A Quick Guide to Medieval Literature

A Quick Guide to Medieval Literature

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By Bridgette Hernandez

In medieval Europe one can find many examples of literature – from tales of knights and chivalry to plays performed in the middle of towns. They can be found in written in Latin, as well as the medieval versions of English, French and other languages.

It’s important to remember that the literary works of this time are not a monolith. They were produced by a variety of writers over a period of a thousand years. So, instead of discussing the writings of the Middle Ages as a whole, it’s best to consider the various genres of literature, and examples of each.

Alexander Romances

These are writings based on the life and adventures of Alexander The Great. Many of these works were adapted from an original, historical account of the ancient ruler’s life written in Greek. Throughout the Middle Ages, this work was translated into multiple languages, even turned into a lyric. Furthermore, writers took a significant amount of creative license in telling and interpreting the story of Alexander The Great.

Chanson de Geste

These are narrative poems written to share tales of heroic deeds. This literary genre has its origin in early French literature. Just like Alexander Romances are associated with Alexander the Great, these are generally associated with the Carolingian emperor Charlemagne. While the connection to Charlemagne was not mandatory, but these poems mostly dealt with matters of France. The origin of the phrase comes from Old French, and it means ‘Song For Heroic Deeds’.

These works differ significantly from the romances. While those genres tend to focus on the exploits and accomplishments of the individual, these celebrate community and collectivism.

Arthurian Literature

Arthurian literature is one of the more enduring genres from this time period. These stories about King Arthur, Guinevere, Camelot, and the Knights of The Roundtable generate interest to this day. These writings were published beginning in the 12th century. It’s fairly easy to tell that the stories of King Arthur were largely influenced by other famous rulers and explorers including Alexander the Great.

Alliterative Verse

Many of the most well-known literary works from this period use alliterative verse. This involves the use of matching sounds to begin words and a specific rhythmic structure rather than rhyming words to create a poem. The Old English poem Beowulf is one of these. Many works from other nations during this period are also alliterative. Finnish Kalevala, traditional Turkish verse, and Estonian Kalevipoeg all do.

Skaldic Poetry

This form of poetry originates from medieval Scandinavia. These poems are based upon an exceptionally complex metric structure, and often involve a unique version of metaphors known as the kenning. Skaldic poems credit no authors. Because of this, it is widely believed that these began as spoken works until they were written down in the 13th century.

Medieval Travel Literature

This genre expands beyond the boundaries of Europe into Asia and the Middle East. Travel literature includes both fictional and nonfictional accounts of travel. Much of this genre is written from the perspective of Europeans who had rather fantastical and often prejudiced ideas of people and cultures outside their known world. It is this category of literature that created the notion of Orientalism. This is, in essence, the ‘othering’ of people and cultures in the east.


Fabliau or Fabliaux are short stories that were often delivered by professional storytellers. They are French in origin. Fabliau were known to be blunt, realistic, detailed, and a bit risque. In fact, one of the most common characters in these stories is a cuckolded man and his wife.

Medieval Drama

Medieval drama is the genre that includes all of the written works produced for dramatic performance. This includes farces, mystery plays, masques, morality plays, and liturgical dramas. Some of the earliest dramas were retellings of biblical stories, usually involving God’s dealings with humans. These were mostly associated with religious festivals around Easter. Later, these dramas were performed during Christmas celebrations as well as the Epiphany. Starting in the 15th century, things started to shift. Dramas were often performed without any religious context. These works explored politics and other secular matters.

Miracle Plays

Miracle plays are one genre that clearly shows the influence of the church. These literary works were written to describe the lives of saints, their miracles, and their martyrdom. Miracle plays were usually written to be performed as part of calendar day celebrations.

Mystery Plays

Mystery plays are very similar to Miracle plays in that they are both theological works. However, while Miracle plays focus on the saints, Mystery plays focus on God’s interactions with humans directly. The stories depicted in these works come from both the Old and New Testaments.

However, Mystery plays eventually evolved into the more secular. Pope Innocent III was suspicious of these works and in the year 1210 forbade priests from acting on the stage. This resulted in the adaptation of these works from Latin to vernacular texts. Non-biblical passages were included as well.

Morality Plays

In a morality play, the main character is confronted with one or more real life dilemmas that represent different moral characteristics. These challenges are placed in front of them with the purpose of convincing them to choose the moral good over evil. These works are heavily influenced by Mystery Plays but are decidedly more secular.

Passion Plays

A Passion Play is the depiction of the Passion of Jesus Christ including his trial, scourging, and death. In the Middle Ages, the Passion Play was a traditional part of Easter observances. It was initially performed as a song, to be performed in different parts by clergy members. Passion plays began as a simple telling of the gospels. Later this genre evolved into a much more complex and dramatic saga with characters such as Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary being introduced along with the music. Geography had an impact on depictions of the Passion of The Christ as well with the scope of the plays varying depending on the region where they were performed. So, the Vienna Passion and Frankfort Passion, for example, looked quite different from one another.


It’s clear that a large portion of European medieval literature was influenced by the Catholic Church; however, there were certainly plenty of secular works as well. These works were more dominant in the latter part of the era and were more likely to be written in local languages.

Bridgette Hernandez is a prolific writer and editor. She provides her writing services to some of the most well-known content providers including Trust My Paper and BestEssaysEducation. Bridgette also does some editing at Supreme Dissertations and ClassyEssay. She stays so busy because she enjoys writing on a variety of topics including History. In fact, Ms. Hernandez’s passion is exploring the world visiting various art and history museums.

Top Image: Zofingen Stadtbibliothek PA 31 fol. 86

Watch the video: Introduction to Medieval Literature: Old English, Middle English and Historical Context (July 2022).


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