Medieval literature is a broad subject, encompassing essentially all written works available in Europe and beyond during the Middle Ages (that is, the one thousand years from the fall of the Western Roman Empire ca. AD 500 to the beginning of the Florentine Renaissance in the late 15th century). The literature of this time was composed of religious writings as well as secular works. Just as in modern literature, it is a complex and rich field of study, from the utterly sacred to the exuberantly profane, touching all points in-between. Works of literature are often grouped by place of origin, language, and genre.
Since Latin was the language of the Roman Catholic Church, which dominated Western and Central Europe, and since the Church was virtually the only source of education, Latin was a common language for medieval writings, even in some parts of Europe that were never Romanized. However, in Eastern Europe, the influence of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Eastern Orthodox Church made Greek and Old Church Slavonic the dominant written languages.
The common people continued to use their respective vernaculars. A few examples, such as the Old EnglishBeowulf, the Middle High GermanNibelungenlied, the Medieval GreekDigenis Acritas, the Old East SlavicTale of Igor's Campaign, and the Old FrenchChanson de Roland, are well known to this day. Although the extant versions of these epics are generally considered the works of individual (but anonymous) poets, there is no doubt that they are based on their peoples' older oral traditions. Celtic traditions have survived in the lais of Marie de France, the Mabinogion and the Arthurian cycles. Another host of vernacular literature has survived in the Old Norse literature and more specifically in the Saga literature of Iceland.
A notable amount of medieval literature is anonymous. This is not only due to the lack of documents from a period, but also due to an interpretation of the author's role that differs considerably from the romantic interpretation of the term in use today. Medieval authors often deeply respected the classical writers and the Church Fathers and tended to re-tell and embellish stories they had heard or read rather than invent new stories. And even when they did, they often claimed to be handing down something from an auctor instead. From this point of view, the names of the individual authors seemed much less important, and therefore many important works were never attributed to any specific person.
Types of writing
Theological works were the dominant form of literature typically found in libraries during the Middle Ages. Catholic clerics were the intellectual center of society in the Middle Ages, and it is their literature that was produced in the greatest quantity.
Countless hymns survive from this time period (both liturgical and paraliturgical). The liturgy itself was not in fixed form, and numerous competing missals set out individual conceptions of the order of the mass. Religious scholars such as Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, and Pierre Abélard wrote lengthy theological and philosophical treatises, often attempting to reconcile the teachings of the Greek and Roman pagan authors with the doctrines of the Church. Hagiographies, or "lives of the saints", were also frequently written, as an encouragement to the devout and a warning to others.
The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine reached such popularity that, in its time, it was reportedly read more often than the Bible. Francis of Assisi was a prolific poet, and his Franciscan followers frequently wrote poetry themselves as an expression of their piety. Dies Irae and Stabat Mater are two of the most powerful Latin poems on religious subjects. Goliardic poetry (four-line stanzas of satiric verse) was an art form used by some clerics to express dissent. The only widespread religious writing that was not produced by clerics were the mystery plays: growing out of simple tableaux re-enactments of a single Biblical scene, each mystery play became its village's expression of the key events in the Bible. The text of these plays was often controlled by local guilds, and mystery plays would be performed regularly on set feast-days, often lasting all day long and into the night.
During the Middle Ages, the Jewish population of Europe also produced a number of outstanding writers. Maimonides, born in Cordoba, Spain, and Rashi, born in Troyes, France, are two of the best-known and most influential of these Jewish authors.
Secular literature in this period was not produced in equal quantity as religious literature. The earliest tales are based on oral traditions: the British Y Goddoddin and Preiddeu Annwfn, along with the Germanic Beowulf and Nibelungenlied. They relate to myths or certain 6th-century events, but the surviving manuscripts date from centuries later—Y Goddoddin from the late 13th century, Preiddu Annwfn from the early 14th century, Beowulf from c. 1000, and the Nibelungenlied from the 13th century. The makers and performers were bards (British/Welsh) and scops (Germanic), elite professionals attached to royal or noble courts to praise the heroes of legendary history.
Prose tales first emerged in Britain: the intricate Mabinogi quartet about princely families, notably anti-war in theme, and the romantic adventure Culhwch and Olwen, famous for the earliest mention of King Arthur. (The Mabinogi is not the same as the Mabinogion, a collection of disconnected prose tales, which does, however, include both the Mabinogi and Culhwch and Olwen.) These works were compiled from earlier oral tradition c. 1100.
At about the same time a new poetry of "courtly love" became fashionable in Europe. Traveling singers—troubadours and trouvères—made a living from their love songs in French, Spanish, Galician-Portuguese, Catalan, Provençal, and Greek. Germanic culture had its Minnesänger tradition. The songs of courtly love often express unrequited longing for an ideal woman, but there are also aubades (dawn farewells by lovers) and humorous ditties.
