Medieval Literature


Table Summary

Primary Medieval Legends
pre-Christian Christian
French Song of Roland
English Beowulf
German Song of the Nibelungs
Norse Edda
Spanish Song of the Cid
Slavic Song of Igor's Campaign

Classical Languages

The scholarly tongues of medieval Europe were Latin (in the West) and Greek (in the East). In the Byzantine Empire (aka the Eastern Roman Empire, which remained intact for the duration of the Middle Ages), much ancient literature was preserved, and new Greek works were composed in the ancient genres. In Western Europe (where the Western Roman Empire collapsed into petty kingdoms), literary output experienced a slow recovery, and preservation of classical writings fell chiefly to religious orders and other clergy. The entirety of Europe experienced intellectual stagnation, as attention was diverted from secular matters to scripture and theology, and a general conservatism fell over scholarship and literature.1,2,12

Medieval Education

The medieval period was succeeded by the Renaissance (ca. 1400-1600), which witnessed the full revival of classical scholarship and humanism (see Humanism). The Renaissance was not unprecedented; various earlier attempts (albeit of much less success) to effect such a revival were made across Western Europe throughout the Middle Ages. By far the most influential was the Carolingian Renaissance (set in motion by Charlemagne, lasting ca. 750-900), which did significantly expand classical scholarship, as well as education and literacy in general.2,12

Charlemagne commissioned Alcuin, an English scholar, to oversee the efforts of the Carolingian Renaissance. (The foremost scholarly revival in Western Europe prior to the Carolingian Renaissance took place in the British Isles, spurring Charlemagne to procure several of the region's leading scholars.) The education programs designed by Alcuin influenced teachers throughout the medieval West.2,3,4,12

The basics of a European medieval education consisted of literacy (in the academic tongue, i.e. Greek or Latin) and the study of scripture, while theology was widely regarded as the most profound advanced subject. Nonetheless, the medieval West experienced a gradual revival of the secular subjects which had flourished during antiquity, including grammar, rhetoric, music theory, mathematics, astronomy (and other sciences), law, medicine, and theory of various practical fields (e.g. agriculture, manufacturing, navigation). By the dawn of the Renaissance era, secular scholarship was ready to truly surge forward once again.12

In early medieval Western Europe (ca. 500-1000), formal education was provided mainly by abbey schools (run by monks) and cathedral schools (run by priests); the latter type was typically housed in a building near a cathedral. Apart from those pursuing a religious life, education was limited chiefly to nobility. With the rise of cities in the later Middle Ages (ca. 1000-1500), abbey and cathedral schools were joined by clergy-run urban schools.12

The later Middle Ages also witnessed the birth of the university: an independent, government-sanctioned institution of higher education. Universities were staffed partly by professional scholars (as opposed to learned clergy), such that the profession of "teacher" recovered as an independent occupation. Universities, which gradually shook off Church involvement and interference, would come to flourish as the epicentres of scholarship across Europe (and, from the colonial age onward, across the world).12

Main Article

Medieval Theology

The scholarly literature of medieval Europe was produced chiefly in the academic tongues: Latin in the West, Greek in the East. Though both halves of Europe produced their share of secular scholars (e.g. scientists, historians), the central preoccupation of medieval Christian learning was theology, which can be defined as “the study of religious belief and practice”.

Theologians sought to explain the great truths of God, humanity, and the universe through careful analysis of Christian belief. In addition to scripture (the ultimate authority), medieval theology drew extensively from two bodies of ancient thought: Early Christian theology (i.e. theology produced under the Roman Empire), of which the foremost voice was Saint Augustine; and classical philosophy, of which the foremost voices were Plato (for ancient and early medieval theologians) and Aristotle (for later medieval theologians). Saint Thomas Aquinas is widely considered the greatest and most influential theologian and philosopher of the Middle Ages (see History of Western Philosophy).

Creative Literature

In medieval Eastern Europe, the Byzantines continued to produce Greek creative literature, including poetry, prose, and drama. The golden age of Greek literature had passed, however; never again would a Greek writer rise to the ranks of the ancient masters. A similar path was followed by Latin creative literature in Western Europe, though production was initially much slower than in the East (given the collapse of the Western Roman Empire).

Instead, creative medieval literature flourished primarily in vernacular languages; that is, the native tongues of Europe (as opposed to the scholarly tongues). By far the most renowned medieval genre is the heroic legend (composed in prose or narrative poetry), of which many were penned throughout the Middle Ages (ca. 500-1500). Lyric poetry and drama, on the other hand, thrived mainly in the later medieval period (ca. 1000-1500).1

One of the primary cultural forces in later medieval Western Europe was chivalry, an ethical outlook that stressed piety, loyalty to one's lord, devotion to one's lady, and courteous and honourable behaviour in general. Chivalry, which emerged in France, was perceived as the collection of values and behaviours required for Christian integrity. Chivalric ideals suffuse much poetry and prose of the later medieval period (ca. 1000-1500).1

It should be noted that while heroic legends are the most prominent subject of medieval narrative poetry and prose, many other types of stories were told as well, including fairy tales, hagiographies (biographies of saints), Christian allegory, reworkings of classical mythology, and satire.

