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Medieval literature is a broad subject, encompassing essentially all written works available in Europe during the Middle Ages (roughly from the fall of the Western Roman Empire ca. 500 AD to the beginning of the Florentine Renaissance in the late 15th century). The literature of this time period varies wildly, from the utterly sacred to the exuberantly profane (touching all points in-between), which is only fitting for a millennium in which European life circled around the muck and mire of the fields, the gore of the battlefield, and the quiet removal of monasteries and cathedrals. For this reason, no single description can encompass the depth and breadth of medieval literature.
Types of Writing
Catholic clerics were the most literate class of society in the Middle Ages, and it is their literature that has survived in the greatest number. Countless hymns survive from this time period (both liturgical and paraliturgical). The liturgy itself was not in fixed form, and numerous competing missals set out individual conceptions of the order of the mass. Religious scholars such as Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and Abelard wrote lengthy theological treatises as they delved deeper and deeper into the mysteries of faith. Hagiographies, or "lives of the saints", were also frequently written, as an encouragement to the devout and a warning to others. Francis of Assisi was a prolific poet, and his Franciscan followers frequently wrote poetry themselves as an expression of their piety. Goliardic poetry (four-line stanzas of satiric verse) was an art form used by some clerics to express dissent. The only widespread religious writing that was not produced by clerics were the mystery plays: growing out of simple tableaux re-enactments of a single Biblical scene, each mystery play became its village's expression of the key events in the Bible. The text of these plays was often controlled by local guilds, and mystery plays would be performed regularly on set feast-days, often lasting all day long and into the night.
Secular literature in this period is even more varied than the religious. The subject of "courtly love" was frequently written about, especially in southern and western Europe (in the French, Spanish, and Catalan languages, most notably), where the traveling singers--troubadors--made a living from their songs about unrequited longing. The courtly romance (roman courtois), or chanson de geste, became a common genre in the middle of this period. Epic poems (Beowulf and The Song of Roland being notable examples) in the tradition laid down by Homer and Virgil (among others) still achieved great popularity. Political poetry was written also, especially towards the end of this period, and the goliardic form saw use by secular writers as well as clerics. Travel literature was wildly popular in the Middle Ages, as fantastic accounts of far-off lands (frequently embellished or entirely false) entertained a society that, in most cases, limited people to the area they were born in.
While it is true that women in the medieval period were never accorded full equality with men, many women were able to use their skill with the written word to gain renown. Religious writing was the easiest avenue--women who would later be beatified as saints frequently published their reflections, revelations, and prayers. Much of what is known about women in the Middle Ages is known from the works of nuns such as Clare of Assisi, Bridget of Sweden, and Catherine of Siena. Frequently, however, the religious perspectives of women were held to be unorthodox by those in power, and the mystical visions of such authors as Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen provide insight into a part of the medieval experience less comfortable for the institutions that ruled Europe at the time. Women wrote influential texts in the secular realm as well--reflections on courtly love and society by Marie de France and Christine de Pizan continue to be studied for their glimpses of medieval society.
While medieval literature makes use of many literary devices, allegory is so prominent in this period as to deserve special mention. Much of medieval literature relied on allegory to convey the morals the author had in mind while writing--representations of abstract qualities, events, and institutions are thick in much of the literature of this time. Piers Plowman is considered one of the best examples of medieval allegory.
Notable Literature of the Period