The names of literary periods are often thrown around as if they’re self-explanatory, but they’re often quite complex! In our ongoing series Name That Literary Period, we want to really explore each literary period in order to better understand the historical context of our favorite books.
This week, we travel back to the European Middle Ages, a thousand-year period of plague, feudalism, and frequent jousting, from which few written texts survived. For this reason, they’re also called the Dark Ages, since so little information exists to illuminate our understanding of medieval life. This makes the texts that did survive incredibly valuable: they’re rare glimpses into the lifestyles, thoughts, and values of medieval people.
Time Period: ~450-1485 CE
Since reading, writing, and printing was not possible for most people at the time, many medieval stories were passed down through generations by word of mouth, a practice referred to as oral storytelling. As a result, the authors’ names were lost over the years, and many works are anonymous; in fact, the works likely have many authors and many versions, as each generation and each storyteller potentially embellished each story. Oral works like these are considered “folklore,” a term used to describe popular stories, ballads, and fables that were an integral part of medieval European culture, ever-changing as they spread through families and communities.
The key to understanding medieval literature is Christianity, or, more accurately, Catholicism, because the Middle Ages are before the Reformation. Most of European life in the Middle Ages was dominated by Catholic faith, and Christian themes saturate the period’s literature. But the works are certainly not all religious texts: medieval literature is packed with romance, intrigue, political conflict, and humor.
Medieval literature is fascinating and rich, but the only problem for today’s readers is that much of it is basically unreadable. Even the works that are originally in English appear foreign since they are written in Old English (also called Anglo-Saxon) and Middle English, the early forms of contemporary English. Today, the works are usually published in translated or clarified form, but it’s fun to listen to scholars fluent in this ancient dialect read the original texts aloud—you might even recognize one or two words.
Let’s look at 10 crucial medieval works that have laid the foundation for literature today:
1.) Beowulf by Anonymous (8th century)
This Old English epic poem tells the fictional story of a Scandanavian prince, Beowulf, as he strives to protect the Danish people from the monster Grendel, later Grendel’s mother, and finally a dragon. Fantastical elements aside, the poem provides great insight into the lives and cultural elements of 6th-century Scandanavian and Germanic peoples.
2.) The Song of Roland by Anonymous (late 12th century)
Written in Old French, this epic poem is the earliest-known “chanson de geste,” a genre of French medieval poetry that recounted romantic, heroic deeds, usually in relation to Charlemagne. The Song of Roland recounts the battle between Charlemagne’s army and the Muslim king Marsilla, in Spain. Despite the betrayal of his stepfather, Ganelon, Roland leads his army to victory and diesin the process—becoming a martyr. This work sheds light on chivalrous values at the time, and on medieval Christians’ attitudes toward Spanish Muslims.
3.) The Lais of Marie de France by Marie de France (12th century)
This collection of twelve short narrative poems are written in a form called Breton lai and written in Anglo-Norman, a dialect of French used in England. The Breton lai form uses rhymed lines to explore stories of love and chivalry, often with otherworldly, Celtic themes. Each of Marie de France’s lais explore a different element of love through the adventures of her main characters, usually knights or aristocratic ladies, and together the collection glorifies the idea of courtly love.
4.) Lancelot: Or, The Knight of the Cart by Chrétien de Troyes (late 12th century)
Though the legends of King Arthur were already part of European folklore, this Old French poem was the first to establish Lancelot as a significant character in the stories. The poem follows the love affair between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere and her later abduction. The introduction of this story was very impactful to the Arthurian legends to come.
5.) The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
In this epic Italian poem, the character of Dante journeys through hell (Inferno) and purgatory (Purgatorio), where he is guided by the spirit of Virgil, and finally reaches heaven (Paradiso), where he is reunited with his love, Beatrice. At all the stages, Dante encounters prominent political, religious, and cultural figures, a device he uses to make political commentary on the corruption or commendable work of certain public and religious figures.
6.) The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1353)
Written in the Florentine language, The Decameron is a collection of 100 stories told through a group of characters, young men and women, who have secluded themselves in a villa outside Florence to escape the Black Death. The stories are varied, ranging from comedic to tragic to even erotic, and they provide valuable insight into the everyday lives and values of people at the time.
7.) The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1476)
Arguably the most famous work of medieval English literature, this work is almost readable to a modern audience, as it is written in Middle English. Like The Decameron, this work is a collection of stories told by the characters. It follows a group of 30, including the narrator, who are traveling to Canterbury, and decide to pass the time with a storytelling contest. The group includes members from many social classes, including a knight, clergymen, middle-class folk, and peasants; their lively and cross-genre stories provide insight into their varied lives.
8.) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous (late 14th century)
Another prominent Arthurian legend, this Middle English alliterative poem recounts the altercation between the mysterious Green Knight, who appears one day in King Arthur’s court challenging anyone to strike at him with his axe and receive a returning blow one year and one day later, and Sir Gawain, who accepts the challenge, beheading, but not killing, the Green Knight. Drawing on Welsh, Irish, and English folktales, the story demonstrates Gawain’s chivalry and loyalty, and his integrity in the face of a test from Lady Bertilak.
9.) The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (1405)
Written in vernacular French prose, Christine de Pizan’s book is a defense of women in response to Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose. She uses her book to collect accounts of famous, powerful, and honorable women throughout history, using each woman as a foundation for her defense and for her allegorical “city”—which is the book itself. She argues that women are valuable members of society, and that they should be educated to become even more valuable.
10.) The Book of Margery Kempe by Margery Kempe (early 15th century)
This Middle English work recounts the life of Margery Kempe, a Christian mystic and pilgrim. It describes her life, travels, and spiritual experiences. Though Kempe was supposedly illiterate, her book was dictated to two scribes, and is sometimes considered to be the first autobiography. Kempe’s work provides insight into the daily life of a medieval woman, as well as her understanding of Christianity and her belief in the supernatural.
Stay tuned for our next installments in this series to learn more about the literary periods that followed the Middle Ages—there are quite a lot!