Medieval Writers and Their Work

Medieval Writers and Their Work: Middle English Literature and its Background, 1100-1500

by J.A. Burrow

I’ve always had some interest in Middle English literature, and in general intellectual and artistic development during the Middle Ages. This book was on the “free stuff” cart at a local bookstore so I grabbed it. It’s a very readable exposition on how to approach reading medieval (and particularly Middle English) literature.

Authors and Audiences: There were no “writers”

The notion of “author” as we think of it today had not yet developed. There were poets, goliards, compilers, narrators, adaptors; but it would take time to crystallize the idea of “attribution as a novel primary creator of a work of fiction or nonfiction.” Indeed, prose fiction, including the Italian novella (e.g. the Decameron of Bocaccio) and French nouvelle, hardly influenced Middle English literature.

Early Anglo-Saxon sagas were preserved in runes and later by scribes using the Roman alphabet (the four great surviving codices of Anglo-Saxon poetry were probably produced in scriptoria); indeed n preservation and dissemination of these works and of great authors of the past would be considered a worthy pursuit of a “writer” of the time. Indeed, when writers as actually identify themselves (most don’t; for example, we don’t know who authored Sir Gawain), it is “with the humility of the petitioner rather than the pride of the poet” (p. 38): the explicit at the end of Caxton’s printing of Sir Thomas Malory’s La Morte d’Arthur beseeches his audience to pray for him (Caxton) in his role as a servant of God. Not until the arrival of mass technology for printing and the arrival of the book did the demand for written material increase to the point where it created a market for authors as we now know them.

As well, people treated books much as musical scores are treated today–as the blueprint for a performance. Medieval texts were generally intended to be performed and heard, not read (as illiteracy was high anyway). For this reason, there are medieval genres with no correspondent today, such as “everyday poetry” for entertainment (think the Goliards).

Genres: Comedy or Tragedy?

Despite being designed to be read or spoken, medieval works such as the morality plays (eg Everyman) don’t cleave neatly into tragedy or comedy. Instead, we might distinguish three categories:

  • Histories, which deal with long timescales (historical/allegorical time, e.g. from the rise and fall of Man until today)

  • Lives (of famous knights, saints, etc.), which can comprise both historical time and lifetimes of individuals; The Tale of Robin Hood is somewhere between these two categories

  • Tales, fictional and allegorical, with characters more likely to represent archetypes than notional individuals, or else representing a “generic I” (as in a courtly love complaint). The Canterbury Tales is among the best known examples of that category (as the Decameron is outside of England). Even the prologue to Chaucer’s Troilus makes clear that this is a tale about Troilus’s tragic love, not a history of the siege of Troy.

French romantic poetry influenced not only Middle English (via the Norman conquest) but really all of medieval western Europe because of France’s importance. One of its dominant early forms was romance (in prose or verse), to the extent that some characterize the era as “The Age of Romance” (as against an earlier “Age of Epic”).
Guillaume de Lorris’s Roman de la Rose took the important step of establishing a new type of vernacular narrative poem an allegorical or symbolical world, often in the form of a dream or vision, in which persons and events shadow the experiences of love in the real world. But other, lighter forms of allegory, such as the fabliaux, also provided the basis for (e.g.) some of the Canterbury Tales, including the Miller’s Tale and the Reeve’s Tale.

Modes of Meaning: Allegory and Exemplification

Allegory: the reader must translate between two paradigms. E.g. in Langland’s Piers Plowman, a long allegory asks what value learning and intelligence contribute to a “good Christian life”, through encounters between the dreamer Will and various personifications representing learning and intelligence. These personifications not only “stand for” Conscience, Learning, etc. but actually have those names in the work. However, this personification can be problematic for translators and transcribers, as Middle English scribes typically didn’t use capital letters, so it is hard to tell whether the intended meaning is “…because fear held him back” vs. “…because Fear held him back”. In some cases, allegory came from treating an earlier historical event

Exemplification generalizes a lesson from an example, like a fable or parable. Dante’s Inferno is full of them, with personifications of the seven deadly sins. Chaucer’s Pardoners Tale is an exemplum of avarice.

The Survival of Middle English Literature

With the dawning of the Age of Reason, interest in medieval literature began to decline, as interest in rediscovering the classics rose.

Modern English literature is basically a creation of the Tudor age, and some elements of Middle English writers and writing were incorporated into its canon posthumously. Besides the political unity of the Tudor dynasty, two other factors influenced the creation of literature.

First was the arrival of the printing press; the first book printed in England was Caxton’s History of Troy, around 1473. For works that got published, uniform and consistent reproduction increased the chances they would be read and understood widely. (Sir Gawain didn’t appear in print until 1824.)

Second was the “Chancery standard” of orthography developed by 15th-century scribes and clerks. While the language has changed since then, its history has been continuous.

Still, in the 1600s, some wealthy individuals commissioned transcriptions of their own written copies of medieval works they could not otherwise own in print. In other cases, such as the Chester mystery plays, the works survived in print because they were treated as scripts for performing the plays, and the people of Chester maintained a strong interest in that tradition into the 17th century. Wealthy scholars critiqued and discussed certain works and not others, so the extent to which we can contextualize those works (see them through the eyes of closer contemporaries) varies correspondingly. There was much discussion and critique of Canterbury, but much less about (e.g.) Sir Gawain. We are beholden to the interests of the educated and wealthy for what has been most strongly passed down.