Literary Consciousness in Medieval Literature

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In education today, the majority of students in either middle or high school will encounter Medieval and Renaissance literature. Sometimes this is a very harrowing and traumatic experience – translating Chaucer and making sense of Shakespeare’s plays can be difficult – but there are reasons why students work with these canonical texts as they continue to be taught year after year.

One of the reasons is that there is a literary consciousness and self consciousness in Medieval and Renaissance literature that is as relevant to readers of from the 16th century as it is now to readers of the 21st century.

What does this mean exactly?

It means that past writers understood the significance of literature and included commentary in their writing that referenced other works and indicated how writing is immortal and thus extremely special. One quality of a literary consciousness is that it describes the immortality of literature – how past ideas/feelings can still be interpreted and evoke emotion today – along with alluding to other literary works/theories that are meaningful. This immortal quality of literature develops writing into a powerful product of human art. The ability to preserve thoughts, emotions, images, and individuals through time is remarkable and requires a certain skill that certain writers of the past possessed. One of the reasons why Shakespeare’s plays are so widely read today is that our society can connect with the characters along with their emotions even though they are hundreds of years old. This alone is extremely special and indicates that early English writing contained valuable messages and stylistically was beyond its time.

The valuable messages alluded to in the works displaying literary consciousness give validly to the argument being presented. In Sidney’s Defense of Posey, he alludes to several well known authors who praised poetry and who’s poetry stood the test of time. Because those authors were already so well known and respected, many of them dating back to ancient Greece, Sidney tapped into the validity those authors already possessed and, by alluding to these authors, gave ethos to this argument. This allusion to outside work is one of careful planning used by authors. If an author alludes to a work or author that is controversial or not well known then their argument becomes weak and hurts their validity.

Furthermore, these writers of the past showed an awareness of other writers and often alluded to their works. By alluding to important works, established authors tipped their hats towards other authors who have made significant impacts in the world of literature. By incorporating ‘literature within literature’ ( Beowulf when the scop reads poetry to his listeners) this further develops the presence of literature in everyday society. This presence is a product of a literary consciousness in writing during these two revolutionary periods. It gives the opportunity for viewers and readers of these plays/stories to become more affluent with literature and also begin to understand how literature is a continuous cycle – past generations influence future ones. While sitting in a modern day English class, one may often wonder what is the purpose of reading these old works? On the whole, the answer comes down to the reality that these works transcend generations and demand to be read. If Chaucer’s words were ordinary, they would never be kept alive, but instead they are forever preserved by the content and allusions he includes in his writing. Ultimately, literary consciousness allows traditions to be kept alive through written words.

In doing so, works like Beowulf or The Canterbury Tales distinguish themselves from other human enterprises – these forms of literature from past generations still exist and are outwardly/objectively expressed today. Overall, this page will examine the use of a literary consciousness in Medieval and Renaissance literature and therefore illustrate the important qualities of literature in any generation.

Our page will provide a survey over significant works from the Medieval Ages to the Renaissance. This survey will highlight the literary consciousness that is apparent in each of the works. The course of page will run as follows: Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, The Defense of Poesy, and Shakespeare’s/Sidney’s/Spenser’s sonnets. The purpose of analyzing each of these famous works is to further develop the creation of a literary consciousness, how it is implemented in writing, and the overarching purpose of the consciousness. At the end of the page, a brief essay will be presented that will conclude and summarize what has been presented along with explaining the main differences between medieval and renaissance literary consciousness. This essay will examine what we have concluded are the crucial qualities that make a literary consciousness in each of the time periods different, but also similar.

Please click on any of the following tabs to be directed to a page specifically designed for each work!

Beowulf, Translated by Seamus Heaney


In Beowulf, literary consciousness is used to give a sense of reverence to those seen as heroic, and is also demonstrated through the use of literature within literature. After Grendel’s defeat and during Beowulf’s funeral, chants and songs are used to express loyalty and appreciation towards Beowulf. In addition, the narrator diverges from the plot to tell The Story of Finn, relating the story to the reality of the outside world.


The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Chaucer uses a unique form of literary consciousness, speaking directly to his audience. He does this once in the prologue to the story and then again through his character The Miller. Using this interesting technique gives the reader the feeling that the story is being told to them.

