Literature of the Middle Ages
• Didactic: Poems teaching Christian doctrine,
sometimes allegory: Patience, Pearl, The Rood,
Cleanliness, The Seafarer
• Dream Vision: Pearl and Roman de la Rose. A
dreamer dreams the allegorical experience,
utilizing the highly symbolic nature of dreams.
• Sonnets: Dante and Petrarch
• Troubadour Songs and Ballads
• Sestinas: 6 stanza poems of 6 lines each…abcdef,
faebdc, cfdabe, ecbfad, deacfb, bdfeca
• Epics: Dante (1265-1321) La Divina Commedia, written between
1308 and his death, during Dante’s exile, this text lifts the world from
the medieval to the Renaissance. There is evidence that Dante based
this epic dream vision poem on the recently translated (1264) Liber
Scale Machometi (Kitab al Miraj) or the Book of Ascension, which
describes Mohammed’s night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, and
his vision thorough the seven heavens to God.
• Dante’s epic also incorporates the philosophy of the Summa
Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) whose ideas are
attributed to, among others, Averroes (Ibn Rushd 1126-1198) and
Maimonides (Moses ibn Ezra 1135-1204) who both argued a
reconciliation of Aristotelian philosophy with Islam: all of whom are
identifying truth as a combination of human reason and divine grace.
• Mystery Plays: Bible
• Morality Plays: Didactic
Allegories, such as
• Miracle Plays: Saints’
• Passion Plays: Depicting
the events relating to the
trial, crucifixion, and
resurrection of Jesus
• De Casibus Tragedy: The
moniker is based on
Boccaccio’s De Casibus
Virorum Illustrium. This
tragedy depends entirely on the
whimsical nature of Fate or
Fortune. (See Chaucer’s The
Monk’s Tale.) You’ve seen this
already in Job. The
Renaissance, of course, will go
back to the Greek ideal
(humanism) of tragedy, and
includes hamartia.* Fate takes
a bit of a back seat to free will.
Beast Fables and Riddles
• Many taken from translations of the Latin Aesop fables.
(Aesop was Greek, but a slave in Roman times.)
• These became allegories for teaching Christian ideals.
• La Fontaine may have used these as a source for his
Fables, written in the late 1600’s.
• Medieval folks were also mad for riddles – short poems
without titles that were metaphors and allegories for other
things were a rage.
• This was also a time that produced many brilliantly
illustrated manuscripts of the Bible and other texts,
religious and otherwise.
Saints’ Tales, Parables, and
Sermons, Prayer Books
• Saints’ Tales are likely taken from pagan stories of heroes,
gods, and goddesses. They are mystical in nature and
often involve transformations, visions, and other-worldly
• Sermons: Parables or Allegory that are structured as a
morality tale, sometimes to resolve a moral conundrum.
Piers Plowman is an allegorical prose work by William
Langland that portrays life as a pilgrimage. Exemplum
were also popular, which were parables attached to a
particular sermon, as were dialectical discourses.*
• Also, Books of Hours, or illustrated texts, usually with
religious prayers: Jean d’Evreux’ Hours, which is at the
Cloisters and Jean, Duc de Berry’s calendar, Très Riche
• Dirty Stories – with moralistic justification! These stories
were as popular then as they are now. Some modern
versions would include such classic American films such
as, American Pie, The Spy Who Shagged Me…
• Chaucer: (d. 1400) Canterbury Tales
• Boccaccio: (d. 1376) The Decameron
• Perhaps written as a salve to pious fervor of the times, or
in response to ecclesiastic law….or as an antidote to
courtly love and the Black Plague.
• This “collection of stories” formula likely also floated in
from the Arab world, with the Persian Scheherazade
stories available in translation.
• History and
Influences of
Romance Literature
• Writers and Works
• Conventions of
Medieval Romance
• Chivalric Code and
Introduction to
Courtly Love
History and Influences of Romance
• The word romance comes from the Old French
word, romanz, meaning the vernacular, or
language of the people.
• As the Church spread its influence across Europe,
priests and clerics, in order to educate and teach
“history” from the Roman Empire, translated the
body of work of Roman literature into the
vernacular languages of French, English, Italian,
and German. But the Romance literature is equally
influenced from the Arab world.
History and Influences of Romance
• Translations of philosophy and other texts from the GrecoRoman world are initiated by Islamic scholars. These
include the mystical texts of Ibn Arabi and Moses of Leon,
introducing Sufism and the Kabbalah, respectively.
• In addition to classical texts, there is a flourish of secular
poetry and writing from Muslims and Jews during La
Convivencia when Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted
in Spain from 711-1492 (Reconquista) that also influence
European writing during the Middle Ages.
