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To Be or Not to Be.....Medieval?

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Ali graduated with high honors from Columbia College in 2014 with a BA in English. Her focus has been in literature and literary criticism.

What is it about a literary work that allows a person to immediately know what it is? Does he know a poem is a poem because sometimes it rhymes? So he discerns it is a poem, then what? Is it a Shakespearean sonnet or have suicidal tendencies like Poe? What if it isn’t a poem? Could it possibly be a satiric drama by Aristophanes? Or an Icelandic saga? Maybe this particular person concludes he is reading a book of the Bible instead. The possibilities for literary choices are innumerable and audiences find themselves in the middle of Choose Your Own Adventure when deciphering what it is they are reading. All genres, styles and eras of literature can be fairly easy to categorize based on the aforementioned areas. There are always specific aspects about literary works that determine where they belong. For example, one may read a work of Shakespeare and easily recognize it based upon the vocabulary and grammar with which he is characterized to write. Many times, Mark Twain is the face of American literature merely because the settings and character personalities that he creates are so easily identifiable. One genre of literature somewhat more difficult to ascertain definitive characteristics is that of European medieval literature. Literary analysts have grouped literature of this era quite easily, however, it is questionable as to how they did so. What is it about medieval literature that allows readers to know it is medieval in nature? It is more than just the date in which these works were written and this article will assist in determining what those traits are.


In his work from Timetables of World Literature, George Kurian states, “In the West, the fusion of Christian theology and classical philosophy formed the basis of the medieval habit of interpreting life symbolically” (par. 1). As all literary audiences can attest, religion and spirituality play a major role in all forms literary works and those from the medieval era are no exception. In marked contrast, however, religion in medieval literature is a far cry from the Classical period and what its polytheistic authors produced. As Kurian proceeds to explain, the element of Christianity and the way it was interpreted in a more self-sacrificial manner in medieval literature replaced the passion and naturalism of the gods that the Classical Greeks and Romans intertwined in their own writing. A prime example of Christian thought in medieval literature is The Divine Comedy by Italian author Dante Alighieri. Dante lived in late 13th and early 14th century Italy and combined facets of Classical Roman style with medieval Christendom. As John McGalliard and Lee Patterson claim, “This threefold pattern serves to embody the Trinity within the very structure of the poem, as does the verse form” (1827). With this statement, the editors are describing the manner in which Dante presents this particular work with his three parts, the Inferno, Purgatorio and Pardiso reflecting the Christian belief of the Holy Trinity. As a testament to his Christian beliefs, in Canto IV of the Inferno Dante writes:

I’d have you know, before you go ahead,

they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits,

that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism,

the portal of the faith that you embrace. (33-36)

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This statement by the Roman poet Virgil is a true reflection of how intertwined Classical literature is with the emergence of medieval Christianity.


Although the element of Christianity makes medieval literature quite distinguishable, there are particular types of literature that either did not exist prior to the medieval era or became more refined during it. Early medieval literature is largely epic in nature. “The bardic poetry of Celtic-speaking peoples, the Old English poetry of the Anglo-Saxons, the Scandinavian Edda and the Germanic sagas largely focus on great events” (Thierry Boucquey, Middle Ages, par. 10). Along with mythological sagas such as Beowulf and tales of the simple life found in The Decameron, a specific type of poetry evolved during the early 12th century from the troubadour. This type of poetry was very courtly in nature with expressions of unrequited love and allusions of sexual desire. As many ancient literary works were, troubadour poetry was also oral in nature so manuscripts are considered rare and only exist due to later generations. As stated earlier, much of medieval literature focuses on tales of great events and mythology. Audiences see this in long tales like Beowulf and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. These lengthy stories seem to mirror those from the Classical period, such as those from Homer and Ovid, where the main characters undergo different trials to become enlightened as well as narrate a fable-like story in order for the reader to learn a moral lesson.

The final characteristic of medieval literature is the tendency of the authors and poets to weave a moralistic quality into their work. Whether this is an element of the Christian influence or possibly a carry-over of Classical literature, medieval authors and poets make noticeable the importance of morals and values of their characters and poetry. As translated by George K. Anderson in his work The Saga of the Volsungs, the Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson includes in his Skaldskaparmal tales of how phrases and terms came into existence and often these tales stem from an experience when a moral lesson was learned or retribution had to be paid. For example in chapter 164, he writes, “So Odin then had to draw forth the ring to cover the whisker, saying that they were now free from their debt incurred by killing the otter” (162). As a summary, this tale describes why gold is called Otter’s Wergild, (or also a Forced Payment by the Aesir or Metal of Strife) and came to be when three friends killed an otter which was considered to be the son of a farmer who dabbled in black magic. This particular ring was taken from a dwarf and given to the farmer as payment for the killing of his son. Yet, there is still more in that the ring is cursed and said to bring great troubles to those who own it. This fable-like story by Sturluson not only educates the audience in the existence of certain turns of phrase but it also has that underlying moral lesson to be learned. McGalliard and Patterson also consider the Icelandic short story of Thorstein the Staff-Struck to be of a similar nature and claim, “Each man considers the respect of the community essential to his self-respect; hence they act as the code requires, regardless of their personal inclination or of the intrinsic merits of the case” (1777). These editors speak of a code of ethics that permeates many medieval works of literature. This code of ethics has roots of justice, respect and vindication. Authors of medieval literature were greatly influenced by this particular ethical standard of living and their characters reflected that.


As time passes, works of literature continue to influence future generations of itself and evolve continuously. This can easily be seen in what was produced during the medieval era of Europe when hints of the Roman and Greek classics spring up in early Christian authorship. All genres of literature have defining characteristics that allow readers to not only determine where it came from and quite possibly who wrote it, but also to have a building block on which to learn and enjoy. And wouldn’t one agree that this is an essential objective of literature anyway?

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