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The Medieval World

Literary Genres
of the High Middle Ages

Graham McKenzie
Rhodes University
Updated: 14 December 2009
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Any reader of this essay can be expected to hold certain assumptions regarding the manner in which it should analyse the development of certain literary genres during the medieval period.

As this essay forms part of a course on Medieval Western European history, it could be expected that the analysis would mainly expose the manner in which social and political development during the medieval period, was linked to the development of certain literary genres.

Assuming the existence of such links it could further be assumed that the study of the development of certain genres, could tell us a great deal, in a historical sense, about the lives, concerns, ideals and aspirations of people living during the medieval period.

  • C S Baldwin, An Introduction to Medieval English Literature (London, 1914), p210.
  • Unfortunately, the prime revelation of this essay may be that these assumptions might not be correct. Our 20th Century approach to literature allows us to regard this creative art as being one which supplies life experiences through expressive interpretation and delivers to us the essence of our culture.

    In this sense 20th century literature allows for the establishment of verifiable links between the literary interpretation and the existing social context.

    The problem in analysing the development of medieval literary genres in this manner, is that the contextual links found in 20th century literature, may possibly not be said to exist in the same manner for medieval literature.

    This being the case, it could be argued that medieval literary genres developed without reference to their social context.

    This could be regarded as a very radical introduction to this analysis, but these are possibilities that have to be investigated and argued.

    Even if the medieval literary genres of romance, epic and lyric, as recognised today, did not hold the same identity and significance during the medieval period, as they do today, an effort must be made to study those which have survived even if their survival and importance says more about us than about medieval society.

    There are indeed many aspects of medieval society which may be traced in the literary genres but these must be analysed in a more circumspect manner than the student of literature may apply.

    To provide some early substantiation for the radical assumptions proposed in the introduction, it might be wise to first consider the physical context in which medieval literature was to develop.

    During the so-called Dark Ages the extensive Roman and Greek classical literature would have been almost totally lost to the new cultural awakening of the Middle Ages, if the church has not transcribed these works and had kept literacy alive.

  • D Brewer, Introduction to Chaucer (London, 1984), p20.

  • N Kotker (Ed), The Horizon Book of the Middle Ages (London, 1968), p283.
  • Having been the only institution to maintain literacy, the spread of the church in Western Europe became synonymous with the spread of literacy. However, even by the end of the 14th century, very few laymen could read, and in fact, the capacity to read was often regarded as evidence that a man belonged to the church.

    All literature of significance prior to the middle ages had been in Latin, and although Latin continued to dominate, the early middle ages was marked by an increased use of vernacular languages in literature.

  • Kotker , Horizon Book of the Middle Ages, p283.
  • Since the existence of literature depended upon the capacity to write, the vernacular "literature" had previously only existed in oral form. Since a great deal of the "oral literature" was pagan, and the church provided the only means for recording the oral form, pagan stores were "Christianised" during the recording process.

    Despite the increasing use of the vernacular, and the incorporation of oral folk stories, the growth of literature was hindered by the necessity to laboriously copy out books by hand. Books were a valuable rarity during the whole of the medieval period.

    The domination of literature and literacy by the church, and the dependency on previous literary authorities that had developed whilst the church struggled to maintain literacy and literature during the Dark Ages, resulted in the new literature that arose during the Middle Ages being largely of what C S Lewis calls a "bookish or clerkly character".

  • C S Lewis, The Discarded Image, An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge, 1964), p5.
  • Despite the gradual incorporation of oral sources, C S Lewis claims that medieval culture was not a response of the writer to observation and the environment, but depended largely upon the content of existing manuscripts. Every writer based himself on a previous writer.

    This observation by C S Lewis is well supported. Examples of literature encountered in each of the medieval genres were often only one example of a particular story that underwent continual and gradual revision, often shifting from paganism to Christianity as part of this process.

    The concept of authorship did not exist. Works of literature were not considered worthy by virtue of their being a spontaneous response to society and the author's observations, but rather by virtue of the authority to which they referred.

