The End of Europe's Middle Ages

Language and Literature

Until the sixteenth century, Latin was the official language of law, government, business, education and religion in Western Europe. The Latin of written communication was generally considered learned, or high, Latin and composition of documents followed standard guidelines regardless of where the document was written. On the other hand, the common, or Vulgar, Latin was a living language, mingling with and borrowing from regional dialects to suit the needs of local populations. As Vulgar

14th Century German lecture hall
Latin adapted more and more to the native language of a region, it became less recognizable to people outside that area. This process of individualization occurred relatively quickly for oral Latin and the many vernacular languages of Europe that we recognize today were already forming at the beginning of the Middle Ages. The official nature of writing and the predominance of an oral culture meant that written Latin accepted these regional variations at a much slower pace and excerpts from the Vulgate Bible and other patristic writings remained the standard grammatical texts until the Renaissance revived an insistence on classical Latin.

  Learning Latin in the Middle Ages

During the fourteenth century in Italy, there appeared renewed interest in all things classical. This same interest, applied to classical Latin, spelled the end of Latin as a universal language. In the middle of the fifteenth century, attempting to provide a standardized guide to classical Latin, the great philologist Lorenzo Valla published Elegantiae Linguae Latinae. In his text, Valla codified the Latin language according to systems no longer in use, basing his rules on the works of ancient authors. Adherence to his principles forced Latin from a living to a dead language that no longer responded to the needs of daily life.

  The Rise of Vernacular Language in the Late Middle Ages

With the development of the printing press, printers sought to increase the market by publishing works in the vernacular. While the aristocrats turned up their noses at this vulgar innovation, the common people gobbled up these editions. For the first time, the economically and educationally (that is, not trained in Latin) disadvantaged could own and read a family Bible. Demand for the most influential religious works kept the presses running at top speed. However, one can only own so many Bibles and the public soon began to demand a broader range of writings and secular literature experienced an explosion in popularity. It is interesting to note that the first book printed in Venice in 1469 was not the Bible but, rather, Cicero's Letters, foreshadowing the importance of printing to the renewed Classicism of the Renaissance.

  The Impact of the Printing Press

Religious issues were very important for literature throughout the Middle Ages. Easily the most prevalent genre, religious literature ranged from purely devotional to theological discussion to sermons to immensely popular hagiographies. One of the over-riding reasons for this was the literacy of the clergy. During the early Middle Ages, literacy was often necessary for entry into religious orders and even nuns were compelled to meet this requirement. However, by the later Middle Ages, not all monastics were trained in reading and writing and monastic communities experienced a decline in literacy similar to that experienced in the general population. Nevertheless, higher rates of literacy continued to exist within cloister walls than without.

The growing demand for literature in the vernacular was felt by religious authors and by the fourteenth century, although Latin continued to be the official language of the Church, popular religious writing was published in the vernacular. Printers, engravers and illuminators did a booming business in the production of breviaries, missals, psalters and books of hours, all designed to guide the pious through their devotions.

Another extremely common form of religious writing in the Middle Ages was hagiography. Written to glorify Christian saints, hagiographies were used to teach Christian principles and illustrate moral lessons. Saints' lives are typically riddled with miraculous circumstances that endorsed claims of sanctity. Although tales of miracles were believable to the medieval mind, hagiographies were viewed with a great deal more scepticism by later readers.

In the later Middle Ages, increasing awareness of events with far-reaching consequences led to more histories, journals and chronicles being written in attempts to understand and explain surrounding issues. This type of literature certainly was not new but the conscious artistry of the classical historians was not emulated in the writings of the early Middle Ages which tended to sycophancy or moralistic preaching. Another development in historical writings of the high Middle Ages was the quest for accuracy as authors sought to confirm their information. Events were not simply reported - they were critically analyzed and attempts were made to explain the mechanics of situations and relations.

  The Chronicles of Villehardouin

Another branch of historical writing includes biographies and autobiographies. While this style can also be seen in hagiography, mere mortals were not regarded as appropriate topics for literary efforts after the end of the Carolingian Empire. As Europe once again began to turn eyes outward and experience other cultures, the chronicles written by cloistered monks began to fall into disfavour and in the twelfth century, biographies of influential people once again became popular. By the thirteenth century, although many autobiographies were introspective accounts by prominent religious personalities, spicy accounts of contemporary glitterati and vivid tales of exotic travels were also available to titillate the populace.

The poetry of the Middle Ages also typically revolved around religious themes. The shift from the use of classical meter to accentual meter and rhyme was the greatest change, allowing vernacular languages to be use rhyme. Many of the great Latin poems of the period acquired musical settings and the use of hymns in churches served as a vehicle for reinforcing Christian doctrine.

  Canticle of the Sun by Saint Francis of Assisi

Medieval drama also developed from clerical attempts to simplify or illustrate liturgies. Becoming increasingly elaborate, these dramatizations developed into "operettas." When they became too elaborate and complicated to perform inside churches, they were presented on stages outside the church as a regular part of feast days. As religious plays and pageants expanded outside the church, proponents of ecclesiastical reform denounced the dramas for dishonouring the solemnity of the religious offices. To solve the problem, the presentation of religious dramas was taken over by the laity.

  The Crucifixion (excerpt) from The York Cycle of Mystery Plays

The blossoming of chivalric literature gave birth to the great epics and romances of the period. Largely derived from tales that date back to the songs of bards, when the developing nationalism of the later Middle Ages revived an interest in ancestral literature, these epic tales experienced a resurgence in popularity. The Teutonic epic of Beowulf illustrates this. Probably in existence prior to the widespread adoption of Christianity by the Germanic peoples, Beowulf was first written down in the eighth century.


