Introduction to Medieval Literature

Where Did it All Begin?

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

The term "medieval" comes from the Latin meaning "middle age." While it was originally spelled mediaeval, the phrase wasn't introduced into English until the 19th century, a time when there was heightened interest in the art, history and thought of the Middle Ages. It refers to the history of Europe during spanning from the fifth to the 15th century.

When Were the Middle Ages?

There is some disagreement about when the Medieval Period started, whether it began in the 3rd, 4th, or 5th century AD.

Most scholars associate the beginning of the period with the collapse of the Roman empire, which began in 410 AD. Scholars similarly disagree about when the period ends, whether they place the end at the start of the 15th century (with the rise of the Renaissance Period), or in 1453 (when Turkish forces captured Constantinople).

Literature of the Middle Ages

The majority of the literature written during the middle ages was written in what is known as "Middle English." Spelling and grammar were inconsistent in these early writing which can make it hard to read. It wasn't until the invention of the printing press that things like spelling began to become standardized. Much of the early literature of this period consists of sermons, prayers, lives of saints, and homilies. The most common themes were religious, courtly love and Authorian legends. Somewhat later than the religious writers, the English secular poets appear.

The figure of King Arthur, an ancient British hero, attracted the attention (and imagination) of these early writers. Arthur first appeared in literature in the Latin "History of the British Kings" (around 1147).

From this period, we see works like "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (c.1350-1400) and "The Pearl" (c.1370), both written by anonymous authors.

We also see the works of Geoffrey Chaucer: "The Book of the Duchess" (1369), "The Parliament of Fowls" (1377-1382), "The House of Fame" (1379-1384), "Troilus and Criseyde" (1382-1385), the very famous "Canterbury Tales" (1387-1400), "The Legend of Good Women" (1384-1386), and "The Complaint of Chaucer to His Empty Purse" (1399).

Courtly Love in the Middle Ages

The term was popularized by writer Gaston Paris to describe the love stories commonly told in the Middle Ages to help the noble class pass the time. It is generally believed that Eleanore of Aquitaine, introduced these types of tales to the British nobility, after hearing them in France. Eleanore used the stories, which were popularized by troubadours, to impart lessons of chivalry to her court. At the time marriages were seen more as business arrangements, courtly love allowed people a way to express the romantic love they were often denied in marriage.

Role of Trubadors in the Middle Ages

Trubadors were traveling composers and performers. They mostly sang songs of courtly love and chivalry. In a time when few could read and books were hard to come by Trubadors acted as the Netflix of their time. While few of their songs were ever recorded troubadours were an important part of the literary culture of the middle ages.