Throughout history, numerous literary and art movements have used Medievalism in their work. Writers from the Gothic revival, Pre-Raphaelite Movement, Romanticism, and Neo-medievalism all used elements from the Middle Ages. Even the Arts and Crafts Movement used elements from this period.
Medievalism Pronunciation: Mehd-ee-vuhl-eh-zum
Medievalism took the elements of literature from the Middle Ages and incorporated them into more modern works.
Authors who were inspired by Medievalism were likely to look to works like The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. These works conveyed a very particular way of viewing the world. The latter, and other stories like it, focused on particular values, such as chauvinism, courtly love, honor, and morality.
Other stories, like those found in Boccaccio’s Decameron, used allegory as a primary feature. Romantic authors, those working in the Pre-Raphaelite Movement and other more modern literary movements, also incorporated elements of allegory into their work. Visual elements, like kings, knights, and castles were also features of work utilizing Medievalism.
The Middle Ages
The Middle Ages was a period of European History that lasted from the 5th century CE to the beginning of the Renaissance (the latter is variously interpreted as beginning in the 13th, 14th, or 15th centuries). It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The period is known for its Feudal system, consisting of knights, kings, lords, peasants, etc. The vast majority of the population fell into the category of peasant or serf during this period. The border Middle Ages is divided into three separate categories, the Early, High, and Late Middle Ages.
During this period, literature was religious and secular. It spans a wide range of years, countries, and languages. In Western Europe, most literature was written in Latin, and in Eastern Europe, Old Church Slavonic and Greek were more common. A great deal of the literature written throughout the Middle Ages was anonymous. Often, works of literature also lacked documentation, making it hard, if not impossible, to figure out when pieces were written.
The most common type of writing throughout the Middle Ages was religious. Readers who are interested in the period will find innumerable hymns that survive from various centuries and works by scholars like Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas. Both wrote long religious and philosophical treatises.
The secular literature during this period was based on oral storytelling, such as Beowulf and Y Gododdin. The first prose tales to come out of the Middle Ages originated in Britain. They included Culhwch and Olwen. Courtly love poetry also became popular during the period, and troubadours traveled throughout France and Spain singing and sharing their love songs. Other long poems were also popular, for example, The Song of Roland in France.
One of the primary features of Middle Ages literature that readers are sure to encounter is allegory. It is incredibly prominent and was used by authors to relay their opinions. Examples include Everyman and Piers Plowman. Dante’s The Divine Comedy was also written during the Middle Ages in Italy.
Some other literary works from the period that readers might be familiar with include;
- Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
- Caedmon’s Hymn
- The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
- The Letters of Abelard and Heloise
- Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
- Younger Edda by Snorri Sturluson
Examples of Medievalism
Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’ is one of the best-known examples of Medievalism in the 19th century. It was written in 1842 and is a cycle of twelve poems that retell the story of King Arthur and his knights. Popular characters like Guinevere feature in the stories as well. Broadly, the group of poems describes Arthur’s attempts to create an idealized kingdom. He eventually fails, but the story is a multilayered and engaging one. Here is a quote from the 12-poem cycle:
I found Him in the shining of the stars,
I mark’d Him in the flowering of His fields,
But in His ways with men I find Him not.
I waged His wars, and now I pass and die.
O me! for why is all around us here
As if some lesser god had made the world,
But had not force to shape it as he would,
Till the High God behold it from beyond,
And enter it, and make it beautiful?
The entire work is written in blank verse and utilizes elements from epics and elegies. Sometimes, scholars and readers interpret this work as an allegory representing Britain during the mid-19th century.
The Sword of Kingship by Thomas Westwood
‘The Sword of Kingship’ was published in 1866. It is a far lesser-known collection of poems than Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King,’ but it is similar in its content. The collection used modern themes and placed them in medieval settings. Here is a quote from the longer work:
At Christmas-tide, while wassail mirth ran high,
To royal Uther, by his queen Igrayne,
Was born a son; whom, wrapp’d in swaddling clothes
Of cloth of gold, the monarch took, and charged
Two knights and two fair maids to bear away,
Adown the castle stair and through the night,
To one that waited by the postern door.
No question to be ask’d, no word be said.
Medievalism was a return to medieval characteristics in more modern literature. It was popular during the 19th and 20th centuries and is still utilized to this day. Literary and artistic works, as well as film/television, architecture, and more, were inspired by the Middle Ages.
Characteristics of Medieval literature include religious themes, chivalry and courtly love, heroes and villains, knights and kings, as well as opportunities for characters to prove their moral standing.
Examples of Medieval literature include: Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Song of Roland, Poems of Cid, and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
Related Literary Terms
- Canon: a collection of materials that are considered to represent a specific period or genre.
- Canto: a subsection of a long narrative or epic poem. It is made up of at least five lines but it normally much longer.
- Epic Poetry: a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.
- Elegy: a poem or song that is written in dedication to someone who has died.
- Alliterative Revival: used to refer to a period of time, between 1350 and 1500, during which alliterative verse had a resurgence in Middle English.