Western Literature : The Middle Ages

Introduction to the Middle Ages: The Classical Civilizations

During the Middle Ages, contains the years from 500 to 1500, the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome were developed by powerful interaction with three diverse cultures. The initial one was named the Germanic tribes that invaded and strongly dominated the western portion of the Roman Empire by the fifth century. The other was Christianity, which originated in Palestine and swiftly expanded across the empire until the time when nearly all of Western Europe was converted to Christianity by the eleventh century. On the other hand, Islam, which emerged in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century and soon expanded over North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula, remained a dominant authority until the fifteenth century. With respect to this, it is observed that Medieval Europe demonstrated a diverse spectrum of values, ideologies, and cultural structures as a result of the convergence of these broadly distinct cultural influences. Despite this variety, an identifiable culture developed after the process. In the year 500, "the West" was quite complicated to describe both politically and culturally, yet by 1500, the geography of Europe resembled what it seems present. Many of the ideals that people associated with the West—individualism, consensus-based government, acceptance of religious diversity—were rising realities. Besides, the development of vernacular literature was another vital event in Western civilization during this period. The masterpieces like The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer are considered primary examples of vernacular literature. These writings documented all cultural and religious standards, from medieval society's sense of humour to the philosophy and religion system. As a result, they provide readers with a variety of viewpoints by bearing the traces of western literature's heritage.

(Credit: "The Sacrifice of Isaac" by Orazio Riminaldi, 1593-1630)

During the Middle Ages, Europe's great national literature was formed, which led individuals to discover both individual literary masterpieces and writing traditions that have persisted to characterize Western Literature. Since it was the time when European nations' cultural identities were formed, the Middle Ages have long roused people's interest and sparked debate. In addition, the period was named after the generation who came after it. They called their era the Renaissance as they regarded it as a revival of the creative achievements of antiquity. From their perspectives, the preceding period was the age of "middleness", which also means a cultural void that divided them from the classical past they adored. This limited perspective of cultural history is still prevalent today since it is referred regarded as "medieval," which used to signify outdated or barbarous. It is also reflected in the widely held belief that the Middle Ages were exceptionally homogeneous. A time when all men and women believed same ethics and acted in related ways. Notwithstanding this, the period emphasizes a wide range of individuals from many civilizations.

These civilizations were both oral and literate; Germanic and Latin; Arabic, Jewish, and Christian; secular and spiritual; tolerant and authoritarian; colloquial and educated; agricultural and residential; skeptical and pious; public and aristocratic. For every instance of one type of cultural output, there is an illustration of another, and the most notable literary masterpieces combined characteristics and ideals derived from several, often competing, traditions. To give a simple illustration, The Song of Roland, written in the eleventh century, embodies the supremacy of Christianity to Islam. Despite this, by the ninth century, Islamic academics had adjusted much of Greek philosophy and science into Arabic by maintaining and improving this legacy at a time when it was declining in Western Europe. Up until the early twelfth century, Muslim centres of education in Spain, Sicily, and southern Italy allowed European academics to reclaim access to these Greek originals and analyze their Arabic critics. Likewise, The Song of Roland's aggression with internal conflicts is complicated. The poem extols a great warrior in the tradition of Germanic military heroics, but it also stresses the urgency of subordinating personal accomplishment to the demands of a bonded Christian society. Another example of a conflict of opposing interests may be found in the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, who is known as the English literature's founder poet. He was a court poet, catering almost entirely to the restricted preferences of an aristocratic public, but in The Canterbury Tales, he chronicled the internal divisions and aspirations of men and women from nearly every social status. These complexity and paradoxes abound in medieval writing, and although they prevent modern efforts to characterize the period in simplistic words, they also make reading its literature a never-ending surprise.

(Credit: The Song of Roland by Simon Marmion, 15th Century)

Ultimately, intending to describe the Middle Ages, it is crucial to be familiar with two fundamental descriptions: “An age of faith” and “An age of chivalry”. To explain profoundly, "an age of faith" is directly related to Catholic Christianity. The Roman Empire had not only power on law, communal order, and policy but it also had moral and spiritual authority. Thus, Church could expand through most of Europe with the help of the spiritual institution. On the other side of the coin, the area of the Iberian Peninsula was under Muslim control while Europe had become associated with Christendom. This acceptance of Christian theology, however, did not imply that religious values were generally acknowledged as fundamental, nor that a single type of Christianity was embraced by all medieval people. To give a literary illustration, Lais of Marie de France clarifies the fact that medieval society was leading their romance without paying attention to Christian demands and doctrines. Another example is from Boccaccio's Decameron punctuates the claims and behaviors of churchmen. To continue, Beowulf, which is an Anglo-Saxon epic based on loyal combativeness and chivalric values, tremendously admires the pagan culture. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri tells about a pagan poet, Virgil as being his leader. That is, the Middle Ages is an age of faith, yet it is also aware of the complexities and quandaries that every faith poses to its wicked adherents.

(Credit: The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, 1472)

As stated previously, Medieval literature is also "an age of chivalry". It is crucial to mention that medieval literature reflects the essence of prominent members of society: The aristocracy. These people acquired military dominance by forcing their will on their allies and invaders, including Vikings from the north, Magyars and Mongols from the east, and several Muslims from the south. The perception of militarism and military values has a strong connection with personal honour since in the Middle Ages, warrior identities are the most essential symbol of honour in the community. As stated previously, the epic Beowulf is considered as the representation of chivalry due to its intense ideology of individual honour. Based on this, the sense of chivalry and the motivation to achieve honour are inspired by the epics of Ancient Greece through the influence of an ancient writer: Homer.

This article deals with the introduction to the Middle Ages through classical civilizations and literary heritage. Taking everything into an account, the most obvious conclusion to be drawn is that the Middle Ages included a lengthy and complicated span in which societal values such as physical strength, religious system, and literature were all intertwined. The social view generated by all of the listed literary works and intellectuals is a reflection of medieval society. Unforgettable characters formed via those literary words are masterfully written by utilizing symbolism and sarcasm to portray various disciplines such as religion, education, art, architecture, sociology, and governance. There is no doubt that the impact of all interrelated medieval social standards has persisted in today's literature world in this way.

Resources and References;

  • Ph.D., J. H., Ph.D., L. S., Ph.D., P. L., Ph.D., S. P. M., & Ph.D., W. T. G. (2005b). The Norton Anthology of Western Literature, Volume 1 (Eighth ed.). W. W. Norton & Company.

  • T.C. Yeditepe University, Western Literature 102 - Lecture Notes, 2021.

  • Mark, J. J. (2021, July 23). Medieval Literature. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Medieval_Literature/

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