Medieval literature is a broad subject, encompassing essentially all written works available in Europe and beyond during the Middle Ages (encompassing 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).
Medieval, “belonging to the Middle Ages,” is used here to refer to the literature of Europe and the eastern Mediterranean from as early as the establishment of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire about ad 300 for medieval Greek, from the period following upon the fall of Rome in 476 for medieval Latin, and from about the time of Charlemagne and the Carolingian Renaissance he fostered in France (c. 800) to the end of the 15th century for most written vernacular literatures.
No single theory can account for the writing, performance, or preservation of the fabliaux over the course of nearly three centuries. Surely some of them were originally no more than non-poetic, obscene improvisations intended for after-dinner entertainment as Joseph Bedier and others have argued. And some of the manuscripts containing them must have been complied by or for private collectors with a taste for bawdy stories. Yet the best of the fabliaux - and the fabliaux collectively as they have been preserved in several different contexts - can teach us just how enlivening the small bawdy comedies of sex, gender war, and treachery were for the unfolding of later medieval literature.
The most popular medieval works were the fabliaux, or fables. These humorous short stories, penned by authors from varying classes, enjoyed an immense audience. While most of these stories developed from earlier folk tales, social commentary was woven into the fable. Most fables were quite humorous and often bawdy. Recurring characters were visible in everyday life-merchants, students, lecherous husbands, and lusty, unfaithful wives.
Language saw further development during the Middle Ages. Capital and lowercase letters were developed with rules for each. Books were treasures, rarely shown openly in a library, but rather, kept safely under lock and key. Finding someone who might loan you a book was a true friend. Some might rent out their books, while others, desperate for cash, might turn to the book as a valuable item to be pawned.
When we step into the world of medieval English writing, we must orient ourselves not only to a set of linguistic, religious, cultural and political circumstances and assumptions, but also to the kinds of literary forms and traditions that are valued, suppressed or transformed in any given instance. The 'original author' is not exclusively responsible for the literary forms we encounter; these are also the results of the context of readers, institutions and patrons who requested or preserved or gathered the works that we open up, as well as of the traditions that established the modes as well as a vast repository of stories.
The Middle Ages saw the beginnings of a rebirth in literature. Early medieval books were painstakingly hand-copied and illustrated by monks. Paper was a rarity, with vellum, made from calf's skin, and parchment, made from lamb's skin, were the media of choice for writing. Students learning to write used wooden tablets covered in green or black wax. The greatest number of books during this era were bound with plain wooden boards, or with simple tooled leather for more expensive volumes.
MEDIEVAL (from Latin medium aevum, "the Middle Age" or "the in-between age"): The period of time roughly a thousand years long between the fall of the Roman Empire and the emergence of the Renaissance. Actual starting and ending points are somewhat arbitrary when describing the era, and scholars vary wildly in the dates they assign.
For our literary purposes, however, the Anglo-Saxon and Middle English periods serve as a useful division. The early medieval centuries (often misleadingly called "the Dark Ages") are marked by the disintegration of classical Greco-Roman culture and the volkerwanderung of Germanic tribes into western Europe, followed by gradual conversions to Christianity. Its later stages (often called "the High Middle Ages") are marked by innovative technology, economic growth, and original theology and philosophy. The term medievalism in western Europe is linked with feudalism in government, guildhouses in economics, monasticism and Catholicism in religion, and castles and knights in chivalrous military custom. Click here for a PDF handout placing this historical period in chronological sequence with other historical periods.
The writers of the late Dark Ages and early Medieval period were the clerics and theologians so much of the early Medieval literature was of a religious nature. Countless hymns survive from this time period. Religious scholars such as Thomas Aquinas, and Pierre Abelard wrote lengthy theological and philosophical treatises.
English Medieval literature had, so far as we know, no existence until Christian times of the Dark Ages when Latin was the language of English literature. English Medieval literature was not written. It is was passed by word of mouth from one generation to another by English, Welsh and Irish bards. The origins of the stories about King Arthur and the Arthurian Legend are found in many Welsh legends and Celtic Myths which were told by the Bards who therefore contributed to Medieval literature.