• This includes especially the often erotic love poetry of
Samuel ibn Nagrid and Judah Halevi (Hebrew) and Ibn
Hazm (Arabic) and a constellation of others.*
History and Influences of Romance
• The translations included the stories of heroes and
heroic adventure (Virgil’s The Aeneid) poetry,
dialogues and historical texts: Ovid, Plutarch,
Caesar, Cicero’s dream vision, Dream of Scipio.
• The stories of Theseus, Aeneas, Hercules, the
founding of Rome, Alexander the Great, and
Julius Caesar, and tales from Ovid in Europe were
often changed and flourished with Christian
virtues: justice, prudence, temperance, courage,
faith, charity, and hope.
History and Influences of Romance
The stories included adventures and heroic deeds, as well
as stories of lasting love: Ovid’s Metamorphoses, cleaned
up: Cupid and Psyche, Venus and Adonis, Hero and
Leander, Pyramus and Thisbe, Philemon and Baucis…
Also, most of what Virgil wrote was translated.
History and Influences of Romance
Medieval Romance effectively combines ancient heroic
epics, mysticism of Jewish and Muslim writers, Christian
theology, and Celtic, Norse, Persian and Greco-Latin
myths and stories in one place.*
These include:
• Embellished “history” that disregards time and fact.
• Dream vision poetry and highly structured poems.
• Adventure stories that are episodic in plot and involve
many standard epic conventions.
• Interwoven cycles of stories, involving interrelated
characters and events, similar to myth cycles.
Romance Writers and Works
• The body of Romance Literature includes:
– Chansons de geste: Heroic deeds
– Roman d’aventure: Heroic adventures
– “Histories”
– Lays (lais) or short works usually dealing with love and
often including mystical transformations.
• Romance literature is both poetry and prose. It includes
the legends of King Arthur retold, and other stories of
knights, adventure, and courtly love.
Romance Writers and Works
• Chanson de Roland: (1100) heroic deeds of Charlemagne
and nephew Roland against the Muslims in Spain.
• El Cid: (1207) heroic deeds of Rodrigo Diaz, a knight who
fights on both sides of the Christian and Muslim conflict in
• Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “history” of Britain (Historia
Regum Britanniae) (1137) presenting readers with a full
account of Arthur and the knights of the round table. He
ties the founding of England to the Roman legend of
Aeneas, inventing a grandson, Brutus, who goes to found
England. He creates a mythic figure who would rise and
fall, his kingdom ready for resurrection.
Romance Writers and Works
• Cretien de Troyes: (1165) The Quest for the Holy Grail,
and Arthur stories, blending elements of pagan mysticism
and ritual with Monmouth’s Arthur.
• Robert de Boron (1200’s) Arthur stories
• Marie de France (late 12th century) Mystical lais of love,
fables, and a dream vision story of a knight in Purgatory.
• Guilliaume de Lorris /Jean de Meun: Le Roman de la Rose
• Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1370’s)
• Chaucer’s mock romance, “The Knight’s Tale” and
Troylus and Criseyde. (1342-1400)
• Sir Thomas Mallory, Le Morte D’Arthur (1450)
Conventions of Medieval Romance
The influence of Medieval
romance with its roots in
epic poetry, winds through
English literature: through
the Renaissance, the
Enlightenment in the
eponymic Romantic
movement, and, of course, in
modern takes on romance
from T.H. White’s The Once
and Future King and of
course, Monty Python!*
Conventions of Medieval Romance
Medieval Romances:
• Often have unprovoked and
violent fighting!
• Are set in a mystical place and
time (the Dark Ages)
• Present supernatural elements,
and magical powers from the
pagan world
• Have a hero who is on a noble
adventure or quest
• Have a loose, episodic structure
• Include elements of courtly love
• Embody ideals of chivalry
• Time frame of a year and a day
Chivalric Code and Introduction
to Courtly Love
• Chivalry is from the French word, chevalier, meaning
horseman, or knight. *
• The chivalric code influenced the formation of religious
military orders during the period of the Crusades. The now
famous Knights Templar and the Hospitalers are among
the noted knights.
• During the later middle ages, chivalry had become largely
as system of etiquette and the knights a source of
entertainment during tournaments – which themselves
gradually became less threatening to the participants.
Chivalric Code and Introduction
to Courtly Love
The chivalric code combined
Christian virtues with
military virtues:
• Temperance, Fortitude,
Prudence and Justice
• Faith, Hope, Charity
• Valor and strength in battle
• Loyalty to God and King
• Courtesy towards enemies
• Generosity towards the sick,
women, widows and the
• Courtly Love*
What happened to Chivalry?
• Finally, knighthood became simply an honor, and
those eligible for it today can skip the military bit.
• Today, knights can be just regular people who
have done something special. The honor is used
for notable artists and other doers of good deeds,
men and women alike.
• Knighted folks include: Paul McCartney, Judi
Dench, Laurence Olivier, and former New York
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.