Medieval and Renaissance Literature


Medieval and Renaissance Literature


Chaucer’s Pilgrim



55BC-410: Latin speaking Romans occupy England
450: Romans withdrew from England and Germanic tribes (Angals and Saxons) invade
577: England converts to Christianity
800: Wave of Viking invasions

1000: Approximate year Beowulf was written
1066: Norman invasion of England
1075: Pope Gregory VII declares the supremacy of the church
-King William the Conqueror was in power, died in 1087

1087-1110: Reign of King William Rufus
1110-1135: King Henry I
1099: First Crusade

King Stephen
1147: Second Crusade

King Henry II
1170: Thomas Becket murdered in Canterbury Cathedral

King Richard I
1190: Third crusade

King John
1200: Fourth Crusade:
1212: Children’s Crusade
1215: Magna Carta Signed

King Henry III
1263-1267: The Barons war

King Edward I

1337-1453: Hundred Years War

Chaucer, Piers Plowman, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
One of the first books printed in England, Monte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
1425: Mystery Plays

1431: Joan of Arc Burned
1432: The Book of Margery Kempe
1475: The Shepard’s Play
1485: William Caxton prints first successful book in England


War of the Roses
Sir Thomas Wyatt
1485/1509: Accession of Henry VII
1517: Start of Reformation

Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Philip Sydney
1588: Defeat of Spanish Armada
Christopher Marlowe
Spenser The Faerie Queen

King James I: first of Stuart Kings
Shakespeare: Hamlet
1612: Death of Prince Henry
1616: Death of Shakespeare
1618: 30 Years War
King Charles I
Shakespeare, plays and sonnets
John Donne Poems
1642: Civil War
1648: Second Civil War
1649 Charles I executed
1667 Paradise Lost


Medieval Overview

Although there is no official consensus regarding the exact beginning and end of the Medieval Period, it is most commonly associated with the collapse of the Roman Empire, around the 5th century, and leading up all the way to the 15th century, which is widely considered (though the exact beginning is disputed) the beginning of the Renaissance Period. This time period is commonly known as The Middle Ages was commonly regarded by Renaissance thinkers as “The Dark Ages.”

On the continent, the development of Medieval literature–stemming from the preservation of culture and heroic adventures within epic poems–is a direct result of Charlemagne’s desire to educate his people in 800, which was only made possible through an emphasis on the teachings of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church created schools with an intensive curriculum founded upon the education of grammar, rhetoric, Latin, astronomy, philosophy and math. Christianity was legalized by the Roman Empire during the Fourth Century, and as a result, education as well as laws were overseen by the Church. The Church often wielded more power than the often-weak feudal monarchies that characterized medieval society.

In the Twelfth Century, there arose a strong presence of chivalry in Medieval society which quickly inhabited the literature of the time; the chivalric code was a moral code, or rather, a code of conduct bound to duty, honor, and justice. Reflected within the texts of the time–the ways in which characters are affected by loyalty, duty, and honor–the chivalric code was both a necessary platform for knighthood and good moral standing. The presence of chivalry in Medieval Culture is exemplified in the representation of a just and moral knight facing temptation and conflict in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As a result of the presence of chivalry, courtly love gave rise to an increased production and contemplation of romantic prose. While the printing press was invented in the Fifteenth Century, its impact was not fully achieved until the Renaissance. citations?

The Middles Ages can be split up into three periods: the Early Middle Ages, the High Middle Ages, and the Late Middle Ages.
The Early Middle Ages typically signify the begging of the Medieval Era with the fall of Rome and continue until sometime in the 11th century. Anglo-Saxon tribes invaded England around 450 and they had a vast affect on literature. The language of theseinvaders is classified as Old English and is widely represented in Anglo-Saxon poetry (UMASS). Old English poetry was passed down orally before it was written. The earliest written example is found in the writing of Bede and his poem Caedmon’s Hymn. The Anglo–Saxon’s helped further spread Christianity by adapting to it; however, Anglo-Saxon poetry contains a thematic “heroic code” which blends with and sometimes contradicts Christian ideals. The “heroic code” places value on kinship, and emphasizes duty and vengeance for one’s lord (Norton). One of the most popular Old English epic poems is Beowulf, which follows suit of its relative Germanic literature with its heroic and Christian themes.
The High Middle Ages are thought to have begun around The Norman Invasion. Linguistically, this era brought about the transition from Old

The final page in Caxton’s print of Morte Darthur. Image courtesy of The British Library.

