Study Guide

Medieval English Literature

Medieval English Literature Introduction

What do these things have in common?

  • A king wielding a magical sword named Excalibur
  • A rude red-haired guy telling a highly-embellished fart joke
  • Truly righteous jousting tournaments with armored knights
  • A woman who sees visions of Jesus and warns people to repent their sins

If you guessed "Things I Saw On My Last Trip to Las Vegas," you lose. These kings, jesters, knights, and maidens fair (and ugly) are all lifted straight from medieval literature.

And you thought you might be in for a real snooze fest with this one. In actuality, the Medieval Period's got something for everyone. Probably because it spanned a really, really long time.

The phrase "Medieval English literature" refers to works that were produced in England from about the fall of Rome (the late 400s CE) to the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. So, we're talking from the end of the Classical period, when people flitted around in togas, to the Renaissance, when women flitted around in cumbersome Elizabethan attire and manly men wore tights.

For those of you who are keeping score—and we hope you are—that's about one thousand years of literature. Of course, scholars came up with these period divisions long after the Renaissance. And yes, they're kind of arbitrary. It's not as if people woke up every morning in the 14th century, rolled out of bed, and said, "Alas, I'm still in the medieval period. Time to not take a bath."

There is some method to the madness of these literary epochs, though.

Consider, for a moment, how a lot of early medieval literature circulated orally. Back then, human stories were passed from mouth to mouth—hopefully without spreading the Black Death, womp womp—before being written down in manuscript. That's how we got epics like Beowulf.

The story of Beowulf existed for hundreds of years as a tale told by scops, who were like minstrels, only much beardier. Many scops came and went before this bit o' bardic entertainment made it onto the page. Which is why we cut off the Medieval Period at about the time the printing press gets up and running.

Once printing started, the oral literary tradition quickly became obsolete. Printing allowed for more people to actually go out and read the stuff coming off the presses for themselves. So stories got (re)produced and disseminated far faster than ever before. Literature became, in a way, much more democratic than before.

Since the manuscripts of the Middle Ages were all written and illustrated by hand—the word "manuscript" literally means written by hand—it was one long process. To make a long story short, lots of hunch-backed monks ruined their eyes and got epic cases of carpal tunnel syndrome so that we can get our Chaucer on. Say thanks to the nice monks.

And did we mention that most people were illiterate during the Middle Ages? The printing press doesn't show up in England until William Caxton brings it over in 1473. Before then, if you weren't part of the educated elite—which basically meant the clergy and the nobility—you probably couldn't read or write. Bummer.

But with the arrival of the printing press, copies of popular works were being churned out faster than the speed of ten thousand monks' pens. This mass-produced material was way cheaper than the old, hand-written manuscripts. So suddenly, your average person-on-the-street could afford to purchase books.

And the availability of those books helped to spur a drastic uptick in literacy.

But literacy in which languages, you might ask? Well, during the Medieval Period, works were written in a range of languages, including Latin, Old English, French, Celtic (Welsh), and various Middle English dialects.

That crisp BBC accent didn't spring, fully formed, from the tongues of 4th century Britons. They were talkin' and writin' and readin' in all kinds of ways back then. So Medieval English are those that were penned in the British Isles during the period in question, regardless of the language the writer chooses.

Some of the movement's big wigs include:

  • Bede and Geoffrey of Monmouth, who both wrote histories of Britain. Only, they wrote them in Latin—the international language of learning and permanence, people thought back then—not English.
  • Marie de France. She's associated with the English royal court, but wrote her works in French.
  • Geoffrey Chaucer. 'Nuff said.
  • The Gawain Poet, who penned his poems in a different dialect of Middle English than Chaucer.
  • All the old, old timers who spun the stories of the The Mabinogi, which draw on Celtic mythology and early Medieval traditions. These were originally written down in Welsh. Delightful.

Did we mention there's something for everyone in this period? We think we might have. Now, grab some hot cocoa and get ready for some sober religious sermons and exempla, tales of courtly love, knights jousting it out on the battlefield, epic poetry about whiskery warriors, and histories that read suspiciously like Harlequin romance novels. (We're looking at you, King Arthur.)

And all of this Medieval Lit is served up with a heaping side helping of the irreverence you've probably learned to expect from this period in history. There will be dirty jokes, beast fables, and rollicking theatrical renditions of Bible stories.

Hold onto your jousting helmets, Shmoopers. Next stop: 5th century, Britain.

What is Medieval English Literature About and Why Should I Care?

