What Is Medieval Literature?

J.E. Holloway
J.E. Holloway
In many Medieval epics, a questing knight must overcome temptations that threaten to lead him astray.
In many Medieval epics, a questing knight must overcome temptations that threaten to lead him astray.

Medieval literature is a very diverse subject. The term covers the literature of Europe during the period between the fall of the Roman empire and the beginnings of the Renaissance in the 15th century, spanning a period of roughly 1,000 years. As a result, it is difficult to make generalizations about medieval literature. It is, nonetheless, possible to identify a few general trends.

Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" provided satires of contemporary society.
Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" provided satires of contemporary society.

Allegory and symbolism are common in medieval literature, perhaps more so than in modern writing. Religious and philosophical messages were often conveyed through the use of figures, such as the panther, an animal which represented Christ. Old Norse and Irish poetry often contains figures of baffling complexity which allowed listeners who puzzled them out to pride themselves on their mastery of the form.

Some works of medieval literature use allegories and symbolism to great effect.
Some works of medieval literature use allegories and symbolism to great effect.

One of the most noticeable features of medieval literature is the prevalence of religious subjects. For much of the middle ages, the church was the main source of education. Literacy was common among priests, monks and nuns, but rarer among the laity, although it steadily increased throughout the period, particularly among wealthy landowners and merchants. This imbalance meant that much of medieval literature was focused on Christian subjects, including the works of theologians and philosophers such as St Thomas Aquinas. One of the most famous religious works of the period was The Golden Legend, a collection of stories about the saints by Jacobus de Voraigne.

Medieval Iceland produced literature about Vikings.
Medieval Iceland produced literature about Vikings.

Not all medieval literature was religious in nature, however. Secular poems and prose works related the deeds of semi-legendary heroes and villains. Examples of this type of work include the French Song of Roland and Beowulf, an early English poem about a hero's battles against a series of monsters. Other popular heroes in medieval literature included El Cid, a Spanish hero, and King Arthur, a legendary Welsh character who became the protagonist of a number of works in French and English. Medieval Iceland produced a highly-developed literary culture, with sophisticated poems and sagas relating to the deeds of the heroes of the Viking Age.

The church was the main source of education for much of the middle ages.
The church was the main source of education for much of the middle ages.

Medieval writers concerned themselves with love as well as adventure, particularly from the 11th century onward in France and southern Europe. Stories and poems of "courtly love" — a refined and noble expression of love between two people who were usually not married — were popular in this region. Elements of these tales of romance entered the heroic epics as well, resulting in love stories such as the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere.

Medieval literature also contained a strong strain of humor. Comic songs and poems were popular, and works such as Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales provided biting satires of contemporary society. Chaucer's work drew on French short stories called fabliaux, which were part of a rich continental tradition of humorous writing.

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    • In many Medieval epics, a questing knight must overcome temptations that threaten to lead him astray.
      In many Medieval epics, a questing knight must overcome temptations that threaten to lead him astray.
    • Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" provided satires of contemporary society.
      Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" provided satires of contemporary society.
    • Some works of medieval literature use allegories and symbolism to great effect.
      Some works of medieval literature use allegories and symbolism to great effect.
    • Medieval Iceland produced literature about Vikings.
      Medieval Iceland produced literature about Vikings.
    • The church was the main source of education for much of the middle ages.
      The church was the main source of education for much of the middle ages.