English to Middle English, feudalism, and the Medieval “romance” which came from the French speaking Anglo-Normans. Romances characteristically revolve around similar themes of members of the lower nobility trying to rise in status, the young entering adulthood and their fears, and individuals being cast out of society and returning as part of a stronger unit. Th
e most popular romantic figure of this time is the character of King Arthur who arose in the 13th century. The Arthurian romance contains the chivalric code, involving knights, adventure, and honor ( Other popular romances of this time include Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and William Langland’s Piers Plowman.
The Late Middle Ages mark the end of the Medieval era, which is estimated to have ended around 1485, the year Henry VII ascended to the throne, and the
Tudor dynasty began. This era contained the Hundred Years War, which ended in 1453, and the Black Death, which eliminated nearly one-third of Europe’s population. In 1485, William Caxton introduced England to the art of printing books, when he published Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D’ Arthur (Norton).

Role of Religion

A medieval church in Rome.
Image courtesy of:
According to the History Learning Cite, the Church was absolutely the most important part of medieval society. “The Church dominated everybody’s lives.” The only religion that existed was Christianity. All medieval people, regardless of their social rank, believed in God, Heaven, and Hell, however it was strongly believed that the only way they could get to Heaven is if the Roman Catholic Church allowed them. Similar to today, Hell was depicted as every person’s worst nightmare, and Heaven was eternal paradise.
There are many reasons that the Church was so dominant during medieval times, but a main reason is its extreme wealthiness. The Church made money any way they could, but they made majority of their money through tithes. A tithe is a tax that is one tenth of a persons yearly earnings or goods that had to be given to the Church. Peasants obviously found it very difficult to pay tithes because they have trouble making even enough money for themselves, so they had to pay with seeds or grain. It was not an option to not pay a tithe because it was told that the punishment of not paying a tithe would result in eternal damnation. Other ways the Church became so wealthy was their constant charges for receiving sacraments. If one wanted to be baptized, married, or buried there was a charge, and someone becoming baptized and being buried on Holy Ground was another way to get to Heaven. Marriage was very different in the medieval ages. Married couples were not allowed to live together because it was viewed as a sin. With all of this income from basically every person in society the
Church was extremely well-off, and to keep the Church as wealthy as possible they did not have to pay any taxes. It is said that The Church was wealthier than any king in the world during this time period, and they saved most of their money. However, the money that they did spend was on their structures such as churches or cathedrals.

The actual structure of the Church was the center of all community activities. People would perform plays and there were always markets held outside of the Church. The Church was viewed as having the answers to everything and anything that would happen, especially when something bad happened. If there was a bad storm or an outbreak of disease, the church was supposed to know why. The language of the Church, Latin, was the only common language spoken in all of Europe. Anyone who did not know Latin would not be able to communicate. This just proves how important the Church truly was. They determined the language of an entire continent. The Church held entirely all of the power in medieval times, and was very well-respected.

Literary Genres in the Medieval Period (5th-15th Centuries)

Most scholars associate the start of the medieval period with the fall of the Roman Empire in 410AD. After the Romans withdrew, Germanic tribes invaded and spread their influence into England.

Old English Period

Oral Poetry: There are not many recorded works from the Old English Period primarily because of the scarcity of people who were literate (mostly limited to clergy members). Oral poetry mainly carried Christian themes (since nothing was written down until there was heavy Christian influence we do not know if these religious undertones were part of the original work), and often centered on the adventures of great heroic figures. It was passed down over generations, which caused it to be continuously changed with each retelling. We may never know many great works of oral poetry, however, it played a large role in impacting later written works. Most of Old English Poetry is contained in just four manuscripts, for example, “The Wanderer.”