  • Kotker, The Horizon Book of the Middle Ages, p284.
  • If this was the case, what then was the contribution of Germanic culture to the literature that arose during the period. We cannot discount that many of the sources for literature were the folklore of the Germanic peoples, Franks and Celts, and certainly the vernacular of these groups took the place of Latin in the literature.

    However, we cannot forget the extent to which their stores coincided with the content of the classics, and the possibility that these were only recorded because of the possibility for reference.

    The first genre to ascend to literacy permanency during the medieval period, namely the Epic, had as its classical counterpart the genre which produced such Epics as the Iliad and Odyssey. The medieval Epics sprang from oral or folk literature and were a product of primitive societies in which tales of heroes were sung by bards.

  • Baldwin, Introduction to Medieval English Literature, p4.

  • Kotker , Horizon Book of the Middle Ages, p284.
  • Although the sources of such folk stories were distributed across Western Europe, the similarities between the stories led to the identification of a set of characteristics by which earlier medieval literature could be separated from that which developed generally after 1100 AD.

    These general characteristics are best exemplified in the Old English tradition by the epic Beowulf, in France (where epics were known as Chansons de geste) by The Song of Roland, and in Germany by the Nibelunglied.

    Typically the Epic tells us of a hero, leader and protector of his people. He was not only a strong fighter, but a man of foresight. He enjoyed fighting and feasting, and was loyal and generous to his people and fellows.

    An important aspect of the epic was that the hero had to be a man very like the people that were hearing the Epic; there had to be a possibility for some form of identification with the hero; and he had to be seen as being representative of his people.

  • Baldwin, Introduction to Medieval English Literature, p13.
  • Epics are generally full of action, with the heroes able to give full vent to their warlike spirit. The conflicts are generally mass battles in which the heroes have to fight with almost superhuman strength to overcome the odds, and in which loyalty between comrades can be illustrated to the extreme. Epics seem to exalt in the goriness of battle.

  • C W Hollister, Medieval Europe, A Short History (New York, 1990), p259.
  • Certainly where men delight in fighting, feasting and knightly loyalty, there is little place for love and, with the exception of the bloodthirsty, warlike women who made their way into the epics, this genre was devoid of any civilising femininity.

    It appears that sources are unanimous regarding the reason for the acceptance of this form of literature to the point that it became recognised as a genre. The Epics expressed the warlike spirit and values of military brotherhood that existed in the early Middle Ages.

    In a time when the survival of fledgling cultures depended upon the strength of the warlord, and the loyalty of his vassals, the stores of heroes that could overcome all odds became increasingly popular.

    Although the Epics had originally been composed in a pagan culture, they were recorded by christian writers. In some cases only the more obviously pagan characteristics, such as references to Nordic and Germanic gods were omitted from the originals, whereas in others a more definite attempt was made to portray the warlords as Christian knights.

  • Baldwin, Introduction to Medieval English Literature, p62.
  • From the end of the 12th century onwards, the purely male domain of the epic lost its position of popularity to the more subtle genre of Romance, which began to take its place.

    The Romantic genre rested on three ideal motives; Love, Adventure and Chivalry. Each of these motives requires separate investigation if we wish to establish the development of this genre.

  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, p263.
  • In the Chanson de geste, or Epic, the prime virtue had been loyalty for one's lord, in the Romance, the prime virtue was love for one's lady. In the case of the Romance this love often militated against feudal loyalty in that the love affairs were often across the barriers of the feudal hierarchy, eg. between a vassal and the Lord's lady.

  • Brewer, Introduction to Chaucer, p31.
  • The necessity for the maintenance of the feudal hierarchy, despite the demands of passion resulted in a love affair which was never taken to a passionate conclusion. According to what became known as "courtly love", lovers (usually knights) idealised their ladies from afar and turned their every action into some form of devotion for the loved one.

    According to the rules of this game, the lady would provide the lover with some small token of her recognition of his devotion, which for the lover, was as passionate a gesture as any consummation might have been.

