The Roman Empire was the most powerful and significant Empire in the history of the world. It’s fall in the 5th Century AD changed the world in countless ways, implications of which are still present in the world today.
It’s fall also brought a new era of literature into being, that of Medieval literature. It would dominate the literary sphere for almost a millennium, giving way to the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment.
As with all other periods of literature, it varied differently in genres, and spans various languages and regions along with catering to various strata in society, limited though they were at the time.
Though the period also coincides with the Dark Ages that Europe was in at the time, it marks a significant change from the Classical form of literature that existed till that time.
Classical Literature was restricted to the Greek and Roman schools of thought and the literature they entertained at the point, which was usually rhetoric and logic, arguments and so on.
It is interesting to note that just two centuries prior to the fall of the Roman Empire was when Constantine made Christianity the state religion, leading to its influence growing, being at its zenith over the next millennium.
Medieval Literature is thus dominated by religious works, mostly of the Church in Europe, and that of Islam in some other parts of the world. This is obvious, as the printing press was several centuries away from conception, its invention would do great wonders in bringing about the Renaissance, but until then, publishing was restricted to books handwriting manuscripts, greatly increasing their value.
Dante Alighieri’s Inferno is one of the most well known examples of Medieval Literature, being of a religious nature as well as bringing together various accounts and interpretations of philosophy and the author’s own experiences.
“And I — my head oppressed by horror — said:
“Master, what is it that I hear? Who are
those people so defeated by their pain?”
And he to me: “This miserable way
is taken by the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.
They now commingle with the coward angels,
the company of those who were not rebels
nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.
The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened,
have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them —
even the wicked cannot glory in them.”
-Life lessons, encoded in religion, reproduced by authors.
The influence that religion had throughout the world is attributed to this hold it had over literature. Most scholars who were capable of and who did write books belonged a very select groups of monks who were part of the church. The language of choice was predominantly Latin, further limiting the liberating power that knowledge could have on all the strata of society, and only educating the higher echelons.
The power of religion grew, branching its roots out into every facet of society, cementing itself in every aspect of it. It is my opinion that the many centuries that literature was restricted mostly to religious writings is the reason its influence exists even today.
The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine is such an example, it is said to have been read even more than the Bible for a short period of time. It is called a collection of hagiographies, which are basically biographies of saints. It compiles stories about several Saints across the years, seeking to surround them with a supernatural halo that would legitimize the Roman Catholic Church.
There are several other examples of Medieval literature as well, the most famous one being Beowulf. One of the most prolific works of Old English, it is a long epic consisting of 3182 lines.
As seen below, it is known best for its descriptive prose involving several alliterations to paint the picture of the poem.
“In off the moors, down through the mist bands God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping.The bane of the race of men roamed forth,hunting for prey in the high hall.”
While the article has been restricted to works of English Literature, there were numerous other languages that spoke of prose and poetry of equal merit, and more in some cases.
I strongly urge you to explore translations of Arabic poetry and works from the Far East like China, Japan and Korea, because as mentioned in an earlier article, language changes the way you view the world.
Literature, and the world outlook it brings can have no boundaries.