Medieval Literature

Based on what you know, it should not be a surprise that most early medieval literature was written in Latin. Latin was the language (both spoken and written) of the educated during the Early Middle Ages, and most of these educated people happened to be monks.

Medieval literature provides valuable insights into the culture, beliefs, and values of the Middle Ages. It offers a glimpse into the lives of people during that time, their struggles, and their aspirations. By studying medieval literature, one can gain a deeper understanding of the historical context and the development of literary techniques.

It also sheds light on the social, political, and religious aspects of medieval society, making it a crucial resource for historians and literary scholars alike.

Medieval Literature Facts for Kids

  • Medieval literature was written from the 5th to the 15th century.
  • “Beowulf” is a famous early medieval epic poem.
  • Many stories were about knights and their quests.
  • Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” shows medieval life.
  • The earliest literature was oral, not written.
  • Manuscripts were hand-written by monks.
  • Romance literature focused on love and chivalry.
  • Fables taught lessons using animals as characters.
  • Dante’s “Divine Comedy” was a key medieval work.
  • Poetry often featured themes of religion and war.

Arthurian Legends

Medieval literature, specifically Arthurian Legends, creates a captivating realm for children, with stories that were initially conveyed through songs or poems and later recorded in books such as ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’ by Sir Thomas Malory. Centered on King Arthur, his Round Table knights, Queen Guinevere, and the wizard Merlin, these legends began to form during the Middle Ages.

They not only impart lessons on chivalry, bravery, honor, and the notion of pursuing a noble cause, but also incorporate magical components like the sword Excalibur, the Holy Grail, and mythical creatures. Hence, Arthurian Legends serve as an engaging and educational tool for children.

Chivalric Romance

Chivalric Romance, a genre immensely popular in medieval literature, was particularly cherished by the nobility and knights. It featured narratives teeming with audacious adventures, gallant quests, and virtuous acts, epitomizing knights adhering to the chivalric code. This code outlined principles of honor, valor, and courtesy towards women and adversaries.

The knights were frequently portrayed undertaking heroic deeds such as saving damsels in distress, vanquishing terrifying creatures, and embarking on monumental quests for sacred artifacts, such as the renowned Holy Grail. The narratives were predominantly set in fictional, distant lands and regularly incorporated aspects of magic and the supernatural. One of the most celebrated tales from this genre is that of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

These tales served a dual purpose, providing entertainment while also imparting moral lessons about virtuous conduct, underscoring the significance of honor and duty.

Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer, commonly referred to as the ‘Father of English Literature,’ was a renowned author during England’s Middle Ages. He pioneered the use of a variant of English that, though slightly different from modern English, played a critical role in establishing English as a respected language for literature. Chaucer’s most illustrious work, ‘The Canterbury Tales,’ comprises a series of narratives articulated by an array of characters journeying on a pilgrimage to Canterbury.

These tales offer an in-depth portrayal of life in medieval times, detailing aspects such as attire, diet, and occupations. However, Chaucer’s writings extend beyond mere storytelling; they serve as historical documents, offering valuable insights into the past.

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri, a renowned Italian poet of the medieval era, rose to fame with his epic work, ‘The Divine Comedy’. Crafted meticulously between 1308 and 1321, this iconic masterpiece is esteemed as one of the most significant contributions to world literature.

The narrative, divided into three sections – Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, narrates Dante’s expedition through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Alighieri’s choice of the Tuscan dialect of Italian for his work, as opposed to the prevalent Latin, is celebrated for establishing the Tuscan dialect as the standardized Italian language of today.

Furthermore, Dante’s vivid depictions in ‘The Divine Comedy’ serve as a unique window into the beliefs and norms of the medieval era.

Troubadour Poetry

Originating from Southern France in the 11th century, troubadour poetry is an intriguing aspect of medieval literature, composed and performed by traveling musicians known as troubadours. They wove tales of love, chivalry, and knightly adventures into their works, which often took the form of songs accompanied by musical instruments.

As a fundamental element of courtly culture during the Middle Ages, the troubadours’ lyrical narratives significantly shaped the evolution of both literature and music across Europe.

Medieval Drama

During the Middle Ages, medieval drama served as a captivating facet of literature that enthralled audiences of all ages. This form of storytelling was more than mere entertainment, it played a vital instructive role given that most people were illiterate at the time.

Drama became a potent medium to disseminate stories, impart moral lessons, and propagate religious teachings to the masses. Different forms of medieval drama included ‘mystery plays,’ ‘morality plays,’ and ‘miracle plays.’ Typically performed during religious festivals, these plays narrated biblical stories or depicted the lives of saints.

The performances were often elaborate, featuring vibrant costumes, music, and occasionally, special effects such as fireworks. They were staged in public spaces like streets or town squares, ensuring their accessibility to everyone.


Beowulf, a vital piece of medieval literature, is renowned as one of the oldest surviving works crafted in Old English. As an epic poem, it narrates the adventures and journey of a heroic figure, Beowulf, who displays courage in battling terrifying monsters such as dragons.

This enchanting narrative offers insight into the cultural fabric, societal values, and beliefs of the medieval era, emphasizing the significance of bravery, honor, and fidelity. The British Library in London houses the original manuscript of Beowulf, a document that has endured for over a millennium.

