What Is Medieval Literature?
Medieval literature concerns the period of writing between the fall of the Roman Empire to the mid-point of the Renaissance. Historians and literary scholars often disagree about when the medieval period took place, but there is a consensus that the Middle Ages span over 1000 years.
In this post, you’ll hear about why you should read medieval literature. Although the medieval period spans many countries, this post focuses on Western and Northern European literature.
Here are the seven reasons to read medieval literature:
Medieval Literature Can Help Us Understand Modern Storytelling Better
Did you know that Lord of the Rings was heavily inspired by the Old English epic poem Beowulf? There’s a good chance that you did. It’s well known that medieval history has shaped modern fantasy literature, including blockbuster series such as Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. Yet it’s not just fantasy that medieval literature shaped: it’s the entire scope of modern literature.
Look at romantic comedies and notions of courtship. Although the medieval period is not solely responsible for romantic beliefs, it was significant in the development. From the Lais of Marie de France to the chivalric romance of Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, we see an evolution in storytelling of how love ought to be depicted.
Alot of apocalyptic fiction has medieval roots. The Ludus de Antichristo reflects the belief of many that the world was near its end. If that topic interests you, then I recommend reading Julia of Norwich’s Revelations of Love.
It’s also worthwhile to analyse the evolution of language during the Middle Ages. Consider Latin in the classical period, and the French that is spoken today in Annecy. As language often shapes storytelling, we can study trends and developments in the Middle Ages that determined modern storytelling today.
Medieval Literature Deepens Our Understanding Of Religion
Much of religious scholarship is from the Middle Ages. This is true for not only Christianity, but also Judaism and Islam. In regards to the intellectual tradition of Christianity, the Middle Ages produced St. Thomas Aquinas and Boethius.
Yet arguably, the most influential religious text from the Middle Ages is Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The three epic poems of Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Heaven), have shaped our conceptions of what the afterlife looks like.
However, it is false to limit The Divine Comedy to a mere parable about judgement. Dante covers many theological themes in his poetry, such as darkness, hope and salvation. The Divine Comedy is also a brilliant work of history. Dante makes numerous references to historical figures, ranging from the guide Virgil to those trapped in hell. Yet the biggest success of the Divine Comedy is that it captures the magnitude and the sheer epic scope of Christianity.
Religion is crucial to understanding history and human behaviour. Regardless of what your personal beliefs and practices are, the role of religion in shaping the modern world can’t be overstated. I’d argue that if you are serious about studying the Middle Ages, you must consider the role of religion.
Literature From The Middle Ages Is Fun
Reading medieval literature is incredibly enjoyable. This is certainly true when you read Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Not only are the stories lively, but they give us greater insight into medieval life. What I like about The Shipman’s Tale (part of Chaucer’s work) is how the author transforms the reader into western medieval Europe. One of Chaucer’s best strengths as a writer is how immersive his stories are. You can imagine yourself in a tavern with him, having a few laughts.
You may have seen the film A Knight’s Tale (starring Heath Ledger). That was heavily inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer, and is a testament to how medieval figures influence our modern present. Another example of fun medieval literature is the lore behind Robin Hood. We recommend reading various ballads attributed to Robin Hood, such as Robin Hood and the Potter.
Medieval History Has Interesting Scholarship
This isn’t just relevant to literature, but this point is also relevant to art history. The medieval period has fascinating scholarship, particularly on alchemy, geometry and astronomy. Part of this is the result of the medieval universities. Universities, such as those in Bologna and Paris, produced groundbreaking works of intellectual inquiry. This is certainly true for cartography.
Look at the wonderful maps produced between 1100 onwards. The well-known Hereford and Ebstorf world maps are incredible, even if some are destroyed.
Note: Some dismiss medieval scholarship as false, or without merit. This is unfortunate, as medieval scholarship can teach us a lot about the universe and how it works.
We Can Understand History Better
Literature is a fantastic way to understand history. Although the way societies read and write has changed over time, the importance of literature remains the same. You can view medieval literature as not only primary sources, but as works of art that have plenty to teach us about the world we live in. When you read medieval literature, you’ll discover the diverse range of styles, languages, ideas and themes present in them.
The Norse Sagas are a great example of using medieval literature to understand history. From reading them, you can understand what daily life for the people of Scandinavia was like, as well as their values. Sometimes, it is difficult to fully understand everything that goes on in a Norse saga.
Some references are obscure, and the writing is often difficult (even when translated). Yet one can truly appreciate the Norse sagas without full accuracy. It’s okay to make mistakes while studying history and literature. Everyone makes them, and they are part of the learning experience.
Need a recommendation? Start with Egil’s Saga, which is not only my personal favourite, but one of the more well known sagas. It has the perfect mixture of melancholy and dramatic action. A lot happens in the Norse Sagas, as they span generations.
Empathy For The Past
As any historian would tell you, history reminds us that people who lived in the past are just as real as ourselves. It’s easy to view previous generations as ignorant and not as ‘wise as the youth.’ Not only is that a mistake for many reasons, but it also often indicates poor empathy.
In the case of medieval history, many people lived difficult lives. This is especially true of England during the Viking age. Whole villages and churches would get sacked, leaving communities in mourning. A poem that captures the horror of loss in medieval literature is The Wanderer. Although the author is unknown (as was often the case with Old English poetry), The Wanderer is remarkable because it explores heartache and suffering. A thousand years later, we read The Wanderer in awe. However, we remember the turmoil and pain others experienced.
This is a crucial aspect of reading medieval literature in the modern age. It brings both the past and the present together, and reminds us of the universal experiences that we undergo. In other ways, medieval literature reminds us to cherish what we have, because one day, we may lose it.
It Provokes The Imagination
Medieval literature may help you develop your imagination. This is because medieval history is full of remarkable people doing, and thinking, remarkable things. In this post, you’ve read about the intellectual history of the medieval universities. Because of that, you too, can use medieval literature and history to further your imagination.
Don’t believe me? Look at J.K Rowling. In Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, she draws on the real history of Nicolas Flamel whilst adding some magical spice. Flamel himself was a French scribe and manuscript seller, yet the mythos around him suggest he dabbled in alchemy. This lead to the popular belief that he created the elixir of life, or the philosopher’s stone (which grants immortality). Of course, historians highlight the lack of evidence for that claim.
Yet because of historical proceedings, the legend of Nicolas Flamel inspired J.K Rowling. If you are a storyteller, you’ll quickly discover that medieval Europe is full of inspiring material. Whatever medieval literature you read, know that it can help you develop as a storyteller and a reader.
What are your favourite works of medieval literature? Comment below!