End of Europe's Middle Ages

The Rise of the Vernacular Language in the Late Middle Ages

The political stability achieved by the success of the feudal aristocracy created an increased demand for literacy and education which led to an intellectual revival that further hastened the decline of Latin as a living language. Instead of classical Latin and patristic writings, readers were asking for literature that reflected the interests and virtues of the ruling military class. Composed for a lay audience, the chivalric literature of the High Middle Ages was built on the traditions of an earlier time, incorporating the ancient roots of heroic literature sung by courtly bards. The heroic themes, epic style, poetic form and vernacular languages of the ancient literature became ensconced in medieval aristocratic circles. New written forms of vernacular languages developed that were loosely based on the oral vernacular languages. The similarity of these new written forms to the spoken languages in everyday use allowed them to be easily assimilated and the use of these vernacular languages rapidly expanded in virtually all areas, making written works accessible to higher proportions of local populations.

The rise of vernacular languages was also assisted by the increased nationalism that resulted from the consolidation of monarchies in the later Middle Ages. The decline of papal influence fractured the solidarity of Christendom, leaving people to identify with a single country, subject to one lord, king or emperor. The sharing of a common language no longer enhanced the sense of European unity and, while Latin remained the international language of formal politics, government and legal documents began to be written in the vernacular as early as the late twelfth century in England and France.

Another factor that contributed to the ultimate success of vernacular languages over Latin was the moveable-type printing press. While some scholars regard the printing press as the single most important factor in ending the Middle Ages and bringing about the Renaissance, others are more moderate in their views, conceding only that the printing press served to accelerate changes already underway. Most commonly attributed to Johann Gutenburg, the development of the moveable-type printing press in the fifteenth century was actually the culmination of long series of interrelated innovations. The success of the moveable-type press owes much to associated advancements in metallurgy, relief printing, printer's ink, paper quality and printing press mechanisms which all contributed to the new process.

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The End of Europe's Middle Ages / Applied History Research Group / University of Calgary
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