Following the earliest epic poems, prose tales, and romances, more long poems were crafted—the chansons de geste of the late 11th and early 12th centuries. These extolled conquests, as in The Song of Roland (part of the Matter of France) and Digenis Acritas (one of the Acritic songs). The rather different chivalric romance tradition concerns adventures about marvels, love, and chivalry. They tell of the Matter of Britain and the Matter of Rome.
Political poetry threads throughout the period from the very early Armes Prydein (10th-century Britain) to the goliard rebels of 12th and 13th centuries, who were church trained clerics unable or unwilling to be employed in the church.
Travel literature was highly popular in the Middle Ages, as fantastic accounts of far-off lands (frequently embellished or entirely false) entertained a society that supported sea voyages and trading along coasts and rivers, as well as pilgrimages to such destinations as Jerusalem; Canterbury and Glastonbury in England; St. David's in Wales; and Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales became popular at the end of the 14th century.
The most prominent authors of Jewish secular poetry in the Middle Ages were Solomon ibn Gabirol and Yehuda Halevi, both of whom were also renowned religious poets.
While it is true that women in the medieval period were never accorded full equality with men, some women were able to use their skill with the written word to gain renown. Religious writing was the easiest avenue—women who would later be canonized as saints frequently published their reflections, revelations, and prayers. Much of what is known about women in the Middle Ages is known from the works of nuns such as Clare of Assisi, Bridget of Sweden, and Catherine of Siena.
Frequently, however, the religious perspectives of women were held to be unorthodox by those in power, and the mystical visions of such authors as Julian of Norwich, Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Hildegard of Bingen provide insight into a part of the medieval experience less comfortable for the institutions that ruled Europe at the time. Women wrote influential texts in the secular realm as well—reflections on courtly love and society by Marie de France and Christine de Pizan continue to be studied for their glimpses of medieval society.
For modern historical reflection, D.H. Green's (2007) historical work entitled, Women Readers of the Middle Ages explores literacy and literature in terms of women in medieval society. The book has been reviewed as "a radical reassessment of women's contribution to medieval literary culture." 
Main article: Allegory in the Middle Ages
While medieval literature makes use of many literary devices, allegory is so prominent in this period as to deserve special mention. Much of medieval literature relied on allegory to convey the morals the author had in mind while writing—representations of abstract qualities, events, and institutions are thick in much of the literature of this time. Probably the earliest and most influential allegory is the Psychomachia (Battle of Souls) by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius. Other important examples include the Romance of the Rose, Everyman, Piers Plowman, Roman de Fauvel, and The Divine Comedy.
Notable literature of the period
- Alexiad, Anna Comnena
- Beowulf, anonymousAnglo-Saxon author
- Caedmon's Hymn
- Cantigas de Santa Maria, Galician
- The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan
- Book of the Civilized Man, Daniel of Beccles
- The Book of Good Love, Juan Ruiz
- The Book of Margery Kempe, Margery Kempe
- Brut, Layamon
- Brut, Wace
- The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
- The Cloud of Unknowing, anonymous English author
- Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius
- David of Sassoun, anonymous Armenian author
- Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio
- The Dialogue, Catherine of Siena
- Digenis Acritas, anonymousGreek author
- The Diseases of Women, Trotula of Salerno
- La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy), Dante Alighieri
- Dukus Horant, the first extended work in Yiddish.
- Elder Edda, various Icelandic authors
- Das fließende Licht der Gottheit, Mechthild of Magdeburg
- First Grammatical Treatise, 12th-century work on Old Norse phonology
- Gesta Danorum, Saxo Grammaticus
- Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson
- Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People), the Venerable Bede
- The Knight in the Panther Skin, Shota Rustaveli
- The Lais of Marie de France, Marie de France
- The Letters of Abelard and Heloise
- Libro de los ejemplos del conde Lucanor y de Patronio (Book of the Examples of Count Lucanor and of Patronio), Don Juan Manuel, Prince of Villena
- Ludus de Antichristo, anonymous German author
- Mabinogion, various Welsh authors
- Metrical Dindshenchas, Irish onomastic poems
- Il milione (The Travels of Marco Polo), Marco Polo
- Le Morte d'Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory
- Nibelungenlied, anonymous German author
- Njál's saga, anonymous Icelandic author
- Parzival, Wolfram von Eschenbach
- Piers Plowman, William Langland
- Poem of the Cid, anonymous Spanish author
- Proslogium, Anselm of Canterbury
- Queste del Saint Graal (The Quest of the Holy Grail), anonymous French author
- Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich
- Roman de la Rose, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun
- Sadko, anonymous Russian author
- Scivias, Hildegard of Bingen
- Sic et Non, Abelard
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, anonymous English author
- The Song of Roland, anonymous French author
- Spiritual Exercises, Gertrude the Great
- Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas
- Táin Bó Cúailnge, anonymous Irish author
- The Tale of Igor's Campaign, anonymous Russian author
- Tirant lo Blanc, Joanot Martorell
- The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, John Mandeville
- Tristan, Thomas d'Angleterre
- Tristan, Béroul
- Tristan and Isolt, Gottfried von Strassburg
- Troilus and Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer
- Younger Edda, Snorri Sturluson
- Yvain: The Knight of the Lion, Chrétien de Troyes
By region or language
- ^Green, D.H. "Women Readers of the Middle Ages". Cambridge University Press, England. ISBN 978-0-52187-9422
- ^McDonald, Nicola. " Women Readers in the Middle Ages (review)"
- ^Buringh, Eltjo; van Zanden, Jan Luiten: "Charting the “Rise of the West”: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe, A Long-Term Perspective from the Sixth through Eighteenth Centuries", The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 69, No. 2 (2009), pp. 409–445 (416, table 1)
Umberto Eco has passed away, and with him we’ve lost one of our great thinkers about the meaning and implications of language. Like many people, I first encountered Eco as a fiction author. I remember seeing and loving The Name of the Rose as a high school student, going on to read the book, and being inspired to to make my way doggedly through Foucault’s Pendulum. Pendulum, like much of Eco’s work in fiction, depended on such deep cultural knowledge I’m sure I only understood a fraction of the references, but I remember the kudos I earned from my English teacher for knowing the book at all. Even in fictional work, Eco was dense and difficult, and rewarded slow absorption and reflection.
