What people read can tell us much about their culture. Books may not always reflect a truthful picture of the culture that values them. They nevertheless tell us much about what that culture values.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the most influential and important books of the period. In each case they had a significant impact on the medieval culture of England and, in many cases, have continued to have a big influence across the world ever since.
The Medieval Audience
Unlike our times, literacy was very limited in medieval Europe. In general, only the social elite could read. That meant the clergy, the nobility, the gentry, and the wealthiest commoners. Poorer farmers, tradesmen, and labourers (whether freemen or serfs) were almost universally illiterate.
Added to this, books were an expensive luxury. This was before the age of the printing press. Books had to be copied out by hand, usually with elaborate and labour-intensive illuminations. Throughout most of the Middle Ages books were produced using expensive parchment. A complete Latin Bible, for example, was astronomically expensive, well beyond the means of anyone other than the wealthiest members of society.
It was therefore the case that the social elite, rather than the mass of common folk, provided the audience for literature. They, not the average man in the street, determined what was popular and what was not. But what was it that proved popular with them, and why?
Classical literature from the Greek and Roman world represented an important legacy from the pre-medieval period. The study of classical Latin formed a key part of the education of Europe’s elite. However, some texts were more important than others.
Greek literature, in the form of writers like Homer, Sophocles and Herodotus were not easily accessible in western Europe. These texts were primarily available in Greek – a language that not many people could read. Latin was the lingua franca of the west, and, for this reason, Roman Latin writers were far more popular and accessible.
Of all the Latin classics Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses were the most popular for medieval readers. Of the two, I’ve singled out Metamorphoses. Amongst other things Metamorphoses provided a solid overview of classical mythology – from the dawn of time to the death of Julius Caesar. Much of what medieval people understood of classical mythology was drawn from Ovid.
Ovid’s work served as a significant inspiration for many writers and artists. Dante, for example, probably relied on Ovid as his primary classical source. Ovid’s themes of fantastic transformation find echoes in several later works of art and literature both in England and across Europe.
Saint Jerome’s Vulgate Bible
In the year 382, as the Roman Empire was disintegrating, Saint Jerome set about the daunting task of translating the bible into Latin. There are around 780,000 words in a complete bible – that’s significantly more than double the amount in a typical George RR Martin novel. That’s a lot of translating!
The medieval Church used several different Latin translations of the bible, but Saint Jerome’s Vulgate increasingly became the dominant version. Its influence was therefore enormous.
However, a book the size of a complete bible was extremely expensive. Wealthy nobles and the richer Churches and Abbeys could afford it, but poorer rural Churches certainly could not.
The Vulgate may have been central to Church doctrine throughout the Middle Ages, but a typical priest might only have had access to a single Gospel and perhaps a collection of psalms. The oral transmission of bible stories, disseminated by the few people with access to bibles, was therefore crucial.
Needless to say, there was no such thing as bible study for the vast majority of medieval Christians. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to deny the enormous cultural impact of Saint Jerome’s work across the western medieval world.
The story of Beowulf stands out as easily the most important example of early English literature from the pre-Norman period. We don’t know who wrote it. Nor are we entirely sure when it was written. Some (JRR Tolkien among them) placed it as early as 700, others as late as 1000.
The legend it relates is originally a pagan story. Indeed, although English, the story itself is set entirely in Scandinavia. It is set in a part of the world that pagan Angles had close links with, prior to their migration to England. That confirms its origins as both old and pagan. However, its author is clearly an Anglo-Saxon Christian, and the narrative is laden with Christian themes.
The hero, Beowulf, confronts three monsters during this tale. The first, Grendel, is described as the spawn of the Biblical Cain, clearly the source of his corruption. In this way it is a transitional work, nostalgically looking back to an old pagan story, but firmly recasting it within a Christian worldview.
The climax of the saga is Beowulf’s confrontation with a dragon. It’s a classic tale of dragon slaying. However, although he kills the dragon, he himself is mortally wounded in the process.
The Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People
The Venerable Bede was a Northumbrian monk, living and writing in the early eighth century. By his time the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had converted to Christianity. This process that had largely been completed about half a century before Bede finished his Ecclesiastical History (in 731).
The history details the Christianisation of England from Roman times up until the time Bede was writing. In the process, of course, he documented a lot of important information concerning early Anglo-Saxon history and the process by which they came to conquer England. Bede is therefore a key source for our understanding of early English history, especially the early Church.
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain
In around 1136-1138, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain was published. As a work of history, it is far from reliable to say the least. However, what it does do is draw together a number of myths and apocryphal stories from earlier British history into a compelling narrative.
Some of the legends it reported (such as the claim that Britain was founded by Romans directly descended from the Trojan Aeneas) represent nothing more than myths.
That said, Monmouth’s history was significant in so far as it had a fundamental impact on the development of Arthurian legends. King Arthur had been mentioned before in British literature but usually only fleetingly, in fragmentary references. Monmouth was the first writer to give us something more substantial, telling us some of the earliest complete stories of Arthur, Merlin, and Mordred.
Monmouth’s work proved incredibly popular, not only in Britain but across continental Europe. And, crucially, Monmouth inspired a golden age of fascination with Arthurian legend.
Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend
In 1260, Jacobus de Voragine, the Archbishop of Genoa, published The Golden Legend. There’s a fair chance you’ve never heard of it. However, aside from the Bible itself, Legend was easily the most widely read religious work in medieval western Europe.
