2.5: Medieval Literature – Introduction

Although some of the earliest forms of Medieval poetry date back to the late seventh century, Medieval literature per se had no clear-cut beginnings. Most of the stories back then were relayed through word of mouth by bards, minstrels and troubadours and only a small amount of literary works survived the ages. Due to the lack of a central movement, it was difficult to trace the roots of Medieval literature, much less the name of certain authors. Nevertheless, Medieval literature greatly contributed to and had a lasting influence on modern-day works of fiction.

Medieval Literature Characteristics

The literary culture that thrived in the Medieval era was far ahead of the times. There was a smattering of different languages, from Latin to French to English. Liturgical literary works were mostly written in Latin as not only was it the main cross-cultural language at that time but it was the very language used by the church and the academe (usually for the purpose of learning).

The Legend of King Arthur may have started in Britain but King Arthur enjoyed the same status as international celebrities. He was a well-known literary figure in just about any part of Europe and was often exulted in Celtic poems and tales. The Celts and the French were already praising this charismatic historical icon even before he became the popular and timeless British hero that we now know him to be.

Medieval Romance Literature

Arthurian legends were some of the most commonly told stories in Welsh and Celtic districts, but what made such legends a favourite among towns people is that they often depict acts of valour, chivalric principles and other qualities greatly treasured in the Medieval times. As stories of King Arthur and the knights of the round table became sensational throughout Europe, ideals of courtly love became more widespread. The bards narrated the tales and chroniclers took the effort to write them down in paper.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welsh author and cleric, was the man responsible for propagating King Arthur’s legend. His fictional medieval literature work Historia Regum Britanniae, written in 1136, held some of the world’s most favourite Arthurian stories. Author Nennius also wrote his own version of romantic Arthurian legends, which were chronicled in works like Mabinogion, Chronicon Anglicanum, Mabinogion and Annales Cambrie.

William the Conqueror’s rule over England changed the primary language used in Medieval Europe. Along with Latin, the French language became widely used in medieval literature as well as the primary language of communication at court during the 1300s. When King Henry IV took back the British throne, English became the primary mode of communication in the literary field.

  • French was the dominate language in Secular medieval literature
  • Valour and chivalric qualities were popular in medieval times and made popular medieval literature subjects
  • Arthur the legendary knight was popular in the medieval literature written by Geoffrey of Monmouth
  • Latin was also a popular language in which to write medieval literature
  • Henry IV established the common use of English in medieval literature above other previously dominate languages

Medieval Literature: Famous Works and Authors

Critically acclaimed literary works in the Middle Ages which continue to be as influential today as they were then include the following:

  • Caedmon’s Hymn (earliest surviving English poem)
  • Beowulf (earliest Anglo-Saxon epic poem written in Old English)
  • Ramon Llull’s The Book of the Order of Chivalry (an old book that details the history of and theories on knighthood)
  • Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (contains various accounts of Medieval life portrayed in different settings and situations)
  • Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (a compilation of epic and romantic stories about Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table)

Other crucial figures that were instrumental to the growth of religious Medieval literature were St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and John Wycliffe. All three authors were religious reformers in their own right. Thomas Aquinas’ treatises were highly regarded by the Catholic Church. Martin Luther was the founder of Protestantism through his 95 theses and John Wycliffe reformed aspects of religion and was able to translate the Bible to English.

Medieval Literature Themes

Medieval authors and bards explored various themes to come up with their respective masterpieces. Some of the most commonly tackled medieval literature themes were courtly love and chivalry, which were depicted several times in various Arthurian works. It could also be observed that Medieval literature discussed culture a great deal. In fact, it was at the heart of almost every piece of literature.

Medieval authors were keen to highlight important manifestations of culture like music, art, architecture and liturgy but, on a side note, could well be an attempt to unify and squelch brewing internal strife. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was a colourful display of the diversity of Medieval culture, albeit with an occasional dark twist. Medieval writers also enjoyed exploring themes on family, kinship and many other values important in that era.

Women in Medieval Literature

Though most surviving Medieval literary works were highly esteemed in academic quarters, there were not too many of them. Known authors and poet laureates during the Medieval era included the Dante Alighieri (a major Italian poet and politician), Geoffrey Chaucer (the famous author of Canterbury Tales), John Gower (Chaucer’s rival and also a famed Medieval poet) and Giovanni Boccaccio (an Italian writer who shot to fame with the work Decameron). Although men seemed to be the more privileged gender orientation at that time, Medieval women were just as capable of producing equally great pieces of medieval literature.

Women medieval literature writers like Christine de Pizan and Margery Kempe were like the feminist writers of the Medieval period. The former was a popular Medieval author who wrote stories of courtly love and romance for French monarchs, dukes and other members of the nobility. She was also a women’s rights advocate and one of the world’s first known feminists. The latter, on one hand, was well-known for writing the first English autobiography. Marie De France, another famed Medieval French writer, rose to popularity after giving the public a glimpse of the Medieval way of life through her insights on courtly love and society in general.

Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan (1364–1430) was an Italian-French late medieval author. She served as a court writer for several dukes (Louis of Orleans, Philip the Bold of Burgundy, and John the Fearless of Burgundy) and the French royal court during the reign of Charles VI. She wrote both poetry and prose works such as biographies and books containing practical advice for women. She completed forty-one works during her thirty-year career from 1399 to 1429. She married in 1380 at the age of fifteen, and was widowed ten years later. Much of the impetus for her writing came from her need to earn a living to support her mother, a niece, and her two surviving children. She spent most of her childhood and all of her adult life in Paris and then the abbey at Poissy, and wrote entirely in her adopted language, Middle French.

In recent decades, Christine de Pizan’s work has been returned to prominence by the efforts of scholars such as Charity Cannon Willard, Earl Jeffrey Richards, and Simone de Beauvoir. Certain scholars have argued that she should be seen as an early feminist who efficiently used language to convey that women could play an important role within society.

A painting of Christine de Pizan seated before an open book lecturing four men below her.

Christine de Pizan: A painting of Christine de Pizan, considered by some scholars to be a proto-feminist, lecturing four men.


Christine de Pizan was born in 1364 in Venice, Italy. Following her birth, her father, Thomas de Pizan, accepted an appointment to the court of Charles V of France, as the king’s astrologer, alchemist, and physician. In this atmosphere, Christine was able to pursue her intellectual interests. She successfully educated herself by immersing herself in languages, in the rediscovered classics and Humanism of the early Renaissance, and in Charles V’s royal archive, which housed a vast number of manuscripts. But she did not assert her intellectual abilities, or establish her authority as a writer, until she was widowed at the age of 25.

In order to support herself and her family, Christine turned to writing. By 1393, she was writing love ballads, which caught the attention of wealthy patrons within the court. These patrons were intrigued by the novelty of a female writer and had her compose texts about their romantic exploits. Her output during this period was prolific. Between 1393 and 1412 she composed over 300 ballads, and many more shorter poems.

Christine’s participation in a literary debate, in 1401–1402, allowed her to move beyond the courtly circles, and ultimately to establish her status as a writer concerned with the position of women in society. During these years, she involved herself in a renowned literary controversy, the “Querelle du Roman de la Rose.” She helped to instigate this debate by beginning to question the literary merits of Jean de Meun’s The The Romance of the Rose. Written in the 13th century, The Romance of the Rose satirizes the conventions of courtly love while critically depicting women as nothing more than seducers. Christine specifically objected to the use of vulgar terms in Jean de Meun’s allegorical poem. She argued that these terms denigrated the proper and natural function of sexuality, and that such language was inappropriate for female characters such as Madam Reason. According to her, noble women did not use such language. Her critique primarily stemmed from her belief that Jean de Meun was purposely slandering women through the debated text.

The debate itself was extensive, and at its end the principal issue was no longer Jean de Meun’s literary capabilities; it had shifted to the unjust slander of women within literary texts. This dispute helped to establish Christine’s reputation as a female intellectual who could assert herself effectively and defend her claims in the male-dominated literary realm. She continued to counter abusive literary treatments of women.


Christine produced a large amount of vernacular works in both prose and verse. Her works include political treatises, mirrors for princes, epistles, and poetry.

Her early courtly poetry is marked by her knowledge of aristocratic custom and fashion of the day, particularly involving women and the practice of chivalry. Her early and later allegorical and didactic treatises reflect both autobiographical information about her life and views and also her own individualized and Humanist approach to the scholastic learned tradition of mythology, legend, and history she inherited from clerical scholars, and to the genres and courtly or scholastic subjects of contemporary French and Italian poets she admired. Supported and encouraged by important royal French and English patrons, she influenced 15th century English poetry.

By 1405, Christine had completed her most famous literary works, The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies. The first of these shows the importance of women’s past contributions to society, and the second strives to teach women of all estates how to cultivate useful qualities. In The Treasure of the City of Ladies, she highlights the persuasive effect of women’s speech and actions in everyday life. In this particular text, Christine argues that women must recognize and promote their ability to make peace between people. This ability will allow women to mediate between husband and subjects. She also argues that slanderous speech erodes one’s honor and threatens the sisterly bond among women. Christine then argues that “skill in discourse should be a part of every woman’s moral repertoire.” She believed that a woman’s influence is realized when her speech accords value to chastity, virtue, and restraint. She argued that rhetoric is a powerful tool that women could employ to settle differences and to assert themselves. Additionally, The Treasure of the City of Ladies provides glimpses into women’s lives in 1400, from the great lady in the castle down to the merchant’s wife, the servant, and the peasant. She offers advice to governesses, widows, and even prostitutes.

A painting depicting, on the right, two women building a wall and, on the left, four women playing music from a book.

Picture from The Book of the City of Ladies: The Treasure of the City of Ladies is a manual of education by medieval Italian-French author Christine de Pizan.