Skip to Section Menu | Content | Volume Menu


The Middle Ages

Overview

History and Culture

  • During the Middle Ages, classical civilization was transformed by contact with three cultures: Germanic invaders, Christianity, and Islam.
  • The Western values of individualism, consensual government, and a recognition of religious differences began to emerge during the Middle Ages.
  • In 500, the “West” wasn’t yet a political or cultural entity, but by 1500 the map of Europe looked very much like it does today.
  • People in the Renaissance named the period the Middle Ages because it was considered a culturally empty time that separated the Renaissance from the Classical past, which it admired.
  • The Middle Ages is mistakenly thought of as a culturally homogeneous period, but this period contains many different kinds of people of many different cultures.
  • As the Middle Ages developed, the Catholic Church gradually extended its spiritual and institutional authority across most of Europe.
  • Although the period is often described as an “age of faith,” the commitment to Catholic Christianity was neither uniform nor lacking in an understanding of its complexities and contradictions.
  • The period is also described as an “age of chivalry.” The code of chivalry stressed gentility, generosity, concern for the powerless, and a capacity for experiencing selfless and passionate romantic love.

Literature

  • The individual literary masterpieces and traditions of writing that continue to define Western literature emerged during the Middle Ages.
  • Medieval literature is dominated by two concerns: the demands of religious faith and the appropriate use of physical force.
  • Medieval literature for the most part expresses the values of the most powerful members of society, the aristocracy, who achieved their power through military might.
  • From the time of Beowulf to that of Malory’s Arthurian tales, the European nobility and the writers they supported celebrated military values: valor, loyalty, personal honor, and chivalry.
  • The most significant literary works incorporated elements and values drawn from different and often conflicting traditions.
  • Chaucer spent the first part of his career as a court poet who catered to the narrow tastes of an aristocratic readership, but in The Canterbury Tales he writes about men and women from every social class.
  • The literature of the period makes it clear that religious values were not universally recognized as primary and no one form of Christianity was accepted by all.
  • The lecherous priest, the greedy friar, the wayward nun, and the gluttonous monk are stock characters of medieval satire.
  • The Song of Roland exalts a great warrior according to the Germanic traditions of military heroism, but also affirms the necessity of subordinating individual accomplishments to the needs of a unified Christian community.
  • The author of Beowulf believed in Christianity but demonstrated an admiration for the pagan past.
  • Although Dante’s Divine Comedy seems securely located in a Christian worldview, the poet refers to the pagan poet Virgil as “my author and my father.”
  • The writing of the time demonstrates that chivalric values are never entirely consistent with each other. For example, the essential question at the heart of works like Beowulf and The Song of Roland is: When does personal bravery give way to the needs of the group? Can a person be both a full-hearted lover and a loyal warrior? Can the same people perform both the deeds of war and those of civilization?
  • The most vivid legacy of the Middle Ages is the cast of characters it has contributed to world literature: Roland, Charlemagne, Sir Gawain, Beowulf, the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, and the lost souls of the Inferno.
  • The central concern of medieval literature is the same as in our own time: the individual person working out his or her individual destiny.

Medieval Women

  • A challenging question for the medieval period was the nature and status of women.
  • The medieval attitude toward women was deeply misogynistic; men were associated with reason, intellect, culture, and self-control; women with emotion, nature, and disorder.
  • The early Church fathers wrote that women were dangerous because they cause men to sin; that women were inferior to men; and that the primary purpose of marriage was procreation.
  • Many clergymen suggested that men should devote themselves to study and celibacy rather than to marriage.
  • Some medieval writers defended women.
  • Joan of Arc aided Charles’ return to the throne of France because “It pleased God to do, by means of a simple maid to drive back the king’s enemies.”