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Exemplum is a rhetorical device. It is a short story, narrative, anecdote, or tale that’s used in literature to explain moral reasoning.

Exemplum also appears in speeches and other forms of language to explore doctrines. They sometimes take the form of folktales or legends. Writers use exemplars to clarify points or demonstrate something the writer believes to be true. Usually, this is something in the realm of ethics or morality. Sometimes, they’re known as moral exemplars or parables. While a lot of these are short, some can be as long as novels or plays. 

Exemplum pronunciation: ehx-em-plum



Definition of Exemplum 

The word “exemplum” comes from the Latin meaning “example.” This means that the word is used more broadly than the above definition suggests. Today it can be used to refer to a moral narrative or any kind of example. For instance, someone might say that something is an “exemplum” or an example of a particular type of behavior, action, or other. 

In literature though, the word is most commonly associated with parable-like stories that seek to convey a particular ethical or moral message. 


Types of Exemplum 

  • Real: moral lessons or stories, taken from history or mythology. 
  • Fictional: use invented facts and storytelling to express a moral lesson. Usually in the form of fables, comparisons, and parables. 


Examples of Exemplum in Literature 

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer 

Chaucer’s most famous literary accomplishment, The Canterbury Tales, is a collection of 24 stories. It was written in Middle English sometime between 1387 and 1400. Most are written in verse, although some also appear in prose. They contain the results of a storytelling contest between a group of pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury. There are several different exemplars to be found in this masterpiece, one o the best-known is in the General Prologue. Here are a few lines, in the original Middle English, from this section of The Canterbury Tales: 

A frere ther was, a wantown and a merye,

A limitour, a ful solempne man.

In alle the ordres foure is noon that can

So muche of daliaunce and fair langage.

He hadde maad ful many a mariage

Of yonge wommen, at his owne cost …

As doon the sterres in the frosty night.

This worthy limitour was cleped Huberd.

This passage is a direct attack and criticism on the Catholic Church. The lines speak about a friar named Hubert who lived excessively, not all in line with the teachings of the church. He was a sweet-talking, playful beggar who could get anyone and everyone to give him money—even those who were in most need of it themselves. As the passage progresses, the speaker adds that Hubert was one of the Church’s finest members. 

This makes it clear that the speaker has a very dark opinion of the Catholic Church as a greedy institution that does not practice what it preaches. Within these lines, the speaker is trying to convey the exemplum that one must act in accordance with the word of God, no matter their position if they want to go to heaven. 

Read more about the characters in The Canterbury Tales. 


The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri 

The Divine Comedy, or Divina Commedia, is an incredibly famous, long poem written by Alighieri in the 1300s. It is one of the most important works of Italian literature and one of the most influential in history. It presents an imagined vision of the afterlife, including portraits of Hell, described in Inferno, Purgatory, described in Purgatorio, and Heaven, described in Paradiso. It follows the author and his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, through three different stages. They see all the levels of Hell, encounter various famous historical figures, and eventually make their way to Heaven where Dante encounters his true love, Beatrice. Here are a few lines from Inferno: 

 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.

This epic is often regarded as one long exemplum or a series of exemplars. The writer notes the immoral behaviors that landed men and women in Hell and demonstrates why the seven deadly sins are so terrible. 


“The Good Samaritan” Luke 10:25-37 

The story of the Good Samaritan from the Bible is a classic example of a moral exemplum. In this story or parable, Jesus describes a traveler who is stripped and left for dead by the side of the road. Several people pass him by before a Samaritan finds him and stops. This is despite the fact that Samaritans and Jews hated one another. He helps the injured man and proves himself to be a good neighbor. Often, Jesus is placed in the role of the Samaritan, helping those in need and saving humankind from sin. Today, the phrase “good samaritan” is used regularly to describe anyone who goes out of their way to help someone they don’t know and how is in need. 


Why Do Writers Use Exemplum? 

Writers use exemplum throughout literary work and oratory. It’s one of the most widely used rhetorical devices in the English language. It helps to encourage readers and listeners towards a particular type of behavior. For example, one might use a short story to teach a young reader about the importance of being kind and treating others how they want to be treated. Storytelling is at the heart of human existence, as is sharing experiences and lessons from one generation to the next. Stories that contain moral lessons are one primary way of accomplishing that. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Fable: a short and concise story that provides the reader with a moral lesson at the end.
  • Myth: genre of folklore that usually includes a hero and sometimes fanatical elements.
  • Novel: a long, written, fictional narrative that includes some amount of realism.
  • Parable: a short fictional story that speaks on a religious attitude or moral belief.
  • Anecdote: short stories used in everyday conversation in order to inspire, amuse, caution, and more.


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