It’s Practically Medieval: Literature in the Early and High Middle Ages

How medieval writers developed the Western tradition from their classical predecessors.

The Venerable Bede
Le Morte D'Arthur
Caedmon's Hymn
The Play of Virtues

Defining Medieval Literature

While virtually anything written between 476 and 1500 and can be classified as medieval literature, the term applies most commonly to poetry, drama, romance, epic prose, and histories – particularly those written in vernacular languages, that is, languages spoken by ordinary people.


Before the Middle Ages, all Western Literature was written in Latin or Greek. However, literature in the vernacular grew in popularity in the 7th century, and it eventually came to characterize this era.

A lot of medieval literature was poetic. Like in the Classical period, literature was still mostly shared through oration during medieval times, and poetry was easier to memorize and more engaging for an audience.

Medieval histories are classified as literature because they were based more on legends, or fables, than real events. For example, *Ecclesiastical History of the English People* by the writer known as The Venerable Bede is made of historical facts, myths and legends all mixed together.

Historical Context of Medieval Literature

Near the beginning of the 5th century, Roman troops began withdrawing from Roman colonies to fight Germanic invaders in Rome. In England, the Roman withdrawal opened the way for the Anglo Saxon Invasion of 449 and an influx of paganism.

However, the Romans left behind strong Christian influences, and by the end of the 6th century, the Anglo Saxons were Christian at least in name. Monastic centers sprang up across Europe, preserving classical literature and leading to the growth of medieval literature.

By the end of the High Middle Ages, the Catholic church, centered in Rome, was the highest authority throughout Europe, and a lot of Medieval literature focuses on Christianity. However, elements of paganism can be found in English medieval writing throughout the period, even when it’s mixed with Christian themes.

Medieval Literature around the World

Although the term ‘medieval’ applies most commonly to Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire, other cultures experienced a historical period with the same features as the European middle ages. Japan, China and India offer good examples.

Japanese medieval literature continued the literary trends of its classical period with the emergence of the ‘war tales’ and strong advancements in waka poetry, which consists of five lines with 31 syllables. The medieval period in China covered the Tang and Song Dynasties. Poetry was the hallmark of the Tang Dynasty, and fiction and drama appeared during the Song Dynasty.

Somewhat later than the medieval period in Europe, medieval literature in India appeared around 1000 CE. It was strongly influenced by Hindu and Muslim religions, but an uptick in migration through India prompted dynamic changes in thought and writing. The *Ramayana* and *Mahabaharata* are the best-known pieces of Indian literature from this period.

Anonymity and the Oral Tradition

Because literacy was limited and not highly prized in the early medieval period, most literature was entirely oral. Poetry, tales of love or valor, and religious teachings alike were recited to a group and passed on from one storyteller to another, and each speaker adjusted their tales for various audiences.

Because of this process, original authors are largely unknown – works were shared across a variety of speakers, and the form and details of works were fluid.


Medieval writers also had a very different understanding of the author’s role. Because they were in awe of classical writers and church fathers, medieval authors were hesitant to create new stories, so they re-told and embellished stories they had heard or read.

They saw themselves more as conduits than creators. As literacy increased, more and more works were written down, but even those were often anonymous because writers hesitated to take individual credit for a cooperatively compiled work.

Allegory and Religious Literature

The church dominated medieval life, and a lot of the literature of the time shows the Catholic church’s methods of instructing its members.

Allegory was one of the most common approaches to making the abstract content of Biblical scripture more accessible to the common person.

There are two distinct forms of allegory: The first is personification allegory, where concepts like jealousy or friendship become characters in a story. They are understood not to be real people, but they teach a moral lesson through their interactions.

The second is symbol allegory, in which characters may be real people who symbolize something beyond themselves. The story, therefore, has at least two levels of meaning.

Medieval readers looked for up to four levels of meaning in allegories: beyond the literal level, they looked for meaning referring to the church or a universal truth, to the individual’s spiritual life and behavior, and for symbolism representing the afterlife.

Courtly Love and the Arthurian Romance

The Arthurian Romance can be seen across texts from the Medieval period and includes references in Latin, Welsh, French and English.