Lyric Poetry

Although the most famous subject of medieval lyric poetry is "courtly love" (in which a man expresses his love for a lady in chivalric fashion, often lamenting her indifference), many of the themes of ancient poetry continued to be explored by medieval writers, including religious devotion (e.g. hymns), praise (e.g. of heros, pastoral life, or worldly pleasures), lamentation, moral/practical instruction, satirical observation, and philosophical musings. While much was produced in the academic languages (Greek in the East, Latin in the West), the most renowned lyric poetry was written chiefly in the vernacular tongues of Western Europe. As in ancient times, medieval lyric poetry was often composed in the form of songs (rather than standalone poetry).1

A popular source of entertainment throughout the Middle Ages was the minstrel, a wandering poet-singer, typically of low socioeconomic status and performing relatively simple works. In the later medieval period (ca. 1000-1500), minstrels were joined by goliards (rebellious university students, many of them student clergy, who specialized in poetry celebrating sensual pleasures and satirizing the Church) and troubadours (composers of refined "art poetry", typically of middle to upper socioeconomic status). The troubadour movement originated in southern France, from where it spread across Western Europe, especially to northern France (where troubadours are known as trouvères) and Germany (minnesingers).


Western medieval drama was, for the most part, confined to the later medieval period (ca. 1000-1500). Western medieval plays originated as components of church ceremony; namely, as reenactments of events from the Bible (mystery plays) or from the lives of saints (miracle plays). Mystery and miracle plays were composed in Latin and serious in tone.8,9

Primary Genres of Medieval Literature
early Middle Ages
(ca. 500-1000)
later Middle Ages
(ca. 1000-1500)
legends (narrative poetry and prose)
lyric poetry
drama (mystery, miracle, and morality plays)

Eventually, miracle and mystery plays came to be performed outside church (by professional or part-time actors, on permanent stages or travelling wagons), and in vernacular languages. Free from immediate religious oversight, actors responded to popular tastes by injecting non-religious material, including comic scenes and independent side stories; thus did secular drama emerge within the shell of sacred drama. Experimentation with sacred drama outside the church also gave rise to the third major type of Western medieval theatre: the morality play, in which abstract forces of good and evil (personified by actors) compel the main character to choose between them.8,9,10,13

Pre-Christian vs Christian

Medieval creative literature culminated in the form of epic legends, which fall into two groups: pre-Christian and Christian.

The pre-Christian group, which existed originally in the form of oral legends among Europe's various barbarian tribes, became works of literature when recorded by medieval scribes. Since medieval literacy and scholarship were largely the domain of clergy, the spread of Christianity across barbarian Europe was accompanied by the spread of literacy. In some cases, Christian elements were introduced to pagan legends by the scribes (who were typically monks).1,2

Christian legends, on the other hand, were authored by Christians, and consequently feature thoroughly Christian characters and values. Nonetheless, the authors of medieval Christian legend drew much inspiration from pre-Christian works, as well as from classical literature. The heroes of Christian legend are sometimes based on historical figures (e.g. Charlemagne and his knights), other times purely legendary (e.g. Arthur).7

Pre-Christian Legend

The largest and most influential body of pre-Christian legend is Norse mythology, composed in various Germanic languages. The foremost works of Norse mythology are: Beowulf (the greatest medieval English work), in which the hero Beowulf slays the monster Grendel and its mother; Song of the Nibelungs (the greatest medieval German work), which recounts the adventures of the hero Siegfried; and the Edda (the greatest medieval Norse work).

Primary Medieval Legends
pre-Christian Christian
French Song of Roland
English Beowulf
German Song of the Nibelungs
Norse Edda
Spanish Song of the Cid
Slavic Song of Igor's Campaign

The Edda, produced by multiple Icelandic authors, consists of two parts: the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda. Both contain many stories from Norse mythology, the former in narrative poetry, the latter in prose. The Edda is by far and away the most detailed surviving source of Norse mythology.5

Christian Legend

Christian medieval legend flourished principally in form of the romance, which can be defined as "chivalric legend" (i.e. legend that champions the ideals of chivalry). Romances were composed in both narrative poetry and prose.7 Two of the foremost romances are the epic poems Song of Roland (the greatest medieval French work, which tells of the doomed battle of Roland, one of Charlemagne's knights, against an Islamic army in Spain) and Song of El Cid (the greatest medieval Spanish work, which recounts the life of El Cid, the foremost military leader of the Reconquista).

The most famous group of romances is comprised of many tellings (in both narrative poetry and prose) of King Arthur (a legendary king of pre-Saxon England) and his knights. This body of literature, known as Arthurian legend, was jointly produced by English and French authors. Indeed, the most influential work of Arthurian legend, Le Morte d'Arthur (a prose work by Sir Thomas Malory), is an English reworking of various French romances.14

Primary Medieval Legends of France and England
pre-Christian Christian
French Song of Roland Arthurian legend
(notably Le Morte d'Arthur)
English Beowulf

The foremost medieval epic of Eastern Europe is the Song of Igor's Campaign, an East Slavic narrative poem that recounts the failed military venture of Prince Igor (a prince of Rus, the medieval precursor state to the East Slavic nations, namely Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus) against a Steppe tribe. This poem is a Christian heroic legend, though not a romance (as it does not promote chivalric ideals).

1 - "Western Literature", Encyclopedia Britannica.
2 - "Medieval Latin Literature", Columbia Encyclopedia.
3 - "Alcuin", Encyclopedia Britannica.
4 - "Alcuin", Columbia Encyclopedia.
5 - "Edda (Icelandic literature)", Encyclopedia Britannica.
6 - "Chivalry", Encyclopedia Britannica.
7 - "Romance", Encyclopedia Britannica.
8 - "Mystery play", Encyclopedia Britannica.
9 - "Miracle play", Encyclopedia Britannica.
10 - "Morality play", Encyclopedia Britannica.
11 - "French literature", Columbia Encyclopedia.
12 - "Education", Encyclopedia Britannica.
13 - "Drama", Columbia Encyclopedia.
14 - "Le Morte d'Arthur", Encyclopedia Britannica.