It was many years before I encountered Eco the Scholar. I was a postgraduate student in Oxford when he came to give the Weindenfeld lectures. He was gently disheveled, politely confused by the requirement of wearing an academic gown to lecture, by turns quiet and contemplative, and excitable and insistent. I was absorbed again and attended every one. His topic was translation. Not the technicalities of moving between Italian and English, for example, but the meanings, problems, losses and gains of doing so. He talked extensively about the experience of having Foucault’s Pendulum translated into English. The central figure of Casaubon is a sort of cipher for Eco himself; the ultimate intertextual person; a person constituted, motivated and to be understood almost completely by his literary and scholarly reminiscences and allusions. Eco talked about the thorny question of how to render classics of medieval Italian literature with which his initial readers would have been familiar into an English version, for instance. Transforming the words of Dante, or Boccaccio into English would not convey the same play of intertextual light and shade to an Anglophone mind. Simply replacing these references with contemporary English literature wouldn’t serve: the average Anglophone reader is less acquainted with and able to understand snippets of Chaucer than an Italian counterpart their Dante. In the end, some references had to be replaced with more modern English quotes, while others were transformed directly from Italian but couched to point towards their relevance and erudition. What happened to Pendulum in the process? Was it the same book? Fundamentally, yes. Like Abelard, Eco concluded that in translation it is intention that matters more than fidelity to the rules. The reader must understand what something really means, more than they must grasp the particular words.
In fact, those lectures, effectively the draft jottings of what would become his Mouse or Rat? Eco went on to demonstrate that all ‘rules’ for moving directly languages are fallacies, because language is fundamentally a cultural phenomenon. Human experience has many common features across cultures, and languages therefore also share many common features. We all have words, for example, for mother, baby, walk, and talk. But it isn’t merely a cliche to say that the Inuit have many words for types of snow that an English speaker isn’t capable of distinguishing. In the same way, Eco discussed, the native peoples of The Philippines have words for myriad shades of red that we would have to describe as colour codes, lacking the linguistic richness to discuss the differences between them. These distinctions of language are distinctions of culture. They reflect what matters to people in particular contexts; and the full meaning of the words is only properly conveyed by reference to that system of values and assumptions.
Looking back on his work, I can see how these topics to which he turned in the early 2000s were in long continuum with his interest in semiotics, the science (or art?) of meaning, since the 1960s. For my own work, one of Eco’s most influential books was The Limits of Interpretation. Here he reflected on the problematic anarchy of postmodernism’s attempts to kill the author. The death of the author, Eco observed, opened up the meaning of texts to any and all interpretations. But this isn’t representative of how texts work. In fact, they have limited possible interpretations. Admittedly, not all of them will be the intended meaning of an author/writer/producer of the text, but authors know this. As a result, the art of textual production, Eco argued, rests on anticipation of the reader and their assumptions, reference to likely shared patterns of structure and understanding, and the construction of a text which limits, for a given probable reader, the possible readings as closely as possible to the intended one, without simply reproducing a template. This insight was fundamental to me in understanding the relationship between medieval artes dictaminis, letter formularies, and the individual letter. It stimulated in me the idea that every medieval letter (and every modern one, perhaps) was a negotiation between reference to a notional ‘Ideal’ letter (the artes), common patterns of letter writing and meaning (formularies), and unique epistolary responses to the imperatives of context and correspondents.
Like Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco’s academic work is layered, dense and difficult. I don’t doubt it will continue to repay slow reflection and rumination for many years. Which is lucky, because there will be no more fresh thoughts from that wonderful, wide-ranging, provocative and stimulating mind. The world is a little dimmer.