Thomas Malory’s *Morte D’arthur* was written near the end of the medieval period, and is one of the best known Arthurian tales today. It brings together the tales of Arthur and his knights, Merlin, the illicit love of Lancelot and Guenevere, and the quest for the Holy Grail. However, there is no single, original King Arthur work of literature. Instead, many Medieval authors wrote on this subject, creating an entire genre called the Arthurian Romance.

King Arthur is possibly based on the historic King Alfred the Great, and the fictional character ruled the utopian kingdom of Camelot and led a noble party of knights. Although there were suggestions of Arthur’s reign in works from the beginning of the Medieval period, the full-fledged legend began in France in the 12th century.

Works of Arthurian Romance always include the complex moral and behavioral codes of chivalry. One of those codes is courtly love in which a knight conducts an illicit but unconsummated affair with a married noblewoman (like Lancelot and Guinevere).

Key text: Beowulf

Written in Old English between 975 and 1025 CE, *Beowulf* was the first European epic to be written in the vernacular – meaning contemporary, spoken language, rather than the biblical languages of Latin or Greek. It includes historical facts, fiction, and legends from the Anglo Saxon and the Danes. Although there is some archaeological evidence for some parts of the epic, most of it, including the hero Beowulf and the monster Grendel, is fictional.


Set in the 6th century, just after the Anglo Saxon Invasion, the story describes Beowulf’s encounter with three monsters: The first is Grendel, who hates celebration and devours the king’s knights as they celebrate in the mead hall. Beowulf comes and rips Grendel’s arm off to stop the killing. In revenge Grendel’s mother kidnaps one of the king’s knights. Beowulf stalks her and kills her with a magic sword. After becoming king and ruling peacefully for 50 years, Beowulf confronts a fire-breathing dragon. He kills the dragon but is fatally wounded in the process.

Key Text: Caedman’s Hymn

*Caedman’s Hymn* is important to Western Literature because it is the first work written in English where the author is identified. Written in the 7th century, Caedman, an illiterate cow herder, reported that the hymn was sung to him in a vision; he then performed it at a feast at Whitby Abbey.

The hymn is a simple song of religious praise, written down by an anonymous scribe and first recorded in the writings of the historian the Venerable Bede. It’s one of the oldest surviving examples of Germanic alliterative verse.

Twenty-one manuscripts of the hymn – dating from the 8th century to the 16th century – have survived. These show significant variations in the text; some are in Bede’s Northumbrian dialect, and some are in the West Saxon dialect most common for Old English texts. Although usually presented as Christian, some scholars argue that it could have been praise for Anglo Saxon pagan deities.

Key Text: The Song of Roland

Written between 1040 and 1115, *The Song of Roland* is the oldest surviving piece of French literature. It is a complicated story of defeat, victory, betrayal and revenge; the epic depicts a disastrous battle between Roland’s army and a group of invaders. Roland dies attempting to call for reinforcements by blowing his horn until his temples burst.

The Song was repeated in the oral tradition for centuries, and many versions of the manuscript exist. It has influenced writers across time, from Robert Browning (‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’) to Stephen King (The *Dark Tower* series).

Expanding the Canon: Hildegard of Bingen

Most people today don’t know who Hildegard of Bingen was, but she was incredibly important for her time and ours. A Benedictine abbess, she was also a writer, composer, philosopher, and medical practitioner. Hildegard lived from 1098 to 1179 and is one of the best-known Medieval hymn composers. She has more surviving chants than any other person of her time. She’s also the author of the oldest surviving morality play, and scholars identify her as the founder of German scientific natural history.

A religious visionary, Hildegard wrote three volumes of theology, each detailing her visions and giving theological interpretations. As a medical practitioner, she compiled two major works on medicine. The first consists of nine books detailing the medicinal benefits of various plants, stones, fish, reptiles and other animals. The second work explores the causes and cures of various diseases and connects the body to the rest of the natural world. As a woman who could write in Latin, she shared some ‘women’s knowledge’ about healing that is not recorded anywhere else.

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