joys and pains of love for a perfect and unattainable lady. At the end of the medieval era the theme of courtly love had vanished. Conon de Béthune. Walther von der Vogelweide (ca. love remained an important poetic topic in. 1300–77).familiar conversation among the different narrative voices and the eclectic quality of the material. Lyrical poetry did not disappear with these courtly lovers. became fashionable. considered the greatest of the trobadors. The trobadors developed a sophisticated and refined code of behavior resolutely contrary to the teachings of the church. gambling. François Villon (1431–after . which had begun in the 12th century with the atypical trobador Bertran de Born (d.) Trobador poetry is more formal than passionate. The so-called Goliards were presented as wild monks at odds with church hierarchy. but first-person poetry remained. (In a slightly different genre. and love poetry became a minor trend that was associated with other Epicurean themes. this notion of womanly superiority is maintained. During the first half of the 12th century a new kind of poetry arose in southern France. ca. Other trends also appeared and gradually gained prominence. 1171–ca.

Ancient and Medieval History Online.asp? ItemID=WE49&iPin=ESCMW327&SingleRecord=True (accessed September 18.1463) open the door to modern poetry and. Record URL: http://www. despite the formal changes introduced by the Renaissance. "literature in medieval Europe. http://www.fofweb. Inc. Inc.." In Crabtree.fofweb.asp? ItemID=WE49&iPin=ESCMW327&SingleRecord=True . 2010). Facts On File. Pam J. Text Citation: Berthelot. Anne. Encyclopedia of Society and Culture in the Medieval World. New York: Facts On File. stand in perfect continuity to those of 16th-century poets.

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