Oral poetry was usually accompanied by the music of a harp. Image Courtesy of:

Early Middle English Period

Germanic Heroic Poetry: It started out being performed orally in alliterative verse but was later written down by scholars or clergymen. Oftentimes it was used to describe current events, and touched on themes, which invoke the ancient code of honor that obliges a warrior to avenge his slain lord or die beside him. They show the aristocratic heroic and kinship values of Germanic society that continued to inspire both clergy and laity. The effect of language in Germanic Heroic Poetry and Old English Poetry was to formalize and elevate speech.

Anglo Saxon Literature:
Elegy: It is typically mournful or sad. It can be in the form of a funeral song o a lament for the dead. For example: “The Wanderer”

Middle English Literature:
Romance, Courtly Romance: This was the most popular genre in the Middle English period; it had a particular story structure that depicted the integration, disintegration, and reintegration of a central hero. Usually the hero underwent a test or challenge that alienated them from society. It is outside the world of every day experience or unnatural/magical. It was the principal narrative genre for late medieval readers and centrally concerned with love but it developed ways of representing psychological interiority with great subtlety. Though they began in France, their transition into English literature came about from simplified and translated versions of the original French works. Often, Romances, whether written for aristocratic audiences or lower class audiences, had to do with a knight attempting to win the love of a woman of much higher class, by showing the depth of his character through acts of morality, nobility, and bravery.
– A sub-genre of the romance was the Arthurian Legend: Stories that told about the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
– For example: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

King Arthur and his knights of the round table. Image Courtesy of:

Allegory: An extended metaphor—where something is standing for something else. It is a depiction of a common theme. An allegory tells a story that has characters, setting, and other symbols that serve both a literal and figurative purpose and point out a theme about human life. For Example, Piers Plowman or Everyman

Estates Satire: Represents the 3 estates, the clergy, the nobility, and everyone else. It satirizes society with the purpose of presenting the flaws of something in an exaggerated way with the intent of drawing attention to create a solution for it. It examines society by groups based on class, occupation, function, status and other designations. For Example: The Canterbury Tales

Middle English lyrics: A type of secular poetry. They were generally love poems although some were about social satire or the celebration of earth and humanity; they were very passionate and not about God. The lyrics do not tell a long story (not an epic, odyssey, ballad) but rather about a single thought or image. They have a very contemporary rhyme scheme and subject matter.

Autobiography: Just as autobiographies today tell the story of a person’s life through their point of view, early autobiographies did the same thing. They generally depicted the trials and triumphs of a person’s life and their internal thoughts about the matter. The first autobiography was The Book of Margery Kempe.

Drama: For the most part, drama rose to popularity in the later medieval period (1000-1500). Early dramas were typically very religious in theme, staging and tradition. Performance of plays outside of the church became popular around the 12th century when they became more widely accessible to the general population. Plays were usually performed by a professional acting company that traveled from town to town on wagons and moving stages. Most theater companies were exclusively male. The Second Shepherds’ Play

Morality Play: A type of drama that emerged around 1400 and became increasingly popular through out the century. They taught lessons about morality and human nature and used allegorical characters to portray the struggle that a person goes through to achieve salvation and the forces of good and evil. A morality tale could have had either a serious or a comic plot.
– The Cock and the Fox, Everyman

Depiction of a mystery play performance.
Image courtesy of

Religious Prose: Sought to explain the great truths of god, humanity, and the universe through an analysis of Christian beliefs, focuses on sin, penance, and love.
– For Example: Margery Kempe

Secular Literature

There are few examples of secular work during the Medieval period as a result of the influence of religion within society. Secular Poetry was one of the main works of literature at this time. It was full of satire and irony concerning everyday life. The incline of popularity of these secular works led into the Renaissance. An important example of this type of poetry is The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Secular Medieval literature helped create a pathway for future authors in the Renaissance.