Legend was a collection of hagiographies detailing the lives of saints and martyrs.
The cult of saints reached its zenith during the medieval period, so Legend was published just at the right time. Archbishop de Voragine had originally intended it to be used as a reference book for the clergy. However, it proved popular with a much wider audience. Writers of all kinds, secular and religious, looked to it for inspiration. Indeed, it served as a towering influence in medieval art history.
Its stories struck a chord, offering a happy balance between being informative and entertaining. De Voragine included any interesting story he could find – including apocryphal tales of dubious provenance. The result was a fantastic mix of tales of holy superheroes battling persecuting pagans, deceitful devils and even dragons! Miracles and relics abound!
Golden Legend was not destined to survive into the early modern age. To Protestants, it represented everything that concerned them most about Catholicism. Even within the Catholic tradition, Legend would be supplanted by more scholarly and accurate hagiographies (but less fun).
Marco Polo’s Travels
Marco Polo’s book, detailing his travels in the Orient, was a smash hit almost as soon as it was first published in around 1300.
Prior to Polo’s book Europeans had only a limited knowledge about life in China and the east. Of course, people were aware of China and the trade goods that came to Europe from the east. However, Polo’s was the first and only detailed contemporary account of the region that people had seen.
Many were amazed and enthralled by what he had to say. Some were even sceptical of his stories (they just seemed too incredible to believe). Of course, Polo’s account had its limitations. Sometimes he embellished and sometimes his opinions were influenced by the biases of his sources. His description of the Ishmali Assassins and their Old Man of the Mountains, for example, owes much to the views of Muslim sources hostile to the Ishmali community.
However, there is much in Polo’s work to admire and he was, without question, medieval Europe’s greatest travel writer.
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Written between 1308 and 1321, Divine Comedy is the masterpiece of the Italian writer, Dante Alighieri. The book is considered by many not only to be one of the greatest works of the Middle Ages but one of the greatest of all time.
It was named a comedy because it was aimed at a common audience and written in the local vernacular (rather than because it was funny – although bits of it are). It was one of the first works aimed at such an audience to deal with more ‘serious’ or poignant matters.
The primary focus of the work was a study on the nature of the afterlife. It was divided into three parts, one dealing with hell, one with purgatory and one with heaven. Dante paints a vivid picture of all three. It remains, to this day, a fascinating window into the medieval religious mind.
Since its original publication Dante’s work has had a huge impact on later writers as well as on the world of art. His vision of heaven and hell made an indelible impression on western culture. Indeed, how we visualise heaven and hell in western culture today owes much to Dante.
Dante himself was not destined to enjoy his success for long, dying shortly after his Divine Comedy was completed.
Boccaccio wrote Decameron in around 1350, just as the Black Death had finished cutting a swathe of death and destruction across Europe.
It is a compilation of short stories, many of them based on earlier tales that pre-dated Boccaccio. However, rather like Shakespeare, Boccaccio had a gift for taking existing stories and re-telling them in a more compelling and engaging way.
The basic idea behind Decameron is that seven women and three men flee Florence to escape the ravages of the Black Death. They take refuge in an isolated villa in the countryside, hoping to wait it out until the pestilence has passed. To pass the time, they tell each other stories.
Boccaccio includes a wide variety of different tales, some humorous, some serious, some erotic and so on. In many ways the format foreshadows Chaucer’s work of around half a century later.
Boccaccio’s influence was undoubtedly significant and many regard him as one of the founding fathers of renaissance humanism in Italy. As it happened, he was also one of Queen Margaret of Anjou’s favourite writers.
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
Chaucer’s masterpiece was published in around 1400, pretty much at the end of his career.
The concept behind Chaucer’s tales borrows heavily from Boccaccio. A group of pilgrims, travelling to Canterbury, pass the time in an inn by telling each other stories. Many have a strongly satirical edge to them, taking aim at some of the more hypocritical behaviours present in late C14th society. Some of his stories are irreverent and some downright bawdy.
Chaucer wrote in the local Middle English vernacular. As such he was part of a group of late C14th English writers who abandoned Latin and French in favour of English. Chaucer was the most significant of a group of pioneers that also included people like John Gower and William Langland. In many ways these writers reflect an important sea change in English culture. The old medieval court literary traditions of Latin and French were being supplanted by a new English literature. In that sense, Chaucer is the father of English language literature.
Of course, it helped that Chaucer had powerful friends. He was acquainted with John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, who acted as his patron for a time. Gaunt may have used Chaucer to act as a translator for him on diplomatic missions. Later, Chaucer found employment in the household of John’s son, Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV).
Each of these writers, in their own way, had a big impact on medieval English culture. In many cases their impact was far greater, influencing and inspiring writers and artists the world over in later centuries.
By reading these works we gain a valuable insight into the medieval mind. These were the stories medieval England valued, a reflection of the values, fears and aspirations of the age.
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References & further reading
Illuminated bible, Malmesbury Abbey, 1407, (Wiki Commons)
Beowulf and the dragon, H.E. Marshal, 1908, (Wiki Commons)
Legenda Aurea, Unknown artist Padua, 1480, (Wiki Commons)
Inferno, Joseph Anton Koch, 1825-28, (Wiki Commons)
Chaucer Portrait, Ellesmere Manuscript, 1400-1410, (Wiki Commons)