  • Baldwin, Introduction to Medieval English Literature, p63.

  • Lewis, The Discarded Image, p18.
  • Christian morality may have been an important driving force behind the growth of "courtly love" in literature. In a society in which marriages were often arranged, an object of love outside the marriage must have been a great temptation.

    The reason for the idealisation of women in this genre, as opposed to the attitudes exhibited in the Epics, has proved difficult to establish. Women had been virtually ignored in the Epics, except as warriors or worthy wives, and mothers, and generally had a very low status in society at the time.

    One explanation is that the increasing homage paid to women was due to the growth of the cult of the Virgin Mary. Classical literacy influences such as Virgil and Ovid are also credited with having influenced early French romances, and C S Lewis has claimed that there is also an unacknowledged debt owed to the Arabians.

  • Baldwin, Introduction to Medieval English Literature, p63.
  • Possibly the greatest influence on the inclusion of the idealisation of women in the genre came as a result of the influence of women themselves. It has been reported that courtly love came to England when Eleanor of Pitou brought with her court a famous Provencal love poet in 1149 AD.

    Ultimately the idealisation of women in poetry portrayed the fickleness of the sentiment. There was no real sense of equality, and the woman was only really elevated when she was an object of love. In marriage she was the subject of less adoration.

    As the second motive of Romance, adventure received a new interpretation in comparison to its presentation in the Epic. In the Epic, adventure was part of the reality of the heroes' struggle.

    In Romance, adventure came to be related with all that was fantastic and marvellous. The hero of romance belonged less to the world of reality and possibility, than to the world of dreams and imagination.

    The story lines of Epics depended on the individual characteristics of the heroes, whereas in romances the heroes had generally similar knightly characteristics that did not determine the course of the story.

    The hero of Romance sought adventure without any need for motive. If the hero of romance does have a motive it is usually nobly nebulous or virtually unattainable. Such a motive came to be known as the "quest".

  • Baldwin, Introduction to Medieval English Literature, pp64-9.
  • Chivalry was the third motive of Romance, in which the other two motives were encapsulated, and which provided the genre with its essential features. The hero of Romance was the knight, a man who fought in the tournament to win the devotion of his lady and who fought in battle out of loyalty to his lord.

    Although the knight was no more than a servant, he carried out his service on horseback and was separated from ordinary men by his martial prowess, birth, rank and conduct. The ideal by which a knight lived came to be known as chivalry.

  • Brewer, Introduction to Chaucer, p28.
  • Chivalry arose amongst the warlords as the civilising influence of Christianity took hold. An ideal of Christian faith, courage, courtesy and love steadily developed within the knightly class. The chivalric ideal came to encompass many other aspects including generosity, pity, chastity and selfless bravery. In a sense it came to be for the knights a rule very much like the Benedictine rule for monks.

  • Baldwin, Introduction to Medieval English Literature, p69.
  • Unfortunately the chivalric ideal found its best expression only within the romance, and not within the actual conduct of the knight. The courtesy that was so characteristic of the literature was a rarity in practise.

    Nevertheless, in the realm of imagination, where the chivalric ideal could remain untainted, the love of the romance was chivalrous love; its adventures were chivalrous adventures; and its aim was to uphold a chivalrous ideal.

    The development of the Romance as a genre was of a different character to the development of the epic genre. The romance genre was more international. It drew its source material from diverse cultures with France fulfilling the primary role in establishing the genre.

    Stories drawn from English and Germanic folklore were rewritten or recomposed, as Romances were redistributed to the cultures from which they had been drawn. As these stores were internationalised the heroes lost their national significance.

    In this fashion the Celtic folklore surrounding a 5th century British chieftain, Arthur, and tales such as those of Tristan and Iseult found new significance.

    Possibly the best known Romances are those concerning Arthur. Possibly the reason for the popularity of Arthur was that Geoffrey of Monmouth's Histora Regum Britanniae provided an almost historical treatise on Arthur's alleged Trojan ancestry.