The Canterbury Tales is one of the most well known secular works from the Medieval period. Rather than focus on the Church and religion, The Canterbury Tales looks instead at other common ideas of the time, such as courtliness and company. This courtliness, or courtly love, could be found in many poems and other pieces of literature during this time period. Courtly love is when a woman is treated with utmost respect, care, and love from a knight. He will do anything to make her happy, and her happiness and love in turn makes the knight stronger and more respected. In The Canterbury Tales, courtly love can be found in the Knight’s Tale, a story about two knights who fall in love with the same woman and must choose to honor either the code of courtly love or the code of chivalry. The theme of company is also present throughout the entire poem. It is clear in that the pilgrims are traveling together and sharing each other’s company by learning about one another and sharing stories. Below is a link to an animated version of The Knight’s Tale. Other themes common in Medieval secular poetry are spring, love, and politics. Many other satirized the community.

external image chaucer.jpg
Geoffrey Chaucer
Image Courtesy of
As the Renaissance began to rise throughout Europe, secularism and humanism became increasingly popular. This time brought on “the appreciation of worldly pleasures, and above all the intensified assertion of personal independence and individual expression” (cite). Instead of focusing on the afterlife, people began focus on their current place in life. They looked towards themselves and who they were as individual people instead of solely people of God. This time in history can be seen as the beginning of the turn to reason and the loss of faith. Similar to secular literature of the Medieval period, secular literature of the Renaissance focused on worldly things, such as spring and love. The reason part of this literary period inspired essays on human characteristics and politics, with Francis Bacon being one of the most writers of these types of essays.

Women in the Literature

Throughout the Medieval period, women were viewed as second class citizens, and their needs always were an afterthought. They were either held to be completely deceitful, sexual, innocent or incompetent. Therefore, women were mostly withheld from positions of power or speaking their voice; males made decisions for them and their lives were dictated by the men that ran the society. Despite their lack of validation and suppression, however, women in Medieval literature were certainly present in many works and in various forms. Some tropes feed into the idea that women are subservient and inferior to men such as the Virgin, which portrays females as passive and weak, or the mother whose very life circles around making a better life for her family and especially for her husband, or even the whore who has no power in her sexuality and must give it away for the well being of her family or the men in society. However, there are some archetypes that break this cycle like the Trickster or Witch who break the social norms and stand out, displaying qualities of cunning intelligence, intimidation, and power. The sections below will dive deeper into the disparity between how women were viewed in Medieval society and how they were portrayed in the literature of the time.

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Introduction to the Renaissance

As a whole, the Renaissance encompasses an incredibly large rebirth of knowledge and learning that began in Italy in the fourteenth century. By the Sixteenth Century, Renaissance thinking spread from Italy, reaching north towards England. The advances in knowledge which identify the shift from Medieval Literature to Renaissance Literature were dependent upon a return to classical thought within the literature and philosophies of antiquity. This return to classical ideas and worldview gave rise to Humanism, which asserted the value of man, his dignity, and his lack of limitations. As a result, there was a shift in emphasis from the contemplative life of the Medieval man to the involved life of the Renaissance man: well-rounded, active, and involved with the world around him. Most notably, Humanists provided society with a pervasive and overarching sense of humanity.

Renaissance Literature also mimicked changes in culture; turning away from primarily religious thinking and placing importance on classical thought, Renaissance thinkers conjured new philosophies from the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. Sexual love was seen as the presence of spiritual bonds in literature, arising from new found knowledge of Platonic love. Some Neoplatonists believed there to be a link between attaining knowledge (as knowledge of science was seen as factual representations or understanding of the world) and relationship with God or the Divine.Citation?

This shift in governing thought process led to a new world view which negated the cosmic worldview present in Medieval Literature. While Renaissance thinkers would avoid drawing comparisons between themselves and the thinkers of the Middle Ages–”According to them, the Middle Ages were set in the “middle” of two much more valuable historical periods, antiquity and their own.”–similarities between the two are ever-present, specifically in regards to the remnants of Medieval worldview which extend its belief of The Great Chain of Being deep into Renaissance culture and literature. Citation The exaltation of man’s ability propagated by Humanism, created discomfort and confusion in light of The Great Chain of Being. Since man’s agency was believed to be limitless, his place within The Great Chain of Being was complicated. This struggle of human aspiration within a world still governed by The Great Chain of Being is depicted within Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.

