Introduction to Medieval Literature

Where did it all begin?

Medieval Literature

Ejla/Getty Images 

The term "medieval" (originally spelled mediaeval) comes from Latin, meaning "middle age." It was first introduced into English in the 19th century, a time when there was heightened interest in the art, history, and thought of Middle Age Europe.

When Were the Middle Ages?

Most scholars associate the beginning of the medieval period with the collapse of the Roman empire, which occurred in 476. Scholars disagree about when the period ends, however. Some place it at the start of the 15th century (with the rise of the Renaissance Period), in 1453 (when Turkish forces captured Constantinople), or in 1492 (Christopher Columbus' first voyage to the Americas).

Books in the Medieval Period

The majority of books from the middle ages were written in what is known as Middle English, though French and Latin were also used for law and the church, respectively. Spelling and grammar were inconsistent in these early writings, which can make them hard to read; it wasn't until the invention of the printing press in 1410 that spelling began to be standardized.

The literate people of the time were likely in either government or the church. Books (and the parchment itself) were often made by monks, and it was a time- and labor-intensive process. Everything was done by hand, making books very expensive to produce. So, even if a medieval London merchant could read, a personal library of handmade books would have been out of his price range. However, as the middle class grew and literacy expanded in the later middle ages, people might have owned a book of hours (prayer book) produced by professional artisans and copiers.

Literature in the Medieval Period

Much of the early literature of this period consists of sermons, prayers, lives of saints, and homilies. In secular medieval literature, 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.

Included in this period is the epic "Beowulf," which dates back to approximately the eighth century. We also see works like "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" (c.1350–1400) and "The Pearl" (c.1370), both written by anonymous authors. Geoffrey Chaucer's work falls into this period as well: "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).

Another common theme in medieval literature is courtly love. The term "courtly love" was popularized by writer Gaston Paris to describe the Medieval love stories commonly told to help the noble class pass 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 only as business arrangements, so courtly love allowed people a way to express the romantic love they were often denied in marriage.

Troubadours in the Middle Ages

Troubadours were traveling composers and performers. They mostly sang songs and recited poems of courtly love and chivalry. In a time when few could read and books were hard to come by, troubadours played an important role in the spread of literature throughout Europe. Though few of their songs were ever recorded, troubadours helped shape the literary culture of the middle ages. 

Other Books

Other books produced during this time were law books, calligraphy model books, and scientific texts.