Medieval Literature

Based on what you know, it should not be a surprise that most early medieval literature was written in Latin. Latin was the language (both spoken and written) of the educated during the Early Middle Ages, and most of these educated people happened to be monks.

Texts were translated and written by hand (often in poor lighting) by monks who filled pages with words and complicated illustrations. Most, if not all, books were written by hand over long periods of time, until a man named Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the early 1400s and made everything much, much easier.

Books could be produced faster than before, though the letters had to be carefully arranged before being pressed to the page, and this too took quite a bit of time. But what tales and stories come from the medieval period?

Textbooks were hard to come by, but one particularly well-known book of the early medieval period was the Ars Minor, a book written in Latin and copied over and over again for scholars learning grammar in monasteries. The Bible itself was also frequently used to teach those seeking an education, along with many other Latin texts about philosophy and logic and even where words came from (a study called “etymology”).

Other important works for the student—this time the medical student—were those by Galen, who wrote about the body, medicine, and hygiene. Medical students at universities relied on very old texts like these because, at the time, they offered the best knowledge of the human body and advice on how to take care of it.

Story Telling

But what of stories and tales? A lot of them were told aloud, and passed from village to village in this manner. Those that were written down were often in the language spoken by the common people, and depending on the time period, this might have been Old or Middle English or even French.

You see, people loved stories during the medieval days as much as we do, and over time, books began to be written not in the language of nobility or monks, but the language spoken most often by the people. Works such as Beowulf, which was an epic poem (in other words, a long tale in a certain style, usually about a hero and his journey) telling the story of the warrior Beowulf.

Beowulf helps a king, fights monsters (including a dragon), and the whole piece is written in Old English. Scholars have translated it for modern readers, so we are even able to read it today!

Other well-known stories in the form of poems and epics were The Song of Roland, based on a famous battle and written in Old French, Tristan and Iseult (sometimes spelled Tristan and Isolde), a romance about the love of a knight and a princess, and of course, fables. Many fables—even retellings of older fables—were popular throughout the medieval period. These were stories that were usually short and had a lesson in them, often about good behavior versus bad, right versus wrong, and patience versus impatience.

Geoffrey Chaucer

But perhaps the most beloved and widely-read tale from this time was (and continues to be) Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer decided to write these in the language spoken during his time (the 1400s), and so the entire work is written in Middle English. Middle English is still read by some today, but requires a lot of study.

Words were spelled much differently and the language itself, when spoken aloud, sounded far off from the type of English we speak today. The tale contains many figures common to Chaucer’s time, and gives each of them a story. These characters include such figures as a knight, a merchant, a nun, a physician (or doctor), and even a cook. That’s only naming a few of the many characters found within The Canterbury Tales.

So what have we learned about medieval literature? Originally it was all in Latin and used mostly in monasteries and churches, while tales were told aloud and passed around by the common people. Eventually, popular romances, fables, and epic poems were written in the language of everyday people, and one of the most well-known of these tales is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Stories involved magic, monsters, lessons, and love. Doesn’t sound so different than what we read today, does it?