The Medieval Period, lasting from 1066-1485, saw the emergence of literature in the British Isles. Although there are records of earlier writings—the most prominent of which is the classic epic Beowulf—literature and writing did not become truly popular until this time period.
One of the most distinguishing characteristics of medieval literature is thesetting. Most classic pieces of medieval literature are set in a world much unlike the one that the writers lived in. These fantasy realms were often perfect lands—with chivalrous knights, beautiful damsels, and magical powers. There were many popular characters which appeared and reappeared, including the ever-popular King Arthur.
Many classic works of literature from this era come from oralstories that were eventually written down. In this period, literacy was only commonplace among the upper classes, so many stories were still spread the way they had been for centuries, through word of mouth. The best example of this is the Canterbury Tales; a collection of stories which were originally oral presentations, until recorded by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late 14th century.
These talesprovide a good account of what life and literature was like in the Middle Ages, since the stories told were told about people from all walks of life. Again, we see the distinguishing characteristics of medieval literature: fantasy realms, chivalry, magic, and the like. In addition, there are also some stories with very strong morals, such as the Pardoner’s Tale, which cautions strongly against theconsequences of giving in to avarice.
The medieval period was an important time for literature in Britain. The works of this period helped to distract people from their everyday fears; today they also provide us with doorways through which we can see what everyday early English life was like. By the mid 15th century, as this period of British history was coming to a close, Gutenberg finisheddevelopment of his printing press, thereby giving lower and middle class people their first opportunity to be able to afford to purchase books and other literary works; and expanded literacy in Britain, leading to the emergence of the Renaissance.
Since Latin was the language of the Roman Catholic Church, which dominated Western and Central Europe, and since the Church was virtually theonly 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 OldEnglish Beowulf, the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, the Medieval Greek Digenis Acritas and the Old French Chanson 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 ofMarie de France, the Mabinogion and the Arthurian cycles.
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 were often overawed by the classical writers and theChurch 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.
4. Types of writing...