Another type of epic writing appeared in the French chansons de geste. Typically using historical events as backgrounds, the chansons were simple rhythmic tragedies that extolled the chivalric virtues of courage and loyalty, praising the extraordinary feats of their heroes. Like the Germanic epics, French chansons reflected a military, masculine society. However, instead of returning to pre-Christian times, French chansons display Christianity fully integrated into society. The most popular chanson was the Song of Roland. While the tale itself is set in the eighth century, the oral tradition of Roland can only be dated back to the mid-eleventh century and it was not written down until the early decades of the twelfth century. Also associated with this style of ancestral epic are the Arthurian cycles of English literature.

  Song of Roland (excerpt)
  Le Morte d'Arthur (Death of Arthur)

The great literary innovation of the high and late Middle Ages was the rise of secular lyric poetry. One type of this secular poetry was the so-called Goliardic poetry. The content was largely humorous, indulging in satire and irony, boldly commending the pleasures of life - wine, women and song. Scandalized, the Church denounced this type of ribald poetry and its authors. Nevertheless, the genre persisted and its authors frequently became revered officials in the same Church that had earlier condemned them.

  Goliardic Verse

Out of the later chivalric ideals of courtly love grew the beautiful poetry of high medieval troubadours. In the late twelfth century, Andreas Capellanus described courtly love in his treatise, The Art of Courtly Love. This type of poetry expressed a reverence for women that was absent from earlier heroic epics and although some improvements in the status of noblewomen likely influenced the development of the ideal, courtly love was more mythical than actual and did not accurately reflect life. By the fourteenth century, love stories and romances, such as Aucassin et Nicollette by Guillaume de Machaut, were popular forms of secular literature.

  "The Effect of Love" from The Art of Courtly Love
  Troubadour Poetry

In England, secular poetry achieved prominence and popularity early. In the fourteenth century, William Langland produced an allegorical vision of human life in Piers Plowman. Perhaps the most vivid picture of late medieval people is afforded by Geoffrey Chaucer's work, The Canterbury Tales. Across the channel, the poetry of François Villon reflected the contrasting moods that were the hallmarks of the late Middle Ages in dark and brooding works such as Epitaph in the Form of a Ballad.

  William Langland & Piers Plowman
  The Canterbury Tales
  Epitaph in the Form of a Ballade

Dante. Unknown artist, 1530. Although vernacular poetry arrived slightly later in Italy than in northern Europe, Italy was to produce some of the most influential poets and novelists of the Late Middle Ages. The first of this new breed was Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), arguably the greatest medieval poet. Dante wrote in Latin but, more frequently, he used the Tuscan vernacular. His writings encompass a broad range of subjects but he is best known for the lyric poems to his beloved Beatrice and la Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy). Packed with symbolism and allegory, The Divine Comedy conveys Dante's judgments on the characters of history as he places them into the many levels of heaven, hell and purgatory. Dante's ability to create literary masterpieces in Tuscan proved his own arguments against the scholars and writers who, scorning the use of vernacular as vulgar, insisted on Latin as the language of literature.

"Inferno" (excerpt) from La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy)

Dante's work provided inspiration for writers across Europe but his path was most closely followed by two other Italian poets, Giovanni Boccaccio and Francesco Petrarch. Both writers drew heavily on Dante and one another, meeting in 1350 and maintaining a close friendship until Petrarch's death.

Born Francesco Petrarca, Petrarch (1304-1374) is considered to be the first modern poet. Although he wrote many of his works in Latin and pressed to restore the use of classical Latin, Petrarch's most popular work is a collection of Italian verses known as "Canzoniere," inspired by his unrequited love for Laura. Petrarch spent most of his life in the service of the Church and the Visconti family of Milan. Highly respected during his lifetime, Petrarch was crowned poet laureate by the Senate of Rome in 1341 and his perfection of the use of the sonnet was especially influential to later English poets, such as Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare.

"Francesco Petrarch to Posterity" - Petrarch wrote a great deal concerning his personal views and opinions. This is an example.

Image of Boccaccio

Only nine years younger than Petrarch, Giovanni Boccacio (1313-1375) abandoned his early studies in accounting in favour of classical learning. While Dante had his Beatrice and Petrarch had his Laura, Boccaccio's romantic inspiration was the mysterious Fiammetta. Although Boccaccio wrote numerous works in both prose and poetry, as well as several scholarly and scientific works in Latin, he is best known for The Decameron. A collection of 100 short stories written between 1348 and 1353, The Decameron is set within the framework of a group of ten men and women who have taken refuge from the plague in a country villa outside Florence for ten days. Included within The Decameron is some of Boccaccio's best lyric poetry and both Shakespeare and Chaucer drew heavily on the work for structure and style.

"The Decameron" - Novellae of the Tenth Day

The literary accomplishments of the late Middle Ages provided the tools for the great literature that was to abound in the Renaissance. The vernacular languages continued to develop along independent paths, borrowing from other languages as required, adjusting to the needs of the speakers and developing into the languages of Europe that are recognized today. The popularity of secular works continued to rise until, in the modern era, few religious books are published.

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The End of Europe's Middle Ages / Applied History Research Group / The University of Calgary
Copyright © 1998, The Applied History Research Group