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Medieval Literature


Medieval literature includes all literary writings written in Europe and beyond between the latter part of the fourth century AD corresponding to the fall of the Roman Empire and the fifteenth century corresponding to the commencement of the renaissance in England. Thus, the medieval period spanned about a thousand years.

Languages of Medieval Literature

Medieval literature was written primarily in two pre-dominant languages in the Western and Eastern parts of Europe respectively. In Western Europe, Latin was the language of literary expression and this owed much to the influence of the Roman Empire which had conquered much of Western Europe. In the Eastern half of Europe, Greek was the predominant language for literary writing because of the influence of the Byzantine Empire and the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, many of the local populations still made use of their vernaculars such as Beowulf.

Components of Medieval Literature

Medieval literature was composed of many different types of writings and could be classified according to several parameters such as by genre, by language, and by origin.

Majority of medieval writings were religious in nature. The reason for this is not farfetched. The church wielded much economic and political power and was virtually the only source of education during this period. The Roman Catholic Church in Western Europe and The Eastern Orthodox and Greek Coptic Churches held sway in the Western and Eastern halves of Europe respectively. Many of the religious writings such as hymns, hagiographies - which were biographies of Saints, Liturgies, religious poems and mystery plays were written during this period. The volume of secular literature produced during medieval times was far less than that of religious writings; nevertheless, important secular works were produced within this period. Many of these secular literary works were various types of poems such as love poems, political poems and epic poems. Writings depicting the experiences of travellers were also written though foreign travel was not so common at this period. All these literary works provided a rich source of education for the population of the medieval age.

Characteristics of Medieval Literature

Medieval literature comprises of a rich and complex variety which makes it difficult for general classifications to be made about them but a few general trends can be identified. Firstly, medieval literature makes extensive use of allegories and symbolisms much more than modern literature. Medieval literature consist of a large volumes of religious literature and tended to concern itself with travel and adventure. Also medieval writings contained much humour.

Some Notable literary works from the Medieval Period

Beowulf, written by an anonymous Anglo Saxon author, the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, the Dialogue by Catherine of Sienna are just a few examples of important medieval literary works.