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Education Reference Desk | Online Education Resources for Students and Teachers

Medieval Literature

The Middle Ages saw the beginnings of a rebirth in literature. Early medieval books were painstakingly hand-copied and illustrated by monks. Paper was a rarity, with vellum, made from calf’s skin, and parchment, made from lamb’s skin, were the media of choice for writing. Students learning to write used wooden tablets covered in green or black wax. The greatest number of books during this era were bound with plain wooden boards, or with simple tooled leather for more expensive volumes.

Wandering scholars and poets traveling to the Crusades learned of new writing styles. Courtly Love spawned a new interest in romantic prose. Troubadours sang in medieval courtyards about epic battles involving Roland, Arthur, and Charlemagne. Literature exploded from the universities as scholars began to question convention and write social commentary, as well as poetic fiction.

Language saw further development during the Middle Ages. Capital and lowercase letters were developed with rules for each. Books were treasures, rarely shown openly in a library, but rather, kept safely under lock and key. Finding someone who might loan you a book was a true friend. Some might rent out their books, while others, desperate for cash, might turn to the book as a valuable item to be pawned.


Chapters

  1. 1. Monks
  2. 2. Troubadors
  3. 3. Early Work
  4. 4. Masterpieces
  5. 5. Printing

Monks & Illuminated Texts

Medieval monasteries were the refuges for book copying during the Middle Ages. The burning of the library at Alexandria in the 5th century had been a terrible blow to humanity. Countless scrolls containing scientific, philosophical, artistic and mathematical knowledge were destroyed out of ignorance. Surviving documents were rare, and were often brought to monasteries to be copied for future generations.

The Bible was certainly the most copied book of the Middle Ages. Not only was the Church interested in using these Bibles to spread its gospel throughout the land, these volumes were to be a veneration of beauty. Monks would often work in large rooms called a scriptorium, and only those working on texts would be allowed in this room.

Monks became specialists. The antiquarii were masters of calligraphy. Rubricatores illuminated the large initials at the beginning of a page while miniatores illustrated the margins. Monks called illuminators painted intricate designs and biblical scenes on pages, to supplement the text. One of the most famous of these, the Book of Kells, was written around 800 a.d. and can still be seen in the library at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

Some monks made tremendous strides in changing the acceptance of non-biblical writing. Thomas Aquinas rattled the foundations of the Church when, instead of denouncing early Greek thinkers, he read ancient texts to reconcile their philosophies with Christianity. The illuminations also went against the convention of “never paint a picture of Christ.” These illustrated scenes became masterpieces, and aided in the peasants’ understanding of biblical stories.

Troubadors

Troubadour is the generic term for poets and minstrels who flourished in southern France and in Northern Italy from the 11th through the 13th centuries. Called trouveres in northern France and meistersingers in Germany, these artists elevated storytelling as an art, and often entertained huge crowds at fairs, weddings and other medieval celebrations.

During this time, works from medieval monks had become tired. The public wasn’t as interested in hymns, chronicles and treatises penned in medieval Latin. These new stories were sang, while music was played on strange, new musical instruments, brought back to Western Europe from the Crusades. Verses became quite complex in style and ranged in topics from satire, love, and politics, to debates, laments and spinning songs.

French lords wanted to hear tales of bravery about their own countrymen, and ladies were being swept away with epic love poems, as they practiced the rituals of Courtly Love. Professional singers who performed work penned by a troubadour were called jongleurs, and they might be accompanied by ioculators (jesters) and ystriones (actors).

Minstrels were found in every social class, with wealthy or noble troubadours traveling like royalty from town to town.

Early Works

The most popular medieval works were the fabliaux, or fables. These humorous short stories, penned by authors from varying classes, enjoyed an immense audience. While most of these stories developed from earlier folk tales, social commentary was woven into the fable. Most fables were quite humorous and often bawdy. Recurring characters were visible in everyday life-merchants, students, lecherous husbands, and lusty, unfaithful wives.

Romances blossomed in the 12th century from authors such as Chretien de Troyes and Marie de France. Some stories, like Galaeran, deal with star-crossed lovers who eventually find happiness together. Military themes can be found in tales such as Joufroi, where a knightly hero has both amorous and martial adventures.

A popular religious book was called the “Book of Hours,” which had a bible verse for each hour of the day, and a calendar showing all the Church’s feast days. Scribes also copied surviving Greek and Roman texts, though care would have to be taken to ensure these documents were not found to be heretical, and land the monk in jail, or be executed.

Most early medieval works were penned by authors who remain virtually anonymous.

Masterpieces

La Chanson de Roland (the Song of Roland) remains one of the most studied medieval epic poems. This is the story of Roland, nephew to Charlemagne, King of France. The army is dispatched to Spain to fight invading Moors in a quasi-crusade. As the victorious French army heads home, Roland, bringing up the rear, is attacked. He had been given a horn to sound in time of desperation, but he blows this horn too late for help to arrive. While the poem is far from historical truth, this tale remains one of the great examples of early French literature.

One of the greatest works in all of literature was penned in Italy during the Middle Ages. Dante Alighieri finished his La Divina Commedia (the Divine Comedy) in 1321. The first of the three volumes, the Inferno, is probably the best known and describes the afterlife for the wicked, where hell is comprised of nine descending circles and there is no forgiveness. The Ninth and lowest circle was reserved for Satan and betrayers of benefactors, kin, and country. Purgatorio and Paradiso, the remaining volumes of La Divina Commedia, continue Dante’s journey through more of the afterlife.

Medieval England thrilled to the adventures of King Arthur and his knights. This king, who supposedly grew up near Cornwall, led his armies in battles against the Angles and Saxons. He called his warriors knights, hundreds of years before codes of chivalry would make this word commonplace. The first stories about Arthur were actually penned in French in a work called “La Morte d’Arthur” (the Death of Arthur).