Illuminated Manuscripts

In the medieval era, Illuminated Manuscripts, a unique genre of books distinguished by their decorative elements, were meticulously crafted. These weren’t merely written works; they were artistic masterpieces enveloped in vibrant colors, gold or silver embellishments, and elaborate patterns.

Monks, within the confines of their monasteries, dedicated themselves to the painstaking task of hand-copying these primarily religious texts. The process was slow and laborious, with each page often requiring days, if not weeks, to complete due to the intricate artwork that framed the text. The monks employed feather quills, ink, and a spectrum of paints derived from a multitude of sources, such as precious stones and plants.

Among these illuminated manuscripts, the most renowned is the Book of Kells, a Latin transcription of the four New Testament gospels. This artistic endeavor signifies a remarkable confluence of faith and creativity that was emblematic of the medieval period.

Medieval Latin Literature

Throughout the 5th to 15th centuries, during the Middle Ages, Medieval Latin Literature played a pivotal role, serving as the primary medium for education, writing, and scholarly works across Europe. Differing from the classical Latin utilized by the ancient Romans, Medieval Latin employed a more basic vocabulary and grammatical structure, thereby enabling learners from diverse language backgrounds to grasp it more easily.

This era witnessed the creation of a plethora of celebrated compositions, encompassing philosophical discourses, poetry, historical narratives, and religious manuscripts. Among these, the ‘Carmina Burana,’ a collection of songs and poems crafted in the 11th or 12th century, stands as a notable example. It’s crucial to recall that during this period, books were meticulously handcrafted by scribes, transforming each one into a unique piece of art.

The Song of Roland

The Song of Roland, a renowned piece of medieval literature, was crafted around the 11th century and chronicles the daring exploits of a valiant knight named Roland during the reign of the illustrious King Charlemagne of the Franks.

It is a prominent exemplar of the ‘chanson de geste,’ a genre of French epic poetry that gained popularity throughout the Middle Ages. Engaging for children is the fact that this literary piece was not originally designed for silent reading; rather, it was intended to be orated or chanted aloud during public presentations, much akin to contemporary plays or concerts.

Furthermore, the protagonists in ‘The Song of Roland,’ much like numerous heroes in medieval literature, embodied virtues such as courage, fidelity, and dignity, attributes held in high esteem during the Middle Ages.

From Monks to Printing Press: The Magical World of Books

Texts were translated and written by hand (often in poor lighting) by monks who filled pages with words and complicated illustrations. Most, if not all, books were written by hand over long periods of time, until a man named Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the early 1400s and made everything much, much easier.

Books could be produced faster than before, though the letters had to be carefully arranged before being pressed to the page, and this too took quite a bit of time. But what tales and stories come from the medieval period?

Books of Wisdom: Exploring Ancient Texts and Knowledge in the Middle Ages

Textbooks were hard to come by, but one particularly well-known book of the early medieval period was the Ars Minor, a book written in Latin and copied over and over again for scholars learning grammar in monasteries. The Bible itself was also frequently used to teach those seeking an education, along with many other Latin texts about philosophy and logic and even where words came from (a study called “etymology”).

Other important works for the student—this time the medical student—were those by Galen, who wrote about the body, medicine, and hygiene. Medical students at universities relied on very old texts like these because, at the time, they offered the best knowledge of the human body and advice on how to take care of it.

Medieval Tales Unleashed: Adventures, Dragons, and the Language of the People

But what of stories and tales? A lot of them were told aloud and passed from village to village in this manner. Those that were written down were often in the language spoken by the common people, and depending on the time period, this might have been Old or Middle English or even French.

You see, people loved stories during the medieval days as much as we do, and over time, books began to be written not in the language of nobility or monks, but in the language spoken most often by the people. Works such as Beowulf, which was an epic poem (in other words, a long tale in a certain style, usually about a hero and his journey) telling the story of the warrior Beowulf.

Beowulf helps a king, fights monsters (including a dragon), and the whole piece is written in Old English. Scholars have translated it for modern readers, so we are even able to read it today!

Legends, Love, and Life Lessons: Exploring Medieval Stories and Fables

Other well-known stories in the form of poems and epics were The Song of Roland, based on a famous battle and written in Old French, Tristan and Iseult (sometimes spelled Tristan and Isolde), a romance about the love of a knight and a princess, and of course, fables. Many fables—even retellings of older fables—were popular throughout the medieval period. These were stories that were usually short and had a lesson in them, often about good behavior versus bad, right versus wrong, and patience versus impatience.

The Canterbury Tales: A Colorful Journey into Medieval Stories and Characters

But perhaps the most beloved and widely-read tale from this time was (and continues to be) Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer decided to write these in the language spoken during his time (the 1400s), and so the entire work is written in Middle English. Middle English is still read by some today but requires a lot of study.

Words were spelled much differently and the language itself, when spoken aloud, sounded far off from the type of English we speak today. The tale contains many figures common to Chaucer’s time and gives each of them a story. These characters include such figures as a knight, a merchant, a nun, a physician (or doctor), and even a cook. That’s only naming a few of the many characters found within The Canterbury Tales.

So what have we learned about medieval literature?

Originally it was all in Latin and used mostly in monasteries and churches, while tales were told aloud and passed around by the common people. Eventually, popular romances, fables, and epic poems were written in the language of everyday people, and one of the most well-known of these tales is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Stories involved magic, monsters, lessons, and love. Doesn’t sound so different than what we read today, does it?