Medieval literature: what this movement was, history and characteristics


What was medieval literature?

The medieval period, from which this literature arises, was a time marked by an important amount of changes and with it in the artistic manifestations. That is why we call medieval literature to all those writings that were developed during the Middle Ages, specifically after the fall of the Western Roman Empire until the Renaissance period, in the European continent.

What was medieval literature

It is possible to define this literary period from different themes that consolidated its creation, especially with the frequent presence of religious writings that in a broad sense would gather both sacred writings, as well as profane writings, this taking into account the extension that covered the movement. Let’s learn more about medieval literature step by step.

History of medieval literature

It is known that the first manifestations were produced during the Middle Ages, a process in which the Reconquest of the Christians from the Muslim kingdoms from the 8th century onwards was also taking place. Specifically, this would be a fact that would have a great impact on the consolidation of the new language that was beginning to spread in Spain, but also where themes related to the old stories that spoke of the great deeds and heroes began to expand, where texts such as the Cantar de Mio Cid (Song of Mio Cid) emerged.

At the beginning of the Middle Ages, the cultural sphere and in it the literature, were under the domination of the monks, who had intellectual formation, which allowed them to carry out activities of this environment as the translation of works and the writing of our texts of particular interest. Thus, later on, it is possible to find the appearance of schools and universities as teaching centers founded by them. During this time, writings were elaborated in Latin, whose language was spoken by the Roman Empire and prevailed until the emergence of Romance and Anglo-Saxon languages.

In addition to Christianity, the period was also marked by innovation in culture, the Crusades and the conquests, processes that influenced literary creations. After the fragmentation of Europe, the formation of new states began and with it the spread of vernacular languages, at which time the first forms of medieval poetry appeared. These creations gave way, together with the oral tradition, to the formation of minstrels and troubadours, who were the first evidence of the first medieval literary manifestations.

Development and consolidation

The manifestations of medieval literature highlight a prose that mainly emphasized heroic legends as the main theme, however, it is known that they also included another series of themes in their works. Many works also include reworkings of classical mythology, creation of fairy tales, Christian allegories and biographies of saints, also called hagiographies. In the narrative his themes will be of great importance for the development of stories and novels, and in the theater there is evidence of religious worship used for ceremonies such as cult theater, although popular theater also appears in the minstrelsy songs.

In the lyric poetry of the Middle Ages, the most important theme will be the well-known “courtly love”. These were verses in which a man expressed his amorous feelings to a lady in a chivalrous style in which the lament for the indifference of his beloved prevailed. In addition to this theme, other themes of ancient poetry would also appear, including praises, moral instructions, religious devotions, philosophical reflections, satire, among others.

The literary works would be written mainly in verse, since this format would be used for sung dissemination. This format also made it easier to recite it, which is why in this period their works would be songs or poems in most cases. However, medieval stories will also work in the epic with adventures of the great heroes, as well as dramas as part of religious ceremonies.

Characteristics of medieval literature

Troubadours, goliards and minstrels

Given the oral character that prevailed during the Middle Ages, the minstrels appeared, who were important characters of entertainment, singing poets, often of low socioeconomic level. Later, the goliards appeared, students who specialized in poetry, and the troubadours, composers of poetry who made tours with their art.

Characteristics of medieval literature

The following is a series of key characteristics that allow us to identify this literature and that were key to its later creations based on its different forms and authors:

Oral transmission.

During the Medieval period, oral transmission became the most important form for the dissemination of stories and histories, given that activities such as writing and reading, linked to monks, were very limited and scarce. Thus, authors chose to tell their works to the public in order to express them, and troubadours would also appear to spread the stories as they traveled.

Religious themes

Although during the Middle Ages literature was produced in various areas, religious literature prevailed mainly during this period. In it, God appears as the center of everything and the Church becomes the means to reach God, reason why the human being owed his existence to the supreme Being. Hence, praises predominated in his creations, but also the writing of the lives of the saints.

Educational Sense

Another of the key features of this literature is related to the educational sense with which literary manifestations began to develop, since they often sought to transmit Christian values, as well as to present the lives of the saints as a model to follow, in addition to disseminating other important themes of religion such as sacrifice and abnegation. On the other hand, the teaching also remained in the chivalrous love of fidelity of the king for his beloved.

Extent of this literature

One of the most important characteristics of medieval literature has to do with the wide period it covered, since its temporality was very extensive, which is why it is possible to identify some key features in which authors worked in different genres.

Literature by women

Despite the inequality between men and women during the period, several of them knew how to read and write, which also allowed them to develop their creations, mainly in religious literature where they were “favored” by the antecedents canonized as saints due to their writings on religious reflections, prayers and revelations. However, they also wrote influential secular texts that stemmed from reflections on courtly love and their society.

Anonymous works

Another of the most important aspects of this literature has to do with the fact that most of the works of the Medieval period were anonymous. This was due, on the one hand, to the absence of documents, but also to the fact that the role of the authors was different from the current interpretation of the term, since many authors were subject to the Fathers of the Catholic Church and classical writings, so that their activity was directed to rewriting in most cases.

Main representatives and works of medieval literature

During the Middle Ages a great variety of authors will emerge in the different approaches that literature had during this period. Among them we find authors of Latin books on Christian philosophy such as Pope Gregory the Great and Augustine. Other authors who wrote about conquests and adventures such as Procopius, Gregory of Tours, Isidore of Seville, among others that could be known, will also appear.

Among the best known works of this period we can find more than authors. Thus, one of the most important poems for its heroic content is Beowulf printed after 1815, also The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri in the sixteenth century, the Decameron by Giovanni Boccacio in prose, The Canterbury Tales, the aforementioned Song of Mio Cid in epic poetry, among others. Other works were signed anonymously: Amadís de Gaula, El romancero, Cantar de Roldán, Cantar de los nibelungos, La leyenda dorada and Digenis Acritas.

Learn more about other literary movements developed throughout history, as well as other important periods for its evolution by visiting our section dedicated to Literature. You can also access more information about other artistic manifestations.