This one's easy. Medieval literature has been hugely influential in modern popular culture. Pretty much any sword-and-sorcery adventure ultimately descends from this period, and even some works you wouldn't think of bear its subtle traces. Let's get medieval on a few examples, shall we?

Here's a somewhat subtle case of medieval inspiration: Twilight. What's Twilight other than a modern-day re-hashing of the Lancelot-Arthur-Guinevere love triangle… only with a lot more brooding and a lot more chiseled abs?

All that overwrought, delayed and frustrated desire between Bella and Edward just screams courtly love. Plus, there's the added bonus of that whole Marie de France, Bisclavret werewolf thing going on with Jacob.

What's that? You say you really enjoyed The Hobbit? This one goes all the way back to Beowulf. J.R.R. Tolkien was a huge fan of Anglo-Saxon literature, and outright stole from Beowulf in creating his own work. No Beowulf, no hobbits. It really is that simple.

And then there's good old King Arthur. "Gee, I really hate those movies and television shows about King Arthur and his knights," said no one, ever. Arthur ruled back in the medieval period, and that trend shows no signs of stopping.

Just think of some of the modern works that feature him and his knights of that infamously-round table. You've got Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Excalibur, Merlin, The Sword in the Stone, King Arthur… Those are all up there on our Arthurian playlist. What's on yours?

We'd bet our best sword—okay, maybe our second-best—that you can add a few more to this list in short order.

Finally, there's the assortment of oddities that most of us have enjoyed in one form or another, or at least have a nodding familiarity with: Renaissance fairs (which should, in our opinion, be re-christened as "Medieval Fairs"), the Excalibur hotel in Las Vegas, Sleeping Beauty's castle at Disneyland, and Medieval Times restaurant, where you can get your joust on while eating chicken without utensils.

Now, we're not suggesting that your metric for discriminating important literature from unimportant literature should be how many Disney movies have been made out of it. What we're trying to point out is that Medieval Literature transcends time. The reason it's survived so many years, in so many forms, is that it's highly entertaining, and it speaks to a lot of our deepest desires as humans—the want for adventure, for romance, and to save and be saved.

Deep stuff, we know. But those medieval ladies and gents, they got there first.

Medieval English Literature Resources

Websites

Luminarium: Medieval Literature
Think of this site as the Big Book O' Medieval Stuff. It's got all your major authors and genres, plus a truly righteous links section that leads you to many more resources on medieval history, culture, and literature. A true labor of love, the site was started by a scholar of English literature, and it's constantly reviewed for accuracy. Oh, and it's 100% free. Hit it.

The Camelot Project
Your one-stop resource for all things Arthurian. It's got online texts, scholarly resources, and manuscript images.

Larry Benson's Chaucer Site
Our friends at Harvard bring you this repository of Chaucerian literature. The good professor Larry Benson is one of the foremost Chaucerian scholars, and he's put together a wealth of helpful (and entertaining) resources for you. Thanks, man.

Middle English Teaching Resources Online
Are the challenges posed by reading Middle English keeping you from reading the Canterbury Tales? What about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? Well, don't fret, because once again, Harvard's got your back. This site breaks it down for you, covering a range of material from Chaucer, to the Gawain Poet, to some truly awesome medieval plays. Go play.

The Malory Project
Sounds like a riveting movie about some kind of super secret, science-y experiment, right? Not quite. This site is all about Sir Thomas Malory and Le Morte D'Arthur. In an ambitious move, the authors of the site have put together a complete electronic edition; they've digitized both Malory's original text (the Winchester manuscript), and William Caxton's printed edition.

Medieval Manuscripts
Curious about just how much work went into making a medieval manuscript? Look no further than this site. What a labor-intensive, back-breaking process it was. Luckily, medieval monks didn't have much else to do, so they could devote their time to recording all this great literature for posterity. Not so great for their posteriors, though… what with all those uncomfortably hard wooden benches and all.

Old English Online
If it's ever been your desire to impress your friends at parties by reciting (with harp) the first few lines of Beowulf in its original Old English, then we've got just the site for you. Two real, live professors from the University of Texas have put together this quick-and-dirty intro that can get you up and running in fairly short order. Hwæt?!

The Wanderer Project
Ever wonder what scholars and translators have to do to medieval texts before they can be packaged into a modern edition? Wonder no longer, because this site takes you through the entire process, from transcribing the manuscript to translating it. And in case you're curious, poem the site has chosen to use as an example, The Wanderer, is an Anglo-Saxon elegy.