In the Sixteenth Century, as a result of systemic corruption within the Church (e.g., simony and the selling of indulgences), protestants desired reformation of the Church. The Protestant Reformation, which the movement came to be, left Europe no longer united; the religious criticisms of Martin Luther fragmented the Church before long–after gaining him excommunication from the Church–and gave rise to Henry VIII’s political separation of the Church of England from Rome. Through the rejection of the Church, the Reformation placed importance on the role of the individual, in that authority of religious teaching was reliant upon the text rather than the institution. With that being said, the renewed interest in the Bible a piece of literature led to its unforeseeable influence in modern literature, where Biblical allusions and symbols were experimented with; this influence is visible in the works of John Donne (Holy Sonnets), John Milton (Paradise Lost), and Andrew Marvell (“The Garden”).

The spread of literacy and knowledge throughout this period was greatly influenced by the invention of Gutenburg’s printing press, which slowly made the majority of literature more widely accessible.

Secular Works of The Renaissance

The Renaissance saw the end of feudal rule, and made efforts to establish a central government. This new prominence of politics–the rise and fall of kings–framed the narrative for many of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as Machiavelli’s The Prince, a treatise on proper governing practices–all of which tend to hinge upon ruthless rule.

Women’s Role During The Renaissance Period

For the most part, women remained still remained somewhat suppressed in this time period. The fact that the new ruler was in fact, Queen Elizabeth, was upsetting to many.

Many men seem to have regarded the capacity for rational thought as exclusively male; women, they assumed, were led only by their passions. While gentlemen mastered the arts of rhetoric and warfare, gentlewomen were expected to display the virtues of silence and good housekeeping. Among upper-class males, the will to dominate others was acceptable and indeed admired; the same will in women was condemned as a grotesque and dangerous aberration.” (The Norton Anthology: English Literature: The Sixteenth Century/The Early Seventeenth Century, Volume B)

Women also lacked the ability to attend schools and universities too. Although because of the importance of reading scripture in the Protestant religion, women’s literacy did somewhat improve, yet the ability to write was incredibly rare. Therefore, any works produced by women at this time are very scarce.

Queen Elizabeth
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The Role of Religion During The Renaissance Period

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Catholicism still reigned as the primary religion in England. It still dictated nearly every important decision in a person’s life, and because most religious literature, most notably the Bible, was printed in Latin, the clergy members held a great deal of power because of their literacy to interpret these works. However, Martin Luther, a key figure in the massive shift in religious culture known as “The Reformation”, began to question the ideas of the Roman Catholic Church. This idea quickly caught on, partly due to the ability to widely distribute material through the printing press, and spread like wildfire throughout Europe. Although the violent shift between Catholicism and Protestantism continued for several years, Queen Elizabeth eventually lead in a new era for England with her acceptance of the Protestant religion. The effect on literature at this time period was profound, because when Catholicism was dominant, Protestant works remained underground, and vice versa for periods of Protestantism as well.

Some of the most notable authors and poets of the time include Edmund Spenser, the Earl of Surrey, Sir Philip Sydney, Ben Jonson, Aemilia Lanyer, Robert Greene, and, of course, William Shakespeare.

Literary and Cultural Contexts

Medieval Drama: Mystery and Morality Plays

The Elizabethan Theatre

The Evolution of the Book in Medieval and Renaissance Society

The Reformation and British Society

The Elizabethan Sonnet Sequence

The Medieval University

Literary Consciousness in Medieval and Renaissance Literature


John Donne
George Herbert
Richard Lovelace
Christopher Marlowe
Andrew Marvell
John Milton
Sir Philip Sidney
Edmund Spenser
Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder


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