Medieval Literature

What ideas led to the chivalric ideal? Was St. Augustine a Platonist? Why exactly should children not read Chaucer's The Miller's Tale? Is Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur as violent as the movies make it seem?

The more distance is established between the Middle Ages and our own, the more mysterious they become. It's easy to think the world then was more earthy, more full of life, more dark, more violent, more perverse than the world today, or maybe even more Christian, closer to the reality of things, a better place to raise kids.

Why is it so easy to transpose a mythic or legendary status on former historical periods? in particular, why the Medieval period? They aren't called (inaccurately) the Dark Ages because we don't know anything about them—why do we treat them as if they are? Is it because so much of the literature reflects a mystical or fantastical imagination? Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Mabinogian are all highly symbolic and wrapped in chimerical invention, and the common response is to assume the Middle Ages themselves were similarly cloaked.

While some crazy historian might try to actually affirm that they were, the truth is a bit more reassuring, if more mundane. People haven't changed a whole lot since the days of knights and castles and Crusades; just as we are better able to apprehend certain truths when they're presented in fairy tale terms, so too the Medieval writers understood their readers (or hearers) needed something more material to grasp if they were going to get the spiritual and philosophical truths behind the pretense.

Dante wrote his Divine Comedy with four levels of interpretation in mind—the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical. Any great work of literature can obviously be enjoyed at face value—how the author uses the language, how he presents a scene and conveys a sense of characterization, etc. This is the level on which nearly everyone can enjoy literature.

The allegorical level is that which presents a hidden truth in plain language. For instance, Dante might be writing about a forest, but that forest represents the author's own spiritual confusion at the time of writing. The moral interpretive level is a jump back to the obvious; writers need to be sure to include direct moral exhortation and reproof for the benefit of their audience.

Modern writers still have one or all of these interpretive levels in mind when composing their work (except, perhaps, the author of a text message, especially if that author happens to be a teenager). Dante's final (and for him, most important) interpretive consideration has fallen largely out of use; some theorize the anagogical mode was never successfully employed. Readers of the Bible and the Divine Comedy would have to disagree—the anagogical mode is acheived when even the literal elements of the story are such that spiritual or divine truths are expressed. Easy to confuse with the allegorical, the anagogical mode is distinct and extremely difficult to manage, even for most great writers.

Medieval audiences would have understood all these forces at work in the composition of any work, especially the Classically educated who were most likely to be reading anything at all. If we transpose our own modern and postmodern sensibilities on Medieval literature, it will seem boring, weird, slightly insane, perhaps even heretical.

If, however, we learn to read Medieval literature as its original audience would have, we'll discover one of the most vibrant and fascinating eras in the history of the written word. Because its authors didn't feel like they needed to make everything they wrote "entertaining," it often became so on its own due to the passion and clarity of expression with which they wrote. It also made everything they wrote something apprehendable and worthy of contemplation, a trait sadly lacking in much modern fare.

Our Medieval literature section is a little smaller than we'd like. Partly, this is because many Medieval texts are hard to come by. Partly, too, it's because by comparison much more was written in the centuries following the Renaissance (which signaled the end of the Middle Ages) than in the centuries before. At least, that we know of. Bear with us as we expand our selection, and in the meantime experience the grandeur of Medieval literature, not as we think or assume it must have been, but as it really was.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

 

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