Penguin Classic Version

The Defense of Poesy by Sir Philip Sidney

In this work by Sidney, he creates a relationship between Poetry, past and present, and its importance to our culture by connecting its beauty to the ways it influences our culture. He uses Greek mythology and Biblical literature because they are two major subjects that the vast majority of people have some knowledge about. Because many people know about these subjects, it makes it hard for readers to refute his claims, while persuading those who previously wavered in opinion of poetry.

Poetry by Shakespeare, Sidney, & Spenser

These wonderful three poets each individualized their poetry by including literary consciousness qualities. These qualities included the immortality nature of writing, allusions to other writers/historical figures, and the power of expressing beauty through writing.

A Conclusion on the Differences Between Literary Consciousness in Medieval and Renaissance Literature:

Compared to the Renaissance, Medieval writers subtly expressed the immortality of literature. Renaissance poets such as Shakespeare and Sidney explicitly indicated that their writing would stand the test of time and the point they were trying to achieve through their poetry would forever be understood (mostly, it was preserving a woman’s beauty). However, Medieval writers showed a level of immortality in literature by including actual poetry in their writing. In Beowulf, the funeral chanting at the end was similar to poetry and when the scop lectured his listeners, he was in fact reciting poetry. This reference to another literary art form shows that literature can be preserved within literature. The times in which the narrator or scop diverge from the story to recite this poetry displays the way in which literature was shared and saved during medieval times. Additionally, Beowulf centered around expressing the emergence of poetry in everyday life – since there were blatant poetic references made – which develops the notion that poetry is influencing common Medieval society and the public should be made aware of this. Since Beowulf was performed live, entreating the audience to poetry greater a stronger awareness for this art and the beauty in literature. Poetry is displayed as a part of everyday life, and more specifically in religious reverence.

Literary consciousness used in The Miller’s Tale was indicative of the Medieval time period. In the Renaissance period works focused much more on love and the beauty of life, but in this particular work it was quite the opposite. Chaucer was apologizing for writing such a vulgar story, warning his readers to turn the page to a different story if they thought they’d get offended by such a tale. Even a character in the story warned his audience, claiming that he was very drunk. The Miller didn’t want to be blamed if he misspoke, so he made it clear to blame the ale he drank. The fact that the narrator of this particular story was a drunk man on a horse is telling of the times too. Renaissance writers wouldn’t have written about something as vile as this, it points directly to the Medieval period. However the story is one of love, which is similar to the Renaissance period. Although it isn’t a traditional love story, it is a love story none the less and this was a common topic for Renaissance writers. It is hard to draw other comparisons to the Renaissance period, because this text is clearly from a different time. Between the vulgar story, dirty characters, and the warnings from both Chaucer and The Miller one can clearly tell this was written in Medieval times.

Shakespeare, Spenser, and Sidney each focused primarily on love in their sonnets that exemplify a literary consciousness and this is indicative of the Renaissance. Through unusual metaphors, imagery, and personification, these writers were able to express the beauty of an individual and similarly touch upon the qualities of literature which help construct/preserve their beauty. Additionally, we see in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 he is alluding to another poet (Petrarch) and critiquing this style of writing. This approach to a literary conscious was not seen nearly as much in the Medieval Ages than in the Renaissance. Moreover, in Sidney’s Sonnet 1 he conveys a level of self-consciousness about comparing his writing to other writers, which establishes a certain level of competition among writers in the Renaissance. Compared to the Medieval Ages, many famous works were left anonymous (i.e. Beowulf) and the competition/demand for excellent writing wasn’t as prevalent than in the Renaissance when writing was more accessible and widely read. Sidney showed this same self-consciousness in his work, The Defense of Poesy. Sidney fights for the rights to keep poetry a free entity, claiming its importance to transcend time. He uses literary conciseness to give ethos to his arguments by alluding to ancient Rome and Greece, philosophers and other major disciplines, mother nature and greek mythology, and time tested works to show how poetry has been around longer than the people criticizing it. Sidney highlights famous Italian writers like Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, to give validity to the connection between the Italian Renaissance and the Renaissance happening in England. He uses major works like the Bible to show that even King David used poetry to praise God. Sidney, as well as the other poets, use literary consciousness in a special way to establish the importance of keeping these forms of art alive.

Beowulf Translated by Seamus Heaney image,

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Edmund Spenser photograph,

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Philip Sidney photograph,

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