Introduction to Medieval Literature

Where did it all begin?

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Clipart.com

The term medieval comes from Latin, meaning "middle age." It was originally spelled mediaeval and 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. The time period spans 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 third, fourth, or fifth century of the common era. Most scholars associate the beginning of the period with the collapse of the Roman empire, which began in CE 410. Scholars similarly disagree about when the period ends, such as whether they should 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, though French and Latin were also used, depending on the type of text (law or the church, respectively, for the latter two languages). 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 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 literate people of the time were likely in government or the church, and those making books (and the parchment itself) were often 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" (an hourly devotional) produced by professional artisans and copiers. 

The most common themes in secular medieval literature are courtly love (more on that in a moment), and Arthurian legends. The epic "Beowulf" dates back to approximately the eighth century, though it's not known exactly when it was composed. 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. Also from this time are 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

The term courtly love 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 Troubadours in the Middle Ages

Troubadours 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, troubadours acted as the Netflix of their time. Though few of their songs were ever recorded, troubadours were an important part of the literary culture of the middle ages. 

Other Books

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