    A huge cycle of Arthurian Romances, began to develop, drawing on material from classical works, recouched in the Romantic genre. Christianity contributed to the longevity of the Arthurian cycle by adding to the knightly "quest", a quest for the "Holy Grail".

    The quest for the Holy Grail represented a quest not just for the earthly love of a lady, but for heavenly love.

  • Baldwin, Introduction to Medieval English Literature, pp75-85.
  • The Grail provided the knights with a spiritual struggle and reward. If the Arthurian cycle, culminating in the search for the Holy Grail, was meant to have a function in Medieval Society, the institution best served was the Catholic Church.

    The struggle for religious perfection became a romantic ideal; a knightly fight against evil which could fulfil the romantic notions of every Christian.

    The Epic and the Romance represent two of the greatest genres of the medieval period. Whether they are truly representative of the period is dubious. They generally portrayed the ideals of the higher echelons of society.

    They do not represent the opinions of the period, but rather represent numerous writers' attempts to re-narrate the stories of the classics and folklore in accordance with a medieval method. These genres tell us that the earlier medieval writer was more methodical than creative.

    It is possibly only in the literature of the laymen and lower classes that we begin to see a truer picture of life in medieval Europe. The growth of literacy amongst laymen was to culminate in the 14th Century in the writings of Chaucer.

    Although he was not able to rid himself entirely of the need for reference, Chaucer was to presage a new literary age in which the observation and inspiration of the individual was triumphant, and which allows for the first time an unobstructed analysis of the age.

    If everybody else thought that the literary vehicles of romantic love, adventure and chivalry were taken seriously in the medieval period, Chaucer certainly did not share their views, and used satire to deconstruct the Romantic genre.

    The fabliaux, or short verse tale, was also used by Chaucer. This genre drew its characters from the townspeople who became increasingly important in medieval Europe. The fabliaux were most often satirical, poking fun at conventional morality and institutions.

  • Hollister, Medieval Europe, p264.
  • The success of the fabliaux as a genre lay in its capacity to entertain. It was not instructional or imaginary, but was firmly based on exploiting the characters and the conventions that could be recognised by the people living in the period. Any attempt at reference to classical authorities would have blunted the vigour of this genre.

  • Baldwin, Introduction to Medieval English Literature, p107.
  • Chaucer may have used satire more effectively than any other medieval writer, but there were readers and writers of satire even during the height of the periods dominated by the Epic and the Romance.

    The earlier medieval satire was however not of the egalitarian nature practised by Chaucer, but was often aimed exclusively at the idealisation of women in the literature. This should not be surprising since most of the writers of such satire where grudgingly celibate monks.

    Within the genre of Satire, the medieval urban culture also produced the fable. In these animal stories, which were in the same tradition as Aesop's Fables, medieval characters were placed in the feudal hierarchy of the animal kingdom.

    Using allegory, the fables were able to express the diversity of human character, and the worldly wisdom which medieval man had to develop in order to prosper.

  • Brewer, Introduction to Chaucer, p27.
  • An analysis of the gulf that separates the genres of Epic and Romance, on the one hand, and the genres of Fabliaux, Satire and Fable on the other, perhaps allows for a 20th Century approach to the genres. Life in the Middle Ages was a brutish, short and dirty affair.

    Disease and warfare were constant threats to life. The genres of the Epic and Romance did not represent the glories and ideals of the period, but rather harkened back to a period when glories and higher ideals were considered to be more commonplace.

    This has been quite accurately portrayed in the statement "The Golden Age of Chivalry was always in the past".

    While the knight or aristocrat claimed to live by the code, but was rather more Machiavellian, the ordinary people laboured on, seeking what escape they could in a literature that was based more on the realities of life.

    It is thus unlikely that the medieval literary genre that currently carry the most emphasis, namely the Romance and Epic, truly represented the response of the medieval man to his environment.

    The significant literature of the period was not recorded until its composers became literate, and began to produce writings that were truly characteristic of the age. Much may have been lost in the interim, and the Epic and Romance flourished on the